My family loves spending time in the outdoors. After busy days at work, school, and moving through the daily hustle and bustle of life, there’s an urge to escape and get back to nature. A call to the wild, you could say.
Trekking through the forest, discovering a new trail, or watching the kids run wild and free, there is no doubt that nature is healing.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve set a family goal to visit as many national parks as we can. Our kids take part in the junior ranger programs and have the privilege of meeting the park rangers that work tirelessly to protect our landscapes and wildlife.
The kids have learned about animals, plants, trees, and how to preserve our natural treasures. So far they’ve each earned five badges, one for each park we’ve visited.
The reason I share this is that recently, I came across this picture book titled: OLIVER THE SECOND-LARGEST LIVING THING ON EARTH by Josh Crute and illustrated by John Taesoo Kim. Not only is it beautifully illustrated, but it’s a story inspired by nature.
Age Range: 4-8
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Synopsis: A tree named Oliver is tired of being the second-largest tree. He stretches his limbs in winter, lifts logs in spring, soaks up the sun in summer, and munches on mulch in autumn, trying to grow big enough to be noticed. Until he discovers that he’s been a part of something much larger, the Sequoia National Forest.
It’s a humorous story with a lot of heart, and there’s an excellent note at the end about the Sequoia National Forest and other second largest things in the world.
It’s a great reminder for children that you don’t always have to come in first. In fact, being second is important, too.
“Mom, what are those big white things?” my daughter asks while peering out the window as we drive through the grassy plains of the Midwest.
“Those are wind turbines. The wind helps make energy which gets turned into power. Like the power that turns on the lamp in your room or the lights in the house.”
Immediately following my explanation came the rounds of questions that spilled out of a curious five-year-old’s mouth after being told that a giant monster-like structure uses wind to create power. It is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Our conversation ignited a critical discussion that my husband and I felt we needed to start sharing with our kids about caring for our environment. How can we instill in them an appreciation and respect for the natural living life around them? After wrestling with this big idea, we finally realized the answer is a lot simpler than we thought: It’s about giving our kids opportunities to interact with nature starting at a young age.
What better way to explore this idea than by visiting and discovering the national parks across the United States and exploring the incredible landscapes of our country? With a map of the U.S. displayed in our family room and pins to mark our destinations, we were ready to explore the history, nature, and learn all about the preservation of our land and animals as a family.
With over fifty national parks spread across the U.S. and nearly 300 million visitors each year, these natural wonders can be a cornerstone in the way we address environmental topics with our offspring. The big question is, where do we begin?
My family and I found ourselves beginning our journey by trekking through the rough and jagged trails of the Badlands in South Dakota, witnessing the damaging yet, renewing effects of a natural forest fire that had happened near Jewel Cave National Monument. The charred, black trees were the only remains of what once existed in a dense forest. Through the chaos of fallen branches and rotting trunks, sprung new life. Peering through the now open land, flowers and grass were slowly taking the place of what was once alive. This moment sparked an organic conversation about the dangers and causes of forest fires, but also how they can stimulate new growth.
My husband and I realized the value of teaching our kids about the magnitude of our actions on the ecosystems around us. While hiking on the paths in Yellowstone National Park, our children would discover a leaf or interesting rock along the way. To a young intrigued mind, this made the perfect souvenir to bring home and show friends. However, this proved to be another teachable moment as we explained the importance of leaving nature where you found it.
Kiersten Einsweiler, blogger and fellow adventure seeker from Hiking In My Flipflops, shares how she and her husband have helped their children to develop a deeper understanding of nature’s inhabitants: “We had a recent run-in with a snake on a trail, and my daughter was absolutely terrified – screaming and crying for a good part of the hike back. On the drive home, she thought maybe the snake was actually a ‘kid just like her’ and was just as scared as she was.”
With her children making this connection, Kiersten goes on to say that she believes her children see the “parallels” between how we respect human beings and living creatures and how nature is the “…home and space of a plant or animal.”
Our kids’ favorite experience on our life-long grand adventure was taking part in the National Park’s Junior Ranger program. Over the years, this program has evolved and now includes national monuments, with many being managed by the park service.
Their motto, “Explore, Learn, and Protect,” quoted by the many children sworn in each year, couldn’t be more true. With the typical participant age being between 5 and 13, our daughter could take part. Our son, who is three, was able to participate in the Pee Wee Ranger program offered at Jewel Cave National Monument located in South Dakota’s Black Hills. We have found that regardless of age, all children are encouraged to take part in their programs. Making our way to Glacier National Park in Montana, our kids were equipped with various tasks in their Ranger booklets and prepared to earn their badges. Marveling at the giant “monsters of ice” as our son called it, we talked about the correlation between human activity and rising temperatures leading to shrinking glaciers. Next up? Yellowstone, the world’s first national park located in Wyoming. It is known for its geysers, mountain beauty, and hundreds of animal species. With nearly 4 million people visiting the park, there’s bound to be garbage left behind. After picking up bits of trash found tumbling along the backcountry trails, my husband and I showed our kids what the saying, “Whatever comes in, must come out” quote truly means. Along with Yellowstone, the national park service has made a concerted effort to become more sustainable based on the changing climate, and the impact visitors have made in the parks. Putting this into perspective, Isle Royale, a remote island in Michigan only accessible by plane or boat, spends $15,000 a year removing guests’ trash. This issue is one my husband and I feel we need to bring to the forefront of our children’s minds. Being respectful of the land, which means cleaning up after ourselves so other’s can enjoy it’s beauty too.
Providing tangible dialogue relevant to our future existence, there is a wealth of information to be shared with our little ones. For example, restoration of the Redwood forest, the impact tourists have on soil erosion in Zion National Park, or how trails protect naturally growing plants. And let’s not forget the increased water and air pollution in the Great Smoky Mountains. How about the encounter of non-native species causing detrimental damage in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park? These are the real-life experiences exposing the significance as to why we must protect these precious resources.
Looking back, we’ll never forget the moment they raised their right hand and promised to preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them. From exploring the third largest underground cave to hiking, observing, and identifying animal hides, our children were sworn in and declared lifelong Junior Rangers. The quest to accomplish this noble deed and earning a badge to commemorate this momentous time will forever live in our hearts.
In the words of songwriter Woody Guthrie, “From the Redwood Forest to the gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me.” As we move into the 21st century, our world continues to change along with its environmental issues. Taking the time to search out destinations that satisfy our lust for adventure and thirst for knowledge, let’s continue to bring awareness to our children who will pass it on to future generations.
I always find it interesting seeing what kind of books my children pick out from the library. But sometimes, I like to encourage them to find something connected to what we’re learning about as a family. For example, our goal of exploring all the national parks (we’ve visited 7 so far!) and as part of this journey, talking about the environment and animal conservation.
My kids like to mix it up. A little non-fiction and fiction. Believe it or not, even with fiction stories there are lots of ways to apply them to real-life conversations.
Hold up. Before placing the newly minted children’s book on the counter at the bookstore, you might want to take a peek inside first. Look at the illustrations. Are they colorful and bright? Do they show more than one thing happening on a page? If so, put it down for second and listen up.
A new study published in Infant and Child Development shares how a group of researchers from the University of Sussex found that having more than one illustration on a page can result in poorer word learning in preschoolers.
That sound a little strange? Don’t kids enjoy reading stories with pictures? Yes and yes, but to a point. The researchers are saying that a younger child viewing a page with more than one illustration or reading a book with flaps, make it more difficult for them to follow. Essentially, there’s too much going on to focus.
Co-author of the study Dr. Jessica Horst said, “…this is the first study to examine how decreasing the number of illustrations increases children’s word learning from storybooks.”
For the study, they read three stories from a set of storybooks to a group of three-year-olds. The first book had one page of illustrations, and the other page was blank. The second story had illustrations on both pages, while the third had one large illustration. What they found was that the children learned twice as many new words after reading the book with a single picture on a page.
Does this mean you need to go through your child’s bookshelves and start cleaning house? Not exactly. In a follow-up study, they found that merely pointing to the illustrations on the pages with multiple images before reading was more beneficial when guiding the children to learn new words.
“Our findings fit well with the Cognitive Load Theory, which suggests that learning rates are affected by how complicated a task is. In this case, by giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words,” said Zoe Flack, Doctoral researcher and co-author of the recent findings.
In addition to reading stories with fewer illustrations, how about the many times your child begs for you to read the same story over and over again? Believe it or not, it may not be a bad idea to listen. Horst shares that after reading the same story multiple times, the child gets something new out of it. For example, the first time they are just enjoying the story while the subsequent reads they begin to notice details and listen to the words being said.
The silver lining in all of this is just to keep reading to your children. By exposing them to texts and sharing the love of reading with them is a gift in itself.
“Poopy brain!” your child yells at his little sister. Before sending the tyke to time-out for having a potty mouth, he may be onto something. Of course not literally, but a new study from University of North Carolina School of Medicine is finding connections between the yucky mess found in your child’s diaper to their future cognitive abilities. This isn’t to say you should study every lump and color (sorry, TMI) of your child’s fecal masterpiece, but know a scientist does.
The first year of a child’s life is critical in not only brain development but gut establishment as well. Looking for a possible connection between the two, Ph.D. Rebecca Knickmeyer, an associate professor of psychiatry, and a team of colleagues from the UNC, decided to take a closer look at the bacteria found in dirty diapers.
First, the team took fecal samples from nearly a hundred one-year-olds. A year later, using the same group of children, they conducted a series of cognitive tests that measured fine and gross motor skills along with perceptual abilities and language development.
Before I tell you the results, let’s review a quick science lesson about the microscopic powerhouses called microbes.
Microbes are in the world around us and within your body. In fact, your gut holds massive amounts; we’re talking trillions, of microbes that live in a little community called a microbiome.
What they found was vastly different compared to their hypotheses. “We had originally predicted that children with highly diverse microbiomes would perform better–since other studies have shown that low diversity in infancy is associated with negative health outcomes, including type 1 diabetes and asthma. Our work suggests that an ‘optimal’ microbiome for cognitive and psychiatric outcomes may be different than an ‘optimal’ microbiome for other outcomes,” says Knickmeyer.
In the end, what are we learning? Alex Carlson, an MD/Ph.D. student in Knickmeyer’s lab and first author of the research, says that while there is a lot more tests needed to be done before suggesting that everyone take a particular probiotic to create more healthy bacteria, there are some key things for sure. These results are opening up more areas for testing including the effect these tiny creatures may have on the emergence of social skills and anxiety. Also, how we may be able to guide the development of your microbiome to help diminish cognitive and language problems in children.
Knickmeyer concludes that “How you guide that development is an open question because we have to understand what the individual’s microbiome is and how to shift it. And this is something the scientific community is just beginning to work on.”