Growing up, summer was a time when my friends and I would run wild and free. We went off most of the day exploring, digging in the fields, and running screaming from imagined monsters in the woods. We shaped our own very long days. One of the best summers I remember, though, included a once-a-week activity through my school. Other students and I would take a bus trip with the science teacher to a local place of some scientific interest. We went hiking on a island to learn about rock formations, hiking in the mountains to learn about plants, visiting a fish hatchery to talk about a local reservoir, and testing water in a river to talk about runoff. I don’t remember every trip, but I remember those quite vividly. What I learned on those day trips influenced my play. I became an explorer and discoverer. I collected samples. I kept notebooks.
The most important lesson I learned from my summer of science exploration is the far-reaching effect of a little bit of structure for children. With my own children, I have explored the effects of no structure, a lot of structure, and just a little structure. I think they both respond well to a little structure.
For some young children, a question might be enough to start a flow of many more questions. “Why do you think this plant grows such big leaves?” With others, an exciting new possibility might open their eyes to a big adventure. “Let’s go on a walk to find flowers that we can eat.” I tend to focus on plants and rocks because that is what I know, but I use books to help me stretch my own experience and give me the prompts I need.
How much structure your child needs to spark excitement and independent exploration depends very much on your child. Experiment. Make an educated guess and test it. That is what science is all about, after all.
As summer stretches out in front of you, how will you help your children explore nature and explore themselves? If you are looking for some simple, science-based prompts that could give them a little structure through occasional activities, I have found the following resources very helpful.
- Earth Child 2000
This is a teaching guide that always keeps in mind a child’s sense of wonder and awareness. Ideal for very young and elementary age children.
- David Suzuki Foundation’s Connecting with Nature education guide
This is also a teaching guide with clearly outlined lesson plans that can be adapted to home use. Intended for upper elementary grades.
- The Children & Nature Network
C&NN is a nonprofit that creates resources and supports local activities to connection children with nature. Their resources are varied. Most families or organizations concerned about environmental teaching for kids will find useful tools here.