His toes are in the sand, shirt and shorts soggy, with a mischievous grin on his face. We drove up to William O’Brien to take the dog for a walk, and before long, the internal compasses of kid, dog and mother led us all to the edge of the river. Macy wasted no time plunging in up to her belly and tossing water over her back with a snuff and a snarf. Charlie at least had the decency to let me take his shoes off, as if he actually planned on keeping his clothes dry. No sooner had I begun to worry about another cute outfit ruined than I remembered it was already the end of the summer; by next year, Charlie would be on to another size, another adventure. Click. I pointed my camera and tried to capture a piece of his childhood before it could run away.
Search the website of the Children and Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org), a Minneapolis based initiative to reconnect children, families and communities to nature, and you will find a mind-boggling array of studies documenting the physical, mental, emotional and health benefits to children and adults of spending time in the outdoors. Multiple studies show that being physically active and spending time outdoors, particularly in natural environments, is good for our health. Children who spend time outdoors learn better, have less behavioral problems, and are more physically active and less likely to be overweight.
Not surprisingly, research also shows that children who spend time outdoors are more likely to enjoy nature as adults and more likely to take action to protect the environment as well. Specifically, researchers find that “positive, direct experience in the out-of-doors and being taken outdoors by someone close to the child—a parent, grand parent, or other trusted guardian—are the two most significant contributing factors” to whether or not a child will grow up to care about and protect nature.
While working at Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul and Harriet Alexander Nature Center in Roseville, I witnessed firsthand the joy and wonder that children of all ages experience while exploring the outdoors. We played hide and seek in the prairie, followed animal tracks in the snow, and tapped maple trees to collect syrup. Often, the children arrived with a pre-conceived notion of what an outdoor adventure should look like. “Were there bears in the woods?” they would wonder. “How many miles would we hike?” Then ten feet down the trail we would turn over a log, revealing a secret underworld of millipedes, ants and slugs and within seconds, the children would realize that the wonders of nature could be much simpler and closer to home.
I take great pleasure in introducing my son Charlie to the natural world, but over the years I have learned that a few key factors can make or break an outdoor experience with children. Having the right clothes, for example, can make all the difference between a glorious hike and a death march. (The same rule applies for husbands as well.) This means snowpants, boots, hats and mittens in the winter and lightweight clothes, bug spray and sunscreen in the summer. Even a gloomy, rainy day can be fun if you and the kids are wearing ponchos and big rubber boots. It’s also important to give children the permission to get dirty and be kids. Teachers at the Dodge Nature Preschool remind parents not to dress their kids in nice clothes, saying, “We will go outside every day and your children will get dirty.”
As important as it is to attend to children’s physical needs, I’ve found that it is equally important to attend to their mental needs by allowing them to explore nature at their own pace and under their own direction. Obviously, there are times when I’ve rushed Charlie down a path because we needed to get back to our car/house/campsite, but he is the happiest when I give him freedom to decide whether to barrel down the trail at top speed or crouch down by a pile of leaves for half an hour. Often, by letting Charlie lead the way, I find myself regaining a sense of wonder about the vastness and intricacies of nature I sometimes take for granted. Sometimes you just need a kid to help your own inner child run free.
On my computer screen he stands grinning, a little man on a big, blue river. I stare at the photo now and though the wind blows cold outside, my toes are buried in warm sand on the banks of the St. Croix River.
 Chawla, Louise. “Learning to Love the Natural World Enough to Protect It,” in Barn nr. 2 2006:57-58. © 2006 Norsk senter for barneforskning