Nature Nearby: Why Kids Need Nature ... And Nature Needs Kids

Nature Nearby: Why Kids Need Nature … And Nature Needs Kids

  • Nature Nearby is written by Valerie Blaine, the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at

Kids need nature, and nature needs kids.

I know this, not by reading scads of research on the topic, but by looking out my office window.

On any given day when the weather is warm and the sun is shining, I see kids high-tailing it down to the pond behind the nature center. They come shod in rubber boots, wielding bug nets and clutching collecting jars. Soon, the boots are kicked off and the nets are strewn on the shore. I watch the barefoot kids as they find colorful dragonflies and spot turtles basking just beyond reach.

Illusive fish add drama to the discoveries, and the startled squawks of frogs punctuate the excitement. The split-second view of a secretive snake brings shouts of exclamation.

I’ve seen kids spend hours in this pursuit of littoral happiness.

To say that this kind of experience is good – even necessary – for children, may seem like a statement of the obvious. Yet, here’s the rub: Getting kids out in nature is easier said than done, a rarity in a world of electronic distractions and digital detachment.

It’s not just my gut feeling. There is plenty of research to back this up. Mounting evidence shows that nature play – especially unstructured, inventive play – is key to healthy human development. As is so often the case, we have come to this realization only as it slips away.

As more and more kids have less and less time interacting with nature, a host of issues arise. An increase in childhood obesity, depression, and anxiety are just some of the problems correlated with the lack of time spent exploring in the natural world. Psychological effects include learning and attention difficulties.

Screen time is in no short supply. Digital devices are everywhere, and kids know how to tap and swipe a screen before they know how to tie their shoes. Nature time, though, is hard to come by for many suburbanites.

Some parents aren’t sure how, where or when to take their kids to play in nature. A mom confessed to me, with some embarrassment, that she is not a “nature person” and couldn’t take her kids on a hike because, “I don’t the names of anything.” Some parents are so harried with all the scheduled activities in family life that there is no room for unstructured time in an unstructured setting.

First of all – and this goes for all of us, not just those with kids – slow down! Leave some blank space on your calendar. Allow for spur-of-the-moment forays, for no other reason than it’s a nice day out. Secondly, you don’t need to know any names of plants and animals to go out to the woods with your kids.

Make up your own names. The important thing is to see the plants and watch the animals and touch the trees and smell the good air. Let the kids just explore. There doesn’t need to be a curriculum, and there doesn’t need to be a set of learning objectives. Nature is the curriculum, and there is no test. The only agenda is to enjoy being there.

If you’re still not sure of where to start, try a nature program. Here in the Forest Preserve District, part of our mission is to help people connect with nature. Naturalist-guided programs are held throughout the calendar year, at forest preserves throughout Kane County.

Naturalist Ben Katzen, himself a new dad, encourages people to bring their kids to our programs at an early age. “I am consistently amazed how much joy young children can receive by the simple things in nature. Seeing my 1-year-old daughter discover things such as ants or an acorn for the first time reminds how enriching it is to spend time in nature at a young age.”

But age doesn’t matter – you’re never too young or too old to make discover the joy of nature. I have led nature walks called “Senior Strolls” for some 30 years (which, of course, makes me a senior, too!). Some retirees who attend these guided walks are experiencing their first “free time” in nature since their childhood. Adults can re-kindle their curiosity and sense of wonder.

Research shows that early childhood connections with the natural world lead to life-long appreciation of nature. Some of the world’s famous naturalists, like John Muir, Jane Goodall, and E.O. Wilson, had childhood experiences in nature that greatly influenced their life work. This is where the second part of my opening statement comes in.

Nature needs kids. The planet seems beleaguered on all fronts – the race for economic wealth and material goods continues apace, with toxic by-products that most consumers would rather not thing about. Natural resources are gobbled up like there’s no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow.

The environmental challenges of today will be handed on to the next generation. If kids have not had the chance to have fun in nature, how will they love it? If they don’t love the woods and the prairies and the marshes, how can they take care of these special places? A childhood bond with nature is the foundation for a life of environmental stewardship.

Who knows – the kids playing at the pond today may bring their kids to the water some warm, sunny day. Maybe they’ll become champions for clean water twenty, thirty, or forty years hence. Chances are, they will always have life-long appreciation of the gifts that nature so freely gives. One thing is for sure: they’ll remember how much fun they had.

Kids need nature, and nature needs kids. Don’t let nature play be just an antiquated past time that old folks reminisce about.

Let your kids explore a forest preserve today, this week, all year long.

Upcoming Programs


If you’d like to nurture a love of nature in your young children, check out these upcoming programs at Creek Bend Nature Center:

For the youngest set, we offer a monthly series of nature programs called Nature Tykes (for ages 3 and 4) and Little Naturalists (for ages 4 and 5). These programs are held at Creek Bend Nature Center, in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles. Sessions include a combination of stories, songs, games or crafts, and a short walk in the woods – all based on a different theme each month.

This month, naturalists Ben Katzen and Barb McKittrick will lead the kids in an exploration of the turtles. We’ll learn about turtles inside, with a story and a craft, and then take a short hike to look for turtles in the pond. The programs will be held on Thursday, Sept. 28. Nature Tykes (3- and 4-year-olds, with parent or guardian) is from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; Little Naturalists (4- and 5-year-olds) runs from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Registration is required; please call 630-444-3190 or email There is a $5 fee per child.

Additionally, we team up with the St. Charles Public Library for Story Time at Creek Bend Nature Center. These programs are geared for infants through 5-year-olds. Staff from the library read books and tell stories with lots of interactive flare. Squiggling and squirming are encouraged!

This month’s Story Time will be from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15. Please register for this free program by calling 630-444-3190, or email

For a full listing of fall programs, check out the TreeLine newsletter in PDF form.