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Take a Child Into Nature: 5 Tips for Fun Field Trips

By Hugh Powell
children birding by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab
Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab.

From the Summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Year of the Bird is a yearlong celebration in 2018 in which thousands of people pledge to take one action per month to help birds. July’s action is to take a child into nature. The following ideas are useful year-round, too.

Birds need more human friends—especially young people. Helping a child forge a connection with nature is possibly the most meaningful thing anyone can do to help create a brighter future for birds. Fortunately, our BirdSleuth K-12 project has lots of ideas, practical advice, lesson plans, and kits to get you started. Even if you’ve never led a nature walk before, you can get kids excited about being outside and learning. Here are five quick tips:

Set Expectations—Positively
Expectations are crucial for you and for kids. Take some time to plan your outing so you know how far you want to go and how long you want to spend on activities. Depending on age, a half-hour could be a good target, and make sure it’s an adventure, not a forced march. Set some ground rules—but try to keep them from starting with “no.” For instance, “No yelling” could become “Explore quietly.”

Explore the Senses
Screen time gives kids lots of stimulation, but it’s mostly visual. Once outside, encourage your kids to close their eyes and focus on what they can hear, the smell of the fresh air, or the feel of the sunshine and breeze. Chances are, this will lead to questions and next steps.

Go Minimalist…
The fewer things a kid has to carry into the field, the more they can concentrate on observing. Binoculars can be difficult for young children to use and may fragment their attention. For older kids, stick with lower-magnification binoculars (8x or less); they’ll provide a wider field of view and will be easier to focus and hold steady.

More About 2018: Year of the Bird

Either way, start kids out with careful observation first—what happens when you melt into the background and let the animals go about their everyday lives? Later, you could challenge older kids to follow a single bird for a set time to see what they can learn about it.

…But Know When to Use Technology
Technology and nature aren’t incompatible, especially for kids born into a device-dominated world. A smartphone with our Merlin Bird ID app can help you and your kids identify birds and pull up song recordings to help you find out what you’re hearing. You can also load plant or bug ID apps, and take photos, video, or audio recordings of memorable or puzzling sights and sounds. The rest of the time, it’s tucked inconspicuously in your pocket.

Share Enthusiasm—It’s Contagious
Almost by definition, the first bugs, birds, or plants your kids see when they step outside will be the common ones. Even so, crows, jays, ducks, etc., are still likely to be brand-new to the kids, so look at them with new eyes. Ask the kids to imagine what the birds are doing and why—and get them to tell you what they find exciting, beautiful, or intriguing. You might be amazed at how insightful their ideas are.

Inspired? Our BirdSleuth K-12 project is packed with great ideas, from fun activities like outdoor scavenger hunts and bird bingo cards to full curriculum plans.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library