Unlike any generation before it, today's children spend far less time outdoors and the few outside hours they do have are often devoted to structured activities and team sports. Most often, children are inside, where we can keep them safe and "where all the electric outlets are." Exploration of the natural world, though, is a well documented balm to stress. It improves physical health, reduces the effects of disorders like ADD and ADHD and decreases aggression. In an effort to rebuild the connection between our kids and the wild world, the Children & Nature Network, a group spurred by and including Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, has dubbed April Children & Nature Awareness Month.
April, as spring rises up from her downy winter bed, is a perfect month to give our children unstructured time in natural places. While this time can include going on a hike, vacationing at a state park, or visiting a vacant lot, such outings cannot always be enjoyed on a daily basis. Work and school schedules as well as a general lack of access to undisturbed wilderness in our cities and suburbs render that impossible. Moreover, some have raised legitimate concerns about encroaching on wildlife habitat and carting our human baggage (cell phones, iPods, heavy footprints) into what little undisturbed wilderness remains. When you cannot bring your kids to the mountain, though, you can always bring the mountain to your kids - or at least to your backyard.
Here are some of the changes we've made as we gradually transform our tiny suburban yard into a backyard habitat:
- Go native: We've added several native plants to our yard. In particular, we've chosen ones their provide either food or habitat for butterflies, birds or insects. Most local garden centers (not the Home Depot nursery) have a section of native plants to make it easy to find a mature plant for your home.
- Go natural: We've never used pesticides in our garden and, as soon as I realized our gardener (before we replaced him a push mower) was using chemical fertilizers, we stopped those as well. As a result, we have lots of creepy crawlies and more baby lady bugs this spring than I've ever seen. My littlest was positively giddy when one crawled across his hand.
- It's for the birds: I'm not sure whether a naturalist would approve but we introduced two bird feeders into our yard late last fall. One is stocked with thistle seed for the colorful, fluttery finches and the other holds sunflower seeds for bigger birds and squirrels. Our pre-feeder yard was frequented by only a single, lonely bird. Now it is a-wing with a dozen species of birds - sparrows, jays, robins, chickadees and towhees. They eat the seed but also spend a fair amount of time twittering through the trees, pecking around the plants and gathering dried grass for nests.
- Give them water: Our bird bath is set under some berried trees and hugged by a butterfly bush and a native monkey flower. The boys delight in the antics in the bird bath - a robin flapping joyfully or a fuzzed black squirrel daintily dipping in its front paws. Peeping tom sessions through the window are frequently interrupted by one of them calling for the "bird card" and the other throwing toys and stuffed animals willy nilly in an effort to unearth our bird identification card so they can locate the bather's photo and I can read its name.
- Leave it alone: Even in our diminutive yard, we've managed to give nature a shaded back corner. There, I let the weeds grow and the fallen leaves rest. I'll occasionally toss cuttings back there instead of in the compost bin. Expeditions to the back corner have unearthed a newt, pill bugs, spider webs galore and repeat bird visitors.
- Grow a gardener: My three year old announced this morning, when I handed him a packet of nasturtium seeds, "I'm a big kid. I know how to plant seeds. I poke them in the dirt . . ." Sure 'nough, he did know how to plant them. Sometimes their attention wanders but my boys usually can be counted on to plant a handful of seeds, help with a few transplants, dig a hole and, always, water. Together, we have planted a butterfly garden in the front yard, cover crop in the sidewalk strip and a vegetable garden in raised beds.
- Be a kid again: Sharon Lovejoy has authored a number of books about gardening with children. One of my favorites, Sunflower Houses: Inspiration from the Garden, explores playing with plants in a manner of which I long forgotten. Ms. Lovejoy details how to make daisy chains, hats fashioned from leaves, boats built from shells and dolls contrived from various flowers. To a child's imagination, plants can be much more than plants. While cutting back our cover crop (sigh! no sign of our toad resident), we transformed thick, hollow fava bean stems into flutes, straws and magic wands capable of transporting us to different worlds and shrinking us to the size of "amoebas". Pea flowers became miniature pirates - sticking their tiny pollen tongues out in mock threat. We discovered that nature is as magical on the Lilliputian scale as on the giant scale.
Ladybug Larva Photo courtesy of Ladybug Lady.