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Ask the Expert: Connecting Children With Nature
By Richard Cohen Early Childhood Education Specialist

Connecting Children With Nature


With the busy schedules families keep these days, the influence of television and computers, and the lack of safe play areas in many communities, I find that many of the children in my classroom have missed the wonder of childhood. Some of them are even afraid to be outdoors! When I was a kid, I climbed trees, fished in a nearby pond, and played outside with my friends from sun up to sun down. As a teacher, I want my children to have the kinds of experiences I had as a child. How do I help them connect more with nature at school? 

– Geoff Smith, Alexandria, VA


The most important thing to remember when it comes to children and nature is to provide young children with positive experiences of the natural world. Noted environmentalist David Sobel has coined the term, “ecophobia,” which means the fear or aversion to the natural world. By teaching young children about endangered species, pollution, and other environmental tragedies we sometimes teach children that their relationship with nature is based on worry and fear instead of love and wonder. We can take Dr. Sobel’s advice of “no bad news until fourth grade” to mean that we should not weigh children down with the problems of the world until they are developmentally ready to take some kind of action to address those situations.

Through positive experiences with nature, we set the stage for a lifetime commitment to caring for the Earth, animals, and our communities. Early childhood is indeed the time to plant the seeds of wonder. Let kids explore and discover for themselves the magnificence of nature by making sure they have many opportunities to play outdoors. Even if the children complain and tell you they’d rather play inside on the computer or in the dramatic play area, insist that they go outside. When they say, “But there’s nothing to do outside, it’s boring,” trust in the innate power of children’s growing curiosity and imaginations. They will find ways to connect with nature on their own by exploring worms and dirt and leaves and sticks and rocks and bugs, and the endless wondrous classroom that is the outdoors. Even in urban environments, children can experience nature in many ways. Weeds grow in sidewalk cracks and sunlight makes amazing shadows on the ground. These are things just waiting to be discovered.

Inside the classroom, provide children with hands-on experiences with water, sand, birdseed, dirt, and yes, even mud. Remember, hands and clothes can always be washed! Sticks and twigs, rocks and pebbles, shells and leaves can all be sorted, counted, used to build amazing structures, explored with magnifying glasses, and used in art projects. Collect bugs and let them go when you’re done, take a nature walk this fall to explore nature’s preparation for the upcoming winter, or observe the clouds in the sky and ask children what they see. If you’re feeling daring, let children use hammers and nails with donated scraps of wood, not for building a particular product, but for the sheer sensory fun of the process. (Always remember to provide children with protective eyewear and adult supervision in a woodworking area.)

Many of us, out of the best of intentions, want to teach young children about the world’s environmental problems because we think we’re helping to create future responsible citizens. Let the elementary school teachers work on this level of activism. Young children need to learn to love the Earth before they can be asked to save it. That’s a job ready-made for early childhood professionals.


Richard Cohen, M.A., began his early childhood career as a preschool and kindergarten teacher and currently acts as an international consultant, facilitator/trainer and speaker. Please visit www.RichardCohen.com for more information.


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