Finding the Outdoors

One of my favorite childhood pictures is of me and my dad kneeling by the side of a ditch looking for frogs. What strikes me most about that photo is the fact that it is not based on the location. It is a father and son looking into a small piece of the world to see what is going on. The beauty of it is that whether it was taken in Yosemite or on the side of Interstate 80, the picture would still convey the same feeling. Okay, in fairness, maybe the side of Hwy 80 would have seemed a little more fraught with fear and anxiety, but you get the idea.

Often we want to head to the biggest, wildest, most remote area to be immersed in the great outdoors. Getting out to big swaths of open space is undoubtedly beneficial and inspiring but it is not a necessity to develop an appreciation of the natural world.  In fact, I have to say that my development as an outdoor lover all transpired within a 20 mile radius of my childhood home. Wandering the neighborhood, finding frogs, crayfish, snakes, turtles, salamanders and other creatures was enough fuel to stoke the fire of wonder in my young mind. While the Bay Area is not the safest place to let children wander unattended, the park systems are so extensive that there is ample opportunity to explore without the worries associated with urban living.


Beyond the act of wandering the landscape, focused projects can be a potent source of inspiration for discovering more about our local ecosystem and its processes. The leaf and insect collections that were part of my Sixth grade Science curriculum gave me a great appreciation of the multitude of life forms hiding right beneath our eyes. While suffocating insects with rubbing alcohol has gone the way of lead gasoline (thankfully), finding rare and exotic looking insects, like the walking stick or the praying mantis, was thrilling. Nowadays, a photo collection is an equally exciting way to research the diversity and complexity of the insect world in a gentler manner. Or practice the art of non attachment by simply observing a space around you, taking note of the myriad life forms that move in and out of your given area. There is a fascinating and enlightening exercise outlined in Tom Brown’s book ‘The Tracker’ which involves sitting and focusing on a 1 ft by 1 ft area (or something similar), and observing everything that transpires in the area for a certain length of time. It can be amazing how much kids, and adults alike, take note of in a relatively short time.

Whether you lean toward the roving wanderer methods, the collection based naturalist method, or the buddhist inspired spatial awareness practice, here are some ideas to stoke the fire of environmental awareness and discovery:

  • See how many different insects you can find in your yard, or neighborhood. Catalog them with pictures and try to identify them.
  • Bring a picnic to a local park, playground, or the backyard and watch for birds. Try to count how many different types you see.
  • Find the nearest creek, or even roadside ditch, and investigate for different life forms. Visit at different times of year to see the life cycles of tadpoles into frogs, etc.
  • Make a leaf collection.
  • Make a wildflower collection in the spring
  • Go out to a trail after a rain and investigate animal tracks. Take a guide to animal tracks or take pictures and research at home.
  • Pick a nearby spot and visit frequently to see what changes have transpired, what animal tracks are there, what plants are sprouting, growing, dying.
  • Go to a nearby lake or pond and listen to how many different sounds you can count. Or better yet, bring a recorder and record the sounds for future dissection.
  • Set up a nature photo scavenger hunt. Create a list of things to take pictures of in a given time and set kids loose, if appropriate, or guide them. We’ve had great success with a 20 minute time limit, a couple of retired iphones to photograph with, and a simple list of 20 or so items such as ‘a Eucalyptus tree’, a butterfly, a bird, a yellow flower, etc.12088219_1475926079380680_5690192506167952473_n

Other ideas? Let us know other ways you find helps get the kids excited about getting out and exploring the world.

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