Connecting our children to the earth... begins in our backyard

Jun 18, 2012
How do you instill an environmental ethic—that willingness to care for our natural world—in your children?

By Sarah Mowry

With summer comes a renewed urge to get outside and play; if you’re like many Central Oregonians you already spend a lot of time outdoors. Whether it’s skiing in the winter or camping in the summer, we Central Oregonians love to get outside and include our kids of all ages. While spending time outside goes a long way towards connecting our children to the earth, how do you instill an environmental ethic—that willingness to care for our natural world—in your children? How do you marry the time spent outside and teaching our children to love and respect the earth?

The first step is to get outside regularly to play together—more often than annual camping trips or sledding days. Study after study has shown that kids today don’t spend enough time outside. This doesn’t mean you have to craft fancy trips to tropical places to study endangered species. Go really local. Play outside in your backyard, your local dirt pile, or empty lot. Explore what makes your backyard yours. This is especially important in early childhood (2-6ish) when developmentally children need only to explore the “outside” that is within the comfort of home. They feel safe and brave because they know this world and you are close by to help them explore. Together you can make fairy houses out of pine needles and bark, float leaf boats on puddles, plant seeds, dig tunnels, get comfortable being and playing outside. You can even give over a section of your yard to your kids. Let them collect the flotsam and jetsam of life and build forts with it. One messy corner can be the springboard for worlds of wonder for your children.

A child inspects the wildflowers. Photo: Sarah Mowry.
A child inspects the wildflowers. Photo: Sarah Mowry.
From your yard, and as your children grow, explore wild places near home. We are so fortunate in Central Oregon to have nature very nearby—even in our city parks and playgrounds. On your daily walks to the park or playground take some time to explore the wild side of a park with your children. You may not notice it now, but many of our favorite parks have (intentionally or not) those untended parts where little bits of nature flourish. Just a few feet from the Reed Market playground is the entrance to the Larkspur Trail—a winding little trail that goes clear to Pilot Butte and follows a perfect kid-sized creek (read irrigation canal) with some of the native plants and critters that live along it.  The Old Mill playground is right at the entrance to our amazing Deschutes River trail. Stray from the climbing walls and slides and find otters, ducks, geese, songbirds and hordes of other kid-friendly watchable wildlife. Or, go to the uber nature park in Bend—Shevlin Park—and walk along Tumalo Creek, listen for woodpeckers, or scamper along downed logs.  My family’s favorite “playground” is a local park with no play structures but rather perfect trees for climbing, lava rock piles for exploring, and space for roaming free and untethered. 

Whatever your wild side, take the time to intentionally explore these areas regularly with your children. Be their guide in nature. I think as our children get older and start to ask more questions we get nervous that we don’t know all the answers. We feel like we have to be a biologist to be a good nature guide, right? Wrong. You don’t have to know all the answers, but rather you need to help them notice the little things, ask the right questions, and then find the answers together.  What does a ponderosa pine smell like on a warm day? Why does it smell like that? Will lava rock float or sink? Why?

Finally when you’re ready to venture beyond your neighborhood, join an “expert” on a guided nature walk for kids. Preschoolers can join Mary Yanalcanlin from the East Cascades Audubon Society for free Preschool Birding each Monday (year-round) in Drake Park. Older children (5-12 yr olds) can join the Deschutes Land Trust from May-October for a variety of free nature walks for kids at local nature preserves. On Land Trust walks trained naturalists like Karen Parker and Mary help you and your children get wet with water bugs, hide out on a camouflage hike, or take an eco-adventure in Skyline Forest. And those are just a couple of the local options! Regardless of who you join, watch how they lead your kids on a hike. How do they encourage exploration and discovery? Which tricks can you try when you are out next? Then, go try them on your next camping trip!

Connecting your children to nature can be a fun journey for the whole family. While it doesn’t have to be in exotic wild places, it does have to be intentional and often and with a guide—the best one, a parent. Together we can help our children explore nature, learn about nature, and one day hopefully work to protect it.

Learn more about Preschool Birding at Get the full slate of Deschutes Land Trust hikes for kids at