How to Nurture a Nature Ethic in Children

The ways in which nature fills my soul is really remarkable. From nature I derive a sense of beauty and vastness, intricacy and simplicity, wonder and delight.

A particularly beautiful sunset brings a smile to my face. A meadow full of wildflowers blowing in the wind triggers a longing to go running in it like I’ve seen in some commercial. A huge tree pushing 450 years old impels me to give it a hug. Are you the same? Nature somehow draws out many intangible feelings.

Practically speaking, nature also provides us every tangible raw material we need for life. I used to offer kids I taught in the out-of-doors this challenge: “I will give $ 100 to anyone who can tell me something tangible (here I define tangible as something we can detect with our 5 senses) that does NOT come from nature.”

The raw materials of everything, of course, are of natural origin. Even highly refined petroleum products come from oil deposits in the earth, which were once living zooplankton and algae. I never had to give away $ 100. Good thing. I didn’t have it in the first place.

For a happy and fulfilled child, who grows into a responsible adult that is well connected with his or her place in nature, I prescribe continual exposure to nature in different ways throughout a lifetime. Here is a guideline to keep in mind:

Ages 2 through 7: Foster a relationship with animals. Read animal stories, sing animal songs, point out birds and dogs and cows and bugs. Let children flap around and be a bird or a butterfly or slither through the grass like a snake. Zoos are great places to see the variety of animals, and perhaps get close exposure to animals that can be petted or held. Be careful not to pass on an unfounded fear.

Ages 8-11: Explore the outdoors. Let kids play in forests and fields and yards. “Free Play” is seen in the Environmental Education community as extremely valuable in fostering a connection to nature. Let nature spark their imagination. Kids can make maps to follow, build a shelter, go on scavenger hunts, play predator-prey games, swing from rope swings, climb trees, and look for stream critters. Get involved by together tending a garden, raising a pet, hiking trails and otherwise also being outdoors.

Ages 12 and up: Encourage action. With an ever-growing empathy and knowledge about nature, kids at this stage should be ready to do something in support of nature. Manage the recycling at school or at home, write a letter on behalf of an environmental issue to a congressman, learn where the household water comes from in order to safeguard it, keep a journal of nature observations, and be aware of community environmental issues. Expressing views and fostering change gives kids a sense of empowerment, satisfaction and confidence.

The most important and probably the most impressionable thing is just to do things outdoors as a family. Setting an example of enjoyment and respect for the natural world truly tops the list.

I remember fondly, our many family hikes growing up. Dad would pause frequently to take, what turned out to be, beautiful photographs. Mom would spit out a name of every flower and bird we saw. Us kids would have fun trying to decide if Mom was making it up or not. I found out I was duped when I got a hold of a bird book and found the yellow-bellied sapsucker was, in fact, a real bird.

So now, I find myself a lover of birds, wildflowers, and nature photography; and my most favorite thing is exploring the out-of-doors.

Nancy Condon is an award-winning Environmental Educator, cross-country canoeist, hike leader, fan of National Parks, and co-founder of NaturePods, Guides for the Nature Traveler. For unique programs to download to your iPod before you travel or explore the outdoors, visit

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