In the midst of this global pandemic, countless parents will be isolated at home with their children and struggling to find things to do. It is a great opportunity to de-isolate your family from nature. Spending time in nature provides freedom from distractions, you can do it in your local area whilst maintaining social distancing, and whilst a camera or pair of binoculars can be fun to use, spending time in nature is completely free!
But I understand that can be difficult to decide where to start. Using my experience of sharing my enthusiasm for nature with teenagers, mostly with the charity Action for Conservation, I’m going to outline my five main tips below.
Get outside, but please follow your country, state or city’s isolation protocols and regulations. Don’t put yourself or anyone else at risk – nature will still be there when this has all blown over. Avoid crowded parks and opt for local nature trails instead.
The slow outdoors
In an age of video games, YouTube and streaming services, we are surrounded by screens at all times. Entertainment is constantly available. When boredom can be alleviated at any time by the touch of a button, it becomes difficult to persuade yourself to invest time in something that is not immediately rewarding. I’m not saying that it has ever been easy to learn a language or a musical instrument, but when there are so many sources of a quick dopamine hit, activities that are inherently slow can easily take a back seat.
Being out in nature is certainly not boring, but it is often not instantly rewarding. The feelings of happiness, serenity and calm that people get in nature are not instantaneous, they require an investment of time and effort. Take birdwatching as an example. There is only so that long you can stare at small, brown feathered things without knowing what they are before it becomes a bit dull. Endeavoring to learn which species you are looking at makes the experience much more fulfilling.
“Some people remain glued to their phones even while walking their dogs. My dog is prone to eating random things and reacting to other dogs, so I put away my device to scan my surroundings when we walk. Lately, during our early morning walks, I’ve noticed more birds singing. I suppose that spring and the shift in the clocks have had something to do with it. And now with all the closures, I seem to hear fewer cars from the main road and fewer planes overhead, even on weekdays, which has made it easier for me to listen to what the birds have been trying to say.” – Raymond Nakamura, scientist and artist.
Getting young people up and out
If it is difficult to persuade yourself to ditch the screens and get outside, then imagine how much more difficult it is to motivate a 13 year-old who has grown up in a city, and has never known life without broadband, to do the same. But as difficult as it can be, being able to share a love of the natural world and communicate its importance is crucial.
It may seem cliché, but young people are the future. Without contact with nature, they will never learn to care for it. The environmental movement has a chronic problem with a lack of diversity and needs to connect with and engage groups that have traditionally been excluded from natural spaces. This includes black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, working class and inner city communities. If you are part of one or more of these communities, there are a growing number of nature-lovers from these backgrounds that are sharing their stories online.
My tips and tricks
What then are the strategies to connect young people (your children, young people you teach or mentor, etc.) with the natural world? My top 5 tips are below:
1. Use your audiences’ interests as an ‘in’. Tying the natural world to something they are already invested in makes it more likely that they will connect to what you are saying. If they like football, then play outside with them for a while, then when it is time for a rest you can transition into looking and talking about the nature around you. If they are really in to social media, then encourage them to post photos of wildlife or plants.
2. Don’t be afraid to be childish. I don’t use the word ‘childish’ in a negative way here. What I mean is that you should not be afraid to be earnestly and innocently enthusiastic about things.
3. Show them stories from a range of people. There is an ever-growing number of naturalists and scientists from what would have been previously considered ‘unconventional’ backgrounds. Diversity, whether it be career, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, class, background or everything else is all important. Representation is as vital in the environmental movement as it is anywhere else. The environmental message can no longer be dominated by old white bearded men (although I am sure this will be me in 30 years’ time). Take a look at the Urban Birder or the Gangsta Gardener.
4. Take their phones away. Not permanently obviously, but time without technology is important. One of the activities on camps I have helped with is to find a place by yourself, lie down and just be for 10 minutes. I could not remember the last time that I just laid on the grass and looked at the sky. I personally find this much more effective than meditating or being mindful indoors. If you’re thinking about your phone in your pocket, it is difficult to enjoy these moments.
5. Remember that not everyone will become obsessive about nature. You do not have to memorize Latin names and be able to identify mosses to be an environmentalist. Formative experiences in nature mean that whatever career that young person chooses, they will always feel a connection to the natural world. That right there, that is a win.