Encouraging children to engage with nature

Content warning – violence towards animals

In previous posts I’ve mentioned that I believe the worldview of influential adults plays a large part in a child’s openness to engage with (or continue engaging with) the natural world.

In this post I will outline some of the ways that I attempt to encourage my three-year-old to develop a healthy curiosity and respect for nature.

I try to be extra intentional about this as some of the adults in my daughter’s life can be particularly negative about the natural world. So when my little one mentions that she went to see the bullocks and stroked them, or rode on her great-uncle’s horse, one of her trusted adults will inevitably remark “I would never do that, I’m scared of them” and then tell a story about someone being hurt by said animal.

Other adults are phobic about small frogs and will attempt to kill them on sight, and others who are not phobic will still ‘get rid of’ frogs in the house by throwing boiling water over them.

Trusted adults have also expressed the view that if a dog belongs to them then any violence they direct towards that dog is nobody’s business but their own. I sometimes wonder if there is a higher acceptance of cruelty towards animals here because violence towards other humans seems to have been normalised to a greater extent.

One of the comments I hear most often when a small child is anywhere near a dog is an adult promising the child, ‘vai te morder’ (it will bite you).

I have always attempted to teach my daughter to read dogs’ behaviour so she can make informed decisions about approaching a dog she doesn’t know rather than instil in her a fear of all dogs. My mother-in-law has four dogs and since we moved here a year and a half ago, my little one has interacted with them on a daily basis.

I am intentional in pointing out the dogs’ reactions to one another and reasons for that, and draw her attention to the physical clues and patterns. We then discuss the behaviour (stance, raised hackles, sniffing etc) of dogs we come across in the park or the street. I can’t recall a time I have seen a dog on a lead here and dogs in our neighbourhood tend either to be locked in their yards or are left wandering loose.

These young bulls would often come to the fence for a stroke

My daughter has always wanted to meet large animals and talk to them. Last year on our walks we were able to interact with young bullocks and horses over fences, and a goat with her kid and a number of horses loose in the road. It got to the point where my little one was convinced that all large animals would naturally want to meet her and be stroked. So I use these meetings to point out large animal behaviour as well to help her read the situation  and make her own judgements.

At this stage she is instinctively curious about all sorts of creatures we come across, including millipedes, soldier ants, larvae and all sorts of creepy crawlies I would rather not get too close to. But I don’t want my dislikes to inform hers so I attempt to interest myself in these creatures too.

With these smaller creatures I am wary about venomous varieties and as I don’t know very much and don’t really know how to start finding out about them, I leave any direct intervention to my husband and his family. I have been told that millipedes in the house must be killed otherwise they will crawl into your ears while you’re asleep but I’m not sure about the evidence for that so I tend to just leave them alone outside and carefully sweep them out the door if found inside. We popped into a school equipment shop recently and I was very pleased that when she got to choose some stickers as a treat she asked for the sheet with giant bugs and beetles on it.

I try to model lifelong learning to her as much as possible. So we talk a lot about looking things up when we don’t know the answers or if we’d like to learn more.

At one stage she was very worried about skeletons so, after I’d explained that skeletons hold us up, we had a look at some x-ray images of broken bones and full human skeletons and then she asked to see animal skeletons so found some of those too.

One of her books has an image of a badger fishing with a rod and a bear in the water and I explained that badgers don’t fish with rods in real life and bears do catch fish in rivers so we decided to look up some videos of that.

Recently my frustration with the messages she receives from the cartoons she watches pushed me to search for new ones. Her current favourites (PJ Masks and Paw Patrol) are overwhelming white and assign the majority of the action and heroism to the boys. I came across Tainá e os Guardiões da Amazônia (Tainá and the Guardians of the Amazon) which is positive for a number of reasons.

The protagonist is a girl, she’s indigenous Brazilian and every episode she has a quest to rescue or protect a different kind of animal in the rainforest, which she manages with the help of her friends (a porcupine, monkey and vulture).

Each episode seems to have a point (eg teamwork is good, being cross is fine but taking it out on your friends is not, catching and caging animals is not good) as well as introducing children to different animals (electric eel, pink dolphin, painted jaguar so far).

I would far rather that my daughter absorbed positive messages about a) indigenous people (last week when eating with her hands, she was told she was eating ‘igual índio’ (like an Indian), simultaneously othering and belittling indigenous peoples) and b) about girls as protagonists since up until now in games she has wanted to be Catboy, since he is clearly the leader of the PJ Masks group. Elevating an indigenous heroine who cares for animals and protects the forest is infinitely preferable.

I haven’t read The Nature Seed – How to Raise Adventurous and Nurturing Kids, which is out later this month, but it looks like it gives lots of tips and tools for encouraging children to engage with the natural world.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you have any suggestions for ways to encourage children to engage with nature?

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