“Nature must be absorbed through our eyes, ears, nose, and pores as well as our minds. Few of us need to be convinced that holding a slug or beholding a sky full of stars on a warm summer night differ mightily from virtual alternatives. It’s this direct experience that is so powerful in fostering emotional connections.” -Scott Sampson, author of How To Raise a Wild Child.
Children are naturally inclined to utilize all their senses in order to process their surroundings. Give me a nickel for every parent who has looked over to find their toddler with a mouthful of dirt out in the yard, and I’ll buy everyone reading this a lifetime supply of Sesame Street-themed electric toothbrushes.
When kiddos are exposed to the wide world of nature their innate curiosity leads them to sample and explore by sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. These hands-on experiences forge positive memories and foster an affinity for nature that can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, many kids today have limited opportunities to access nature in this way. Our society has become so industrialized and digitized that there is little place in the day-to-day for wildness.
Yet we’ve all seen or heard the meme stating, “kids don’t remember their best day of television.” Linda Akeson McGurk, author of There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, responds to this, saying, “Studies show that we’re more prone to remember events that engage our whole body and all our senses. Nature, it turns out, is just the right place for that. That’s why, when researchers ask people to share memories from childhood, they often think of things that took place outdoors. Playing with friends in special hideouts, going on family camping trips, experiencing the elements.”
To counteract this societal trend, our family strives to make sure that getting outdoors with our son is a regular part of life. Our hope is that in addition to enjoying our time together, this will provide our son with organic learning opportunities and help him to develop sensory skills and shape a lasting bond with nature. In this series on Preserving Wildhood, I want to mention a few ways to encourage your children (and maybe encourage you parents in the process) to engage each of their senses and help them to connect with nature at a deeper level
Recent studies, including one published in 2017,a have shown that increased time spent outdoors is actually effective in preventing the onset of myopia, or near-sightedness. Whenever possible, give your kiddos the opportunity to view the wide world surrounding them. Go someplace where they can expand their scope: see a vast mountain range, take in the Grand Canyon, absorb the uninterrupted horizon over the ocean.
Or hit something a little closer to home: go up on a local vista or climb to the top of a fire tower. Ask them, “What is the farthest thing you can see?” Get them a pair of binoculars and point out land features, rivers or lakes, or any birds or wildlife. Think about the small things, too. If you’re out on a hike, give them a magnifying glass and encourage them to investigate the dirt, fallen logs, new sprouts. Search for bugs or ask them if they can see evidence of any other wildlife.
Our sense of smell has such a powerful ability to transport us to a particular time, place, or memory. It possesses the strength to call us forward via a delicious, mouthwatering aroma or to send us fleeing from a room in the case of a particularly pungent odor! Yet I feel like most times the sense of smell goes overlooked or unnoticed. When out on a trail I am unconsciously taking note of the sights and sounds, but rarely do I register what information my nose is giving me.
In the same way, I think our children can miss out on this subtle sense. They can benefit from us pointing out particular smells and asking probing questions so it becomes natural for them to actively engage their sense of smell. Point out the way the air smells different when it rains. Have them smell the grass, freshly turned dirt, a caught fish. Take a hike in springtime and see how many different wildflowers you can find. Have your kids close their eyes and see if they can learn to distinguish them by smell alone. Bring your dog along and draw your kids’ attention to how much your pup uses his own nose. Did your dog stop to sniff a mushroom? Encourage your kiddo to sniff it, too!
As parents, we may shy away from allowing our kiddos to really engage their sense of taste when exploring in nature. A certain hesitation comes into play when we leave the ultra-sanitized boundaries of our homes and approach the unknown “dirtiness” outside our doors. McGurk makes the connection between decreased exposure to nature and the rise of asthma and allergies in the U.S., saying, “one easy way to support children’s health and strengthen their immune system could simply be to let them play outside as much as possible and not panic if they sample a clump of dirt or lick an earthworm. The ick factor may be high, and for small children rocks and other small loose parts can be a choking hazard, but the risk of them getting sick from such things is extremely low.”
And let’s be honest, if your kiddo licks an earthworm, they’re unlikely to do it a second time—with or without a freak-out moment from mom or dad. So next time you’re outside, let them explore in this way, too! Let them taste rocks, dirt, grass. Go ahead and lick that icicle. Identify the wild edible plants in your area and try to find and sample them. Have a dandelion salad. Go to a pick-your-own fruit orchard or berry field and let them harvest their own treats. Or find a simple tea recipe that uses some of the weeds from your own backyard!
I was once listening to an episode of All Things Considered on NPR when they visited the “One Square Inch of Silence” in Washington’s Olympic National Park. This spot has been designated the quietest place in the U.S. and is dedicated to preserving the sounds of the wilderness and keeping it free from intrusive noise. It’s founder, Matt Mikkelsen, estimates that there are fewer than 10 places in the U.S. such as this, which are free from human-made sound for more than 15 minutes at a time.
Though that is just an estimation, it impacted me and makes me realize how precious the sounds of nature really are. When outdoors with your kiddos, encourage them to tune into the sounds around them. If you’re in your backyard, have them distinguish manmade noises from the sounds of nature. In the evening listen to noisy crickets or cicadas. If you’re out in the woods, point out the sound of wind in the trees or ask them how many different birds they can hear in one spot. For older children, you can practice identifying common birds in your area by their song. Walk along a river and point out the difference between the sound of ripples and the sound of a waterfall. If you’re by the ocean, listen to the waves. Ask your kids how different sounds make them feel—Excited? Intrigued? Relaxed?
There is a spot on a river near our home where a shallow cave makes a nice cool, shady spot to break on hikes. My son can spend ENDLESS amounts of time playing in the silty dirt that deposits there. Not just digging holes or making little mud pies, but full-on head-to-toe rolling around in that dirt. For hours. Finally, I bent down myself and dug my own fingers into the soil and suddenly I realized what was so fascinating about it! It wasn’t clumpy like garden dirt but was like the finest sand, smooth and buttery and flowed almost like the water itself. It was cool yet dry and easy to slide your fingers through. I kinda wanted to roll around in it myself, if I’m being honest.
To engage their sense of touch, let your kiddos get elbows-deep in nature (literally). Bring them outdoors in the rain. On a sunny day, have them stand in a patch of shade, close their eyes, and then step out into the sun—can they feel the difference on their skin? Go swimming in a pond and let them feel the muddy bottom smush between their toes or the slick algae on the rocks. Modify a scavenger hunt to locate things that feel a certain way: find something rough, smooth, wet, prickly. Nature is full of loose parts. Ask them to pick things up, investigate, and describe the way things feel. For older kids, check out this post on nature journaling by TMM team member Valerie, which outlines a great way for them to document their observations.
Through the engaging of all their senses, children can learn the full richness of nature, build memories, and develop a true love of the outdoors. This is the cornerstone of a healthy Wildhood.
If you missed the first post in the Preserving Wildhood series from TMM team member Jackie, check it out here!
Also check out Valerie’s post in our Study of Nature series with some more ideas on how to engage the senses outside.
About Emily: Emily is a full-time working mama and wife raised in the Ouachita Mountains and currently navigating life in northern Missouri as she finishes up her PhD in chemistry. Over the years, adventure has become a part of her lifestyle, leading her and her husband Rocky into outdoor activities like hiking, scuba diving, camping, kayaking, fly fishing, and now parenting—their biggest adventure yet! Now Emily is applying her adventurous spirit into getting her family outside no matter the season to instill that same love of nature and exploration in their two-year-old son, and connecting with other families to inspire them to do the same. Find them on Instagram @hiking.home
a Xiong et al., Acta Ophthalmol. 2017 Sep; 95(6): 551–566.