How to Take a Nature Walk with Kids

Young boy with a backpack walking in the woods.

Tom Werner / Getty Images

Crisp air, the scent of fresh rain, the melodic echo of birds reverberating off tall, lush trees—is there anything more serene than immersing yourself in nature? While we all appreciate the environment around us, today's digital age has us focused more on the glow of screens than the glow of a sunset.

The outdoors tends to take a backseat to our busy lives but making it more of a priority has significant benefits. In fact, one study found that spending just two hours per week exploring nature leads to better health and well-being.

If nature has the ability to improve the lives of adults, imagine what it can do for kids! A growing body of research suggests spending time in nature promotes better attention spans, self-discipline, creativity, physical fitness, and social connection in children. It can also help lower stress levels and make them more engaged in learning.

So, how can we ensure our kids are spending enough quality time with mother nature? One of the best ways is simple and fun, no matter their age—a nature walk!

To help explain the benefits of exploring nature, we've spoken with two experts on the topic: Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," and Suzanne Davis, a licensed professional counselor, registered play therapist, and owner of Davis Counseling & Play Therapy Center in Virginia.

What Is a Nature Walk?

Nature walks are an opportunity to relax, take your time, and explore the environment. "A nature walk is a great way to 'unplug,' observe, and explore nature while enjoying the outdoors," explains Davis. "There are endless possibilities to connect with your child by creating positive activities and memories together."

Rather than a one-way interaction with a phone or tablet, nature walks stimulate all of a child's senses and provide a hands-on approach to learning about the world.

Davis adds, "[It also] provides the opportunity to improve the parent-child relationship. Taking intentional time to de-clutter the mind means being fully present in the moment with your child without distractions, which renews the body and spirit."

Why Is Nature Important for a Child’s Development?

Not only is being outdoors fun for kids, but it also helps foster their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development.

Louv explains, "The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves, reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, [and] calm them and help them focus."

In his book, Louv introduces the term "nature-deficit disorder," which is a concept he speaks about internationally and defines as, "Not a medical diagnosis, but a useful term—a metaphor—to describe what many of us believe are the human costs of alienation from nature, as suggested by recent research."

Benefits of Exploring Nature 

Choosing to spend time in nature (rather than avoid it) comes with an array of benefits for children. Their physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being can be improved by something as simple as playing in their own backyard.

Outdoor time keeps kids moving and exercising, which reduces stress and fatigue while improving physical health. It also promotes creativity and imagination by allowing children to freely interact with nature in their own inventive ways.

Richard Louv

Time spent in nature is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control.

— Richard Louv

Of course, physical benefits are not the only ones nature has to offer. Outdoor play is a lot less structured than playing inside, which gives children more freedom to interact with the environment in their own ways (ultimately boosting their confidence). A review of the literature indicates that nature can also lead to better academic performance, increase interest and enjoyment in learning, and improve children's attention spans.

When it comes to social and psychological development, nature helps children become more positive, have a closer connection to nature (including a desire to protect it), and exhibit more pro-social behaviors.

"Time spent in nature is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control," he says.

Tips for Planning a Nature Walk With Your Child 

Any walk can turn into a nature walk as long as you're engaged and inquisitive about the things around you. What do you see? Feel? Hear or smell? What animals, plants, insects, and birds can you point out?

When it comes to planning a nature walk, the key tip to keep in mind is to have fun with it! Nature walks don't have to be complicated, Louv says. "If children are given the opportunity to experience nature, even in simple ways, interaction and engagement follow quite naturally."

The goal is to get them engaged and excited to learn, and that's not hard to do when you're surrounded by the beauty of nature. You can explore a park, hiking trail, creek, or your own backyard. Here are a few tips for planning your child's next nature walk.

Let Them Get Dirty  

If your little one is anxious to crawl in the dirt to get a better look at bugs, then go for it! Dirt might get a bad rap, but it shouldn't. Research suggests that kids who play in the dirt are exposed to bacteria, germs, viruses, and parasites that can help build their immune system and reduce the risks of certain allergies and illnesses later in life.

Have Them Lead the Way 

When it comes to younger children, Louv recommends giving them the freedom to explore in their own ways.

"Encourage them to stop to turn over rocks, touch moss, and, when they can, climb on and over rocks and fallen trees," he says. "Whatever the environment, which you assess for any unreasonable hazards, the toddler can set the pace—stimulating confidence, agility, problem-solving, creativity, and a sense of wonder."

Most importantly, don't let the digital world interfere with the experience. "Leave your cell phone in your pocket, ringer off," Louv suggests, "and point out objects or landscape features you see. This will help anchor the words to what is seen, felt, or heard."

Get Creative

Nature is the perfect setting to promote a child's creativity and imagination. Davis suggests pretend play, such as using a stick as a sword or magic wand, or making up stories about the items found during your walk.

Your findings also work great for an art project. "Collecting rocks while on your nature walk can later be painted and re-purposed as beautiful works of art," says Davis.

Create a Scavenger Hunt 

A scavenger hunt is a great way to keep the kids engaged and interested. "Before going on your nature walk with your child, collaboratively create a list of items on a 3x5 index card to be found on your walk, and have fun locating the items on your list," suggests Davis.

Scavenger hunt items also make great art supplies—for example, pinecones can become bird feeders or shells can be turned into decorative ornaments.

Let Older Children Be More Adventurous 

For the older kids, it's all about making a deeper connection with the world around them.

"With older kids, you can encourage them to connect with nature on a deeper level by exploring their senses," explains Louv. "Try having them walk barefoot on different surfaces to enhance the noticing of texture and terrain."

If you're feeling a little more adventurous, Louv recommends covering their eyes in order to focus on the remaining senses: "Blindfold kids and have them follow a rope through varied terrain in which they can smell, hear and feel things. Walk through the woods or a field, or along a creek, and have your kids report what they smell—then write it down in a nature journal."

Everyday Ways To Connect Children With Nature

While nature walks provide a great opportunity for children to explore the environment, there are other simple, everyday ways to keep them connected with nature. The best way to do this? Spend as much time outdoors as you can, even if it's just a walk down the street or relaxing on your back patio.

"Even in densely urban settings, nature can often be found nearby, somewhere in the neighborhood," explains Louv. "Connecting with nature can be as simple as planning regular walks around a local park, going on a picnic, or learning how to garden in containers on the back stoop."

A Word From Verywell

The power of nature can be felt even in the simplest of settings. By making a conscious effort to explore it, you and your children open the door to better health, new adventures, and irreplaceable memories.

"We all can create new natural habitats in and around our homes, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities, and suburbs," says Louv. "Even in inner cities, our children grow up in nature—not with it, but in it."

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