City Children need Nature too
April 18, 2009 2:40 AM   Subscribe

How can I teach my child, who lives in the city, about nature?

We live in a city with parks and vacant lots and trees and perhaps other opportunities for me to teach my child about nature, but I don't know where to begin.
posted by twoleftfeet to Education (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Get one of those nice field identification books and find local insects/plants and look them up in the book to find out their name, get basic info about them.
posted by mateuslee at 3:06 AM on April 18, 2009

Zoos and aquariums can help and are an option not generally available in the country.
posted by wheat at 3:40 AM on April 18, 2009

Take a vacation, bring the child. The Long Trail worked for me.
posted by Mblue at 4:06 AM on April 18, 2009

Read Last Child in the Woods. A bit ranty, but also some good tips on what children should know, and how.
posted by wingless_angel at 4:06 AM on April 18, 2009

Give your kid a simple digital camera and tell them to photograph cool plants or insects they see in the park. Then go home and look them up online. Find out how they move, how they grow, what they eat, or where they come from.

Pick a vacant lot along the child's journey to school. Scatter some wildflower seeds and surreptitiously water them each time you pass. See what grows. (Don't do this on occupied properties or public parks).

Buy some runner bean seeds and let each family member plant one in a soil-filled plastic cup. Put the cups on the window sill and let the plants run up the window bars as they grow. If you don't have window bars, use pieces of string attached with thumbtacks. Let each family member water their own bean, and race each other to the top of the window.

Go to a planetarium and learn about the stars. If your city's light pollution doesn't block out all the night sky, keep an eye on the forecasts for meteor showers and comets, and get the kid up onto the roof to see them. I'm proud to say I saw Halley's comet like this, aged two and a half.

Find out about agriculture within or near your city. Is there a community garden? What about a mushroom farm? (These are basically big, sterile warehouses and there's no reason a city couldn't have one). In my city there's a Chinese market garden growing gai choy within a few km of the CBD. You'd be surprised how much food can be grown in a city, and many proprietors are happy to show a curious kid around.
posted by embrangled at 5:11 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sir David Attenborough. My 5 year old loves The Life of Birds, Life in the Undergrowth, The Life of Mammals, Life in Cold Blood, Planet Earth, etc. We've both learned a lot about nature that way. Coupling that with trips to the nearest city zoo to see the animals you've learned about can't be beat. Beyond that just be aware of the fact that nature doesn't stop in the city. Birds and bugs are everywhere. Go to the park and find a rock to turn over. Then go look up earthworms or pillbugs online or at the library. Ants are pretty amazing, too.

The most helpful thing is to remember that there is no clearly defined line between "nature" and "not nature". Have fun with it!
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:12 AM on April 18, 2009

Some things are easier in the city. Like identifying local bird and trees. Most cities have only a few species of each.
posted by Flood at 5:31 AM on April 18, 2009

Birdwatching! Buy a couple binoculars, or even a nice birding scope (if you happen to have a grand to drop on this), and a bird identification book, for example this one. Birding is pretty easy to get hooked on, and you can do it in or out of the city! Learn what birds are native, and what ones migrate through and when, then try to find them, or just head out into a park and try to identify the birds around you. You can try linking up with a local birdwatching group, but it's easy to get started on your own.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:20 AM on April 18, 2009

Many, if not most, cities actually have pretty amazing biodiversity within their dense urban areas. I've seen coyotes downtown in two large American cities, for example, and of course the plants you see are a riotous mix of native and introduced species. And many cities have very large green areas within or next to the urbanized area; these green areas are sometimes tricky to find but are often oases of natural life.

But that means looking at your urban environment with new eyes. And it also means finding ways to see differently -- maybe getting up extra early on a Sunday morning, or floating down the riverfront in a canoe or kayak.

Also, every town and city I've ever lived in has had a few "go-to" people for plant, bird, and animal identification questions, habitat issues, and so on. Sometimes they are the urban forester, or a college professor, or a retired fisheries biologist, etc. The point being, if you can find out who they are, you can ask for guided tours, go to their slideshows, and learn about your area from the experts. My experience has been that the local experts tend to be dying to find someone interested in what they know, although you will certainly run into the occasional cranky grouch who hates interacting with people.
posted by Forktine at 6:45 AM on April 18, 2009

We share this predicament. We moved to a large city after my son spent the first 18 months of his life at the beach or in the woods everyday--it has been a rough transition, but we started slow and now its really a kind of everyday adventure to find the natural world all around us. This is how we have used the resources we DO have at our disposal:

*Library books. Ask the children's librarian to direct you to the non-fiction section where there are thousands of full-color books from the micro to the macro--we switch out weekly, and I am amazed at what our little one knows and loves about nature. His love and interest in these books makes the little excursions we take more meaningful to all of us vs. just being some kind of obligatory "go outside" sort of thing.

*Zoo, Aquarium, Botanical Gardens, Parks. At first glance, not really the natural world, per se, but to a kid these living illustrations of what they see in books is still magical, is getting them outside, and connects books and videos to the real world. We get memberships so that we are motivated to go often, to not make it a "special event." In fact, the best part of living in the city and having a membership is the ability to just spend an hour or two at ONE exhibit, really learning it and examining it. We also go in all weather to see how the animals and plants deal with rain or light snow, etc. Going to parks in all weather has invited lots of talking about seasonal change--watching the trees for buds, seeing the park ducks build nests, and exploring the beds and open places for new shoots and plants.

*Having a "nature table" inside. Basically, for us, this is the top of a short bookshelf with a little basket to display and collect things like leaves, petals, rocks, sticks, etc. that we find on ordinary walks. Our son loves to play with them and mess with them and try to "identify" them.

*Bird feeders, container gardening (even just one tomato plant). It really is the simplest thing--a small pot of wheatgrass on a windowsill that is your kid's responsibility goes much farther than you would think as far as nurturing interest.

*We do lots of weekend trips to state parks for hiking, and I'd bet you'd be surprised to find out what "nature trails" are maintained by your city, right in town--especially if your city has a major water way like a bay, river, or lake. Lots of stuff to see there.

*Our biggest thing really is All Weather No Matter What. We have appropriate clothing to get messy, wet, and cold. I know that my neighbors though I was nuts to take my pre-school-aged son to the park everyday this last winter, but he was excited every morning to bundle up and crunch through frozen grass and break ice puddles, and whatever. When it is nice, it feels like such a gift and we're all so giddy to be out (vs. again, the obligatory--go outside, it's nice out).

At the end of the day, though, he's interested because WE'RE interested. It doesn't work to send your kid out while you stay in and play on the internets. We're out with him, on walks, with the books, on excursions. Going outside is the default activity around here (kids go to bed early, so thankfully, there's still plenty of time to play on the internets and read and watch movies. I'm writing this waiting for partner and kid to sunscreen up and use the potty so we can spend the day out)!

You'll have a great time.
posted by rumposinc at 7:01 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stake out one square foot of soil, preferably with grass and other small plants growing in it.

-Try to identify everything growing and living there. (You are definitely going to need good insect and plant identification guides - there can be a LOT of species living even in a tiny area!)
-You can monitor the square foot of soil through the seasons. Good time to talk about why the seasons occur, how plant and animal life adapt (cold blooded versus warm blooded, hibernation, deciduous versus evergreen, lifste cycles)
-You can draw everything you see in there from life. Good time to learn about plant identification by branching pattern, leaf shape, leaflet number, and so on. More generally, good time to learn about taxonomy and categorization, and what makes a species a species.
-Observe in different weather. When it rains, where does the water go? You can talk about aquifers and water tables. When it's hot, you can learn about the water cycle and evaporation. You can learn some biology here too - when it's hot, how come the water inside the plant doesn't evaporate? Could learn about cell walls and plant structure, chlorophyll, etc.
-I've just realized there's an entire book about doing this!

Other ideas for learning about nature with kids:

-Does your city have a fancy cemetery? Or arboretum? Often times, these places have labels telling you what sort of tree you are looking at, and they often have very beautiful gardens.
-Can you grow a few plans indoors, or in a lawn space if you have any? There are many herbs you can easily grow in old tomato cans indoors, and there are a few plants, like tomatoes, which are very easy to grow outdoors.
-When you go on vacation, try to visit the many different types of environments that are near you. If you're in the northeast of the US by any chance, there are MANY wonderful different landscapes to see: wetlands, boreal forests, snow-peaked mountains, rolling hills, deciduous forests, pasture land, coastal dunes... of course each area will have its own wildlife, and you can think about why each animal depends on having that particular environment to live in.
-Maybe you could learn about where your water and food come from. Does your water come from a reservoir? Can you visit it? Learn about how the water is kept clean? Visit the farms where your food is grown? Learn from the farmers about good growing conditions and growing zones?
-Can you learn about wild foods that you can eat/use? This can be really fun! You can eat pine pitch, dandelion greens, nettle (once boiled), maple sugar sap, ground cherries, mushrooms... you can make a skin salve from burdock root... that sort of thing. (But be careful! Don't eat poisonous mushrooms!) Many of these things (especially dandelions, pine pitch, and nettle) can be found even in the city.
-Find a peregrine falcon nest to monitor, either online or in real life. They often live in cities -Maybe your city has a resident falcon family. While doing this you can learn about how pesticides, particularly DDT, were hurting birds by making their eggs brittle, and other consequences of environmental chemicals.
-This is a little further off topic, but if you wanted, you could build a solar oven or a little solar car (there are lots of easy-to-use kits) and think about how much energy the sun is giving out, and the many it can be harnessed. You could also learn some survival skills that depend on basic science - starting a fire with a lens, purifying water through condensation, preserving food with smoking or salting, etc.
posted by Cygnet at 7:15 AM on April 18, 2009

OH, and I forgot one of my childhood favorites: rock identification! There are loads of great rock and mineral identification guides out there and it's so exciting to find a rock in the city and figure out for yourself what it is. When my parents took me to the gem exhibit at the NYC Museum of Natural History in the middle of my rock obsession, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
posted by Cygnet at 7:16 AM on April 18, 2009

I'm an urban stream ecologist. Urban Science Adventures is one of my favorites, an entire blog devoted to just what you're asking about.

Your neighborhood has a stream, because every neighborhood does. If yours is available anywhere, take a walk and check it out. (If your neighborhood stream is mostly in a pipe under the neighborhood, that's another lesson entirely). Be careful playing in the water, because it may be contaminated with sewage as many of our urban streams are. But you should be able to see things living there--bugs and crayfish and maybe even some frogs and little fish. Also, just watch how the water moves and look at what the stream bottom is made of.

Come back in a storm and see how much more water there is. Look for storm drains, and talk about how water moves over and through the ground in the woods, versus how it travels in gutters and pipes in the city.

Come back after the storm and see the changes the storm has made. Are the rocks you saw in different places? Is there a line of debris/trash marking how high the water got? Where do the bugs and other things you saw go when the stream floods?

This is just one idea. Urban streams tend to be an oasis, with more trees than the surrounding neighborhood and lots of birds and other wildlife enjoying the trees. They are always a good destination!
posted by hydropsyche at 7:40 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Camping trip. Or boy/girl scouts when they're old enough.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 9:34 AM on April 18, 2009

Join a community garden! We do this kind of thing with kids all the time: grow sunflowers and beans, keep nature logs, do crafty stuff with garden materials, etc. etc. -- not to mention plain ol' digging in the dirt. Go here to find one (or more) in your city.

Cornell has amazing educational resources. Our kids love Celebrate Urban Birds. We also adapted some of the activities in their Garden-Based Learning curriculum.
posted by dogrose at 10:08 AM on April 18, 2009

Thirding community gardens. Also - container gardens! You can seed herbs and flowers inside with grow lights in early spring, or start with seedlings from the local farmer's market. Stuff like mint / basil / oregano is great, because it grows quickly, and they can pluck off leaves and eat them. Also, worm bins. New pets for the family!

You don't have to leave the city to find nature -- you just have to get used to looking for it where you live. The camera idea is a good one, because it gets them used to really LOOKING. Notice a weird moss on the side of the house? Take a picture and figure out what it is! Weird insects growing on your flowers? Click! your very own wildlife.

William Cronon has a great essay on how thinking about "wilderness" has gotten us away from noticing natural things in urban spaces. Another good person to look into is Natalie Jeremijenko, who does wacky engineering art projects on urban environmentalism. They've both been really helpful for me, in getting beyond the "city as an urban wasteland" mentality.

Good luck!
posted by puckish at 10:37 AM on April 18, 2009

A lot of these answers are really good. Adding one more: subscribe to a kids' science/nature magazine or two. I had Ranger Rick for years as a child, and what I still remember after many years surprises me.

My girls have had Click and Ask for some years, which are very good. We also have National Geographic Kids; that one's a good bit more commercial (I cringe at video game reviews)--but some of the nature photography and stories are actually quite good (there was a great piece about narwhals in this month's issue).

If you get science/nature magazines also, you can share interesting photos and facts with the kids. We've been subscribing to Science Illustrated during the past year--last time we got an issue our ten-year-old said, "Oh, good" and plopped down on the sofa to study it.

Websites can also be fun--we love the photo contests on the National Wildlife Federation website and Zooborns.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:25 PM on April 18, 2009

« Older How to visit a bar alone?   |   Help with autonumbering in Word2007, please! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.