Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Happy Earth Day! We’re Off to Wonder Works April 22, 2009

The boys and I will spend the morning playing with nature with young visitors to Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park. We’ll be there from 10 a.m. to Noon. I’ll be writing more about our activities later. For now, here’s the text of the handout we’ll have available for caregivers:

Earth Day 2009 at Wonder Works:
Raising Nature-loving Kids

Organized by the Gyllenhaal Family of Oak Park, Illinois

In David Sobel’s new book, Childhood and Nature, he discusses ways that educators and parents can help kids connect with nature. Many adults trace their love of the natural world to childhood play in nature. Sobel’s design principles are inspired by the ways kids play when left alone in wooded settings: “Spend time at a safe, woodsy playground, and you’ll find children (1) making forts and special places; (2) playing hunting and gathering games; (3) shaping small worlds; (4) developing friendships with animals; (5) constructing adventures; (6) descending into fantasies; (7) and following paths and figuring out shortcuts” (Sobel, Childhood and Nature, 2008, page 20).

But, how do you raise nature-loving kids if you live in a densely populated place like Oak Park, where your backyard (if you have one) is not much larger than your living room, and the closest woods is more than a mile away? We’ve been exploring these issues on Neighborhood Nature, our family’s nature blog. (See our post on Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment.)

Today’s Earth Day activities at Wonder Works explore some of the ways families can connect with the nature in their own urbanized neighborhood. They include:

Play in Forts and Dens. Kids love natural places where they can hide and play out fantasies. The Wonder Works tree house is our play fort for today, but you can also build a fort in your back yard using cardboard boxes, fallen branches, or other natural and unnatural objects.

Year ‘Round Water Play. Kids create their own adventures when they “play wet” with plastic dinosaurs, whales, and more. If you leave your plastic pool filled with water all year long, you can play with water and with ice. (This is great in neighborhoods with no natural streams or ponds.)

Build Small Worlds. Make tiny buildings with sticks and bark. (If it’s too muddy outside, then we’ll pretend our homemade play dough is soil.)

Play with Rocks and “Logs.” Load trains and dump trucks with rocks and sticks. Kids can incorporate natural materials into the small worlds they create with their toy versions of transportation technology.

Backyard Quarry. Load up the dump trucks with pebbles, and then haul them around – another example of fantasy play that engages kids with natural materials.

Keep a Pet. Taking care of small wild animals – or domesticated ones – helps kids learn to care for nature. We brought our pet toads as examples, and we show photos of the baby parakeets that Aaron raised.

Enjoy Your Backyard Mammals. Wonder Works staff uses puppets, plastic footprints, and real skins to introduce you to some mammals that may live near your home.

Dig for Bugs. At home you can look for sowbugs, millipedes, worms, and more in your garden. At Wonder Works, Ethan helps you explore soil from their garden, plus some rotten logs and forest soil imported for the day.

Catch Plastic Bugs. Real bugs are great, but fantasy play with plastic bugs and other toys lets kids do things they can’t do in real life.

Search for Birds. Some are common, some are rare – but they’re all wonderful! The Gyllenhaal family shares its passion for birds by showing you some of our projects, and letting kids search for Aaron’s plush bird collection with pretend binoculars.

Salt Your Sandbox. You can take home up to 10 natural treasures from our salted sandbox – then you can salt your sandbox at home with tiny shells and rocks.

Count the Things You Find. This works well with many “nature smart” kids (kids who show a high level of Howard Gardner’s naturalist intelligence). You can count the sandbox treasures. Our family counts birds for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch (as shown in posters we did for our school’s science fair).

Make Nature Crafts. Get creative with shells and other natural objects. We’ve set up a station where you can make a shell collage.

Read Books about Backyard Nature Play. Our book table has examples of books for educators, parents, and children. [We’ll post our reading list later.]


That’s it for now — have a happy Earth Day, and take some time to play outside in nature!


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