NRPA members from more than 700 park and recreation agencies have been engaged in an outstanding effort during the past year and half to connect 10 million kids to nature. Collectively, in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, we have made remarkable progress in reaching our goal to meaningfully connect 10 million kids to nature and the outdoors in three years. So, in the spirit of preaching a bit of the good news to the choir, here are a few tips for all of us on how to effectively connect kids to nature through wildlife — whether the kids are participants in your programs or afterschool activities or your own children and grandchildren. Wildlife watching is one of the surefire ways to ignite a lifetime passion for nature in kids.
Kids find wildlife endlessly fascinating, but both program leaders and parents may have a hard time breaking through the daily barrage of stimuli bombarding kids, whether from TV, video games, text messages or other distractions. If you can find a few minutes to spend together just taking a walk outside and observing wildlife, you can cut through all the clutter and provide a surprising and rewarding bond with kids that you might otherwise not ever establish.
If you are not an experienced outdoors person or have little training or knowledge on how to find wildlife, you might be hesitant to give this a try — it can be daunting to think you can take a group of kids out and find wildlife on your own. But the rewards are well worth the effort. Kids have an inherent fascination for wildlife if they are able to observe it on their own terms and without undue distractions. They find it endlessly fascinating and will be willing to give their time and attention to this pursuit, but you have to find it to make the initial connection. Not to fear — it is a whole lot easier and simpler than you might think to find interesting wildlife in “nearby nature” if you follow some simple tips:
1) Pick a park or natural setting that has a diversified habitat. You certainly know your own parks, but you can also find close-to-home nature places almost anywhere. Look for a nature place with a pond, wetlands or “edge” habitat — for example, forest land that is next to the edge of a field, a natural habitat area along a stream or the edge of a shoreline. These are ideal places to find and identify many different species of wildlife.
2) Turn your trip to the park into a nature discovery trek. Build the anticipation in kids that you will find neat wildlife if you just open your senses to it. Start looking for it as soon as you go out the door. To your surprise, you will find it close by. You will be amazed at what you are able to see if you devote even a small amount of attention to finding wildlife in nearby places. And success in finding wildlife will lead to excitement — kids who see a bird, insect or mammal will be encouraged to look for more, and the experience will sharpen their senses to find and share more.
3) Think big and think small at the same time. “Watchable wildlife” is not just megafauna like eagles, owls, deer and bears. It also includes songbirds, frogs, salamanders and insects — smaller creatures that are easy for kids to find if they sit on a log for a minute to listen and look, or if they go exploring along a stream. This kind of wildlife is easy for kids to find if they flip over a rock on the edge of a stream and look to see what scoots away. So, if you can’t find big wildlife, look for small wildlife — you can find insects almost anywhere. Dragonflies, beetles and worms are every bit as interesting to kids as a deer or red-tailed hawk — and it is generally OK to temporarily and gently detain insects and amphibians to let kids have a closer look. Just be sure to return them unharmed to their same habitat.
4) Look up, look down, look all around. Wildlife can be found everywhere. No matter where you go, you can find birds flying, reptiles crawling, and butterflies and bees alighting on flowers. If you can’t find wildlife easily, scan natural habitat and edge areas for silhouettes that are out of the ordinary. Many people are astonished at how much wildlife an experienced naturalist can find even in the densest urban areas, but it is just a pattern-recognition skill that comes with practice. And don’t be too concerned about identifying everything you see. Yes, it is good if you can put a name on the wildlife you find, but if you can’t identify all you see, try to remember field markings, patterns, stripes and colors that stand out and help you identify what you saw when you get home. Learning the names of the wildlife you see is important for kids, but just naming what you see isn’t what gives the satisfaction — it is the act of seeing the wild, free things that are alive in nature that builds a sense of wonder.
5) Remember that almost all wildlife depends on camouflage. Yes, you need to be able to pierce through the defenses that nature gives wildlife to deceive predators, but it is not that difficult. In fact, this is what makes wildlife watching fun — it’s “Where’s Waldo” in the outdoors. Patience and observation will be rewarded. Wildlife doesn’t instantly present itself to us, but once you get into the rhythms of woods and wetlands, you’ll become a part of the natural environment and will be able to find that almost all the wildlife that lives there is accessible to you and to kids as well.
6) Don’t make it a chore. You don’t have to spend a lot of time outdoors to have great wildlife-viewing experiences with kids. In fact, doing this activity in short takes may be a lot more appealing to kids than setting a designated amount of time to go out. Let them determine how much time they want to spend, and be flexible. If you don’t find much, pack it in and come back another time. A great side benefit of going out to watch wildlife is to turn your wildlife walk or bike ride into a regular occurrence, one that improves your health and mental outlook. Both you and your kids will get better at it, and you will get healthier while doing so.
Take the plunge and dive into nature — you can find watchable wildlife anywhere. Just grab your kids and set your mind to it. There is an exciting world of wildlife to discover right outside your door.
Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.