In August last year I became a mother. I imagined to myself, then, how much time I would have as a stay-at-home mum of wee bub – the skills I would learn, the amazing activities I would do with my child, and the extra-curricular volunteering I could do. The reality is very different. Sleep became an endangered species, and as well-prepared as I thought I was for parenthood, I have been in survival mode for the last 9 months. Now that night time sleep is lengthier and daytime routines are more predictable, I am beginning to, once again, pick up the parts of who I am that I have not had the mental space to engage with in a while.
As a new parent there are so many things that I want for my child. While I absolutely want my daughter to develop her sense of self and identity, there are many parts of me that I want to share with her. One of these things is a deep love of nature. I spent the first 6 years of my life on a section of land bordered by a stream, and beyond the stream, by a Department of Conservation bush track leading to a local water hole. I loved playing in the bush with my brothers and sisters; oh the adventures we had. After that, we moved to a larger urban center, but our back yard was still big for a city section, and with plenty of fruit trees and native plants. My favourite pets were slaters (Isopoda) and snails. Weeding the garden was super hero work to me, liberating the ‘good’ plants from the clutches of the villainous weeds.
Early exposure to nature is so important for developing healthy and environmentally aware citizens (Hand et al, 2016). Children can have contact with nature through books, online, and through family stories, but it is direct contact with nature that generally results in more positive environmental behaviour as adults (Miller, 2005) Today children are more and more likely to grow up in urban centres, with less independence to play outside and explore than people in my generation had. This is concerning because losing that connection with nature has links to increased obesity (Wolch et al, 2011)and reduced ability to problem-solve and evaluate risks (Kuo & Taylor, 2011). What have you noticed in your children? Do they show an innate affection for nature, or are they afraid of it? Can they recognise some of the common species they observe? Identifying these behaviours can help you to recognise whether there is a growing divide between your child and nature. Remember that the more exposure your child has to nature, the greater affinity they are likely to have to it (Samborski, 2010).
Living in an urban environment doesn’t have to limit children’s experiences with nature. In a lot of cases, though urban areas are highly modified, they often have higher biodiversity than rural areas. You just have to know where to look for it. Utilise pages from local conservation authorities and councils to places to visit and activities to do. Since the Covid-19 pandemic has affected travel and recreation so severely for us in New Zealand, and in many other parts of the world, there are now more resources online than ever. Here are just a few:
- DOC’s ‘Exploring Nature with Children’ Booklet: https://www.doc.govt.nz/globalassets/documents/getting-involved/home-and-garden/exploring-nature-with-children.pdf
- DOC’s ideas for conservation activities with children: https://www.doc.govt.nz/get-involved/conservation-activities/with-children/
- Taranaki Regional Council’s cool series on backyard biodiversity: https://www.trc.govt.nz/environment/working-together/environmental-education/backyard-biodiversity/
- NZ’s garden bird survey (coming up in June!): https://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/science/plants-animals-fungi/animals/birds/garden-bird-surveys
- Predator Free NZ’s activities for kids: https://predatorfreenz.org/get-involved/kids-schools-2/
It honestly doesn’t have to be planned and structured though – in most cases if children have the freedom to explore, they will! You don’t have to be a nature expert yourself either – get out a bird, plant or bug ID book from the library and try to learn some species together. I enjoy going out with my family and learning or reviewing a new species each time. For me, learning species is like making new friends. Brain farts excepted, when you remember people’s names, you make an opportunity to have a greater connection to them. The same goes for nature – when you know the species names, you will find it easier to have a connection to them.
There are plenty of people willing to help too – if you find something you can’t ID just upload a photo of it to iNaturalist NZ and there is a community of nature enthusiasts who can help. Last week my sweet nieces found a nut they wanted to eat. It was as big as the palm of their hands, so of course they wanted to eat it. They didn’t know what it was, so they sent me some pictures, and I uploaded it to iNaturalist. It only took a few hours for someone to help me out with an ID, and then I quickly told them “DO NOT EAT THE NUT” haha. Giving kids experiences like this encourages curiosity, and giving them the opportunity to find out answers themselves makes learning experiences more meaningful.
I am just starting the journey of raising a curious, aware, intelligent, and exploring little one, but I can already see the benefits of time spent exploring outside. Lets support each other to minimise the divide between kids and nature, and foster exploring and caring relationships instead.