Tiny Helpers, Big Hearts: Environmental Stewardship

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As educators we LOVE to talk about the many benefits nature has on children; they grow happier, healthier, and smarter. What we often don’t touch on is that nature, in turn, benefits from children. How can this be possible you ask? Well it all stems from love, a love for climbing on log towers, watching ants crawl, smelling flowers, building sandcastles, sorting leaves, and more! Experiences in and with nature at a young age helps foster a life-long relationship with the outdoors. As they connect with the natural world around them, children begin to develop environmental literacy and an understanding of environmental stewardship.

An environmentally literate individual is (in a nutshell) someone who has care and concern for the environment and environmental stewardship is taking those informed actions for the well-being of themselves, others and the natural world. These might seem like adult responsibilities but what better way to plant the idea than with nature play! During little ones’ explorations at LEAP we can observe their comfort and confidence grow as they actively learn how to connect, understand and enjoy nature with gentle hands and eager hearts.

Another way many families are supplementing their time in the outdoors is through volunteering! Whether that be at a local park, the forest preserves, or a farm, many volunteer groups and organizations are prepared to accommodate and welcome families with little ones. Volunteering can take on many forms, all that’s left to do is find the one that works best for your family.

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Tips for volunteering with little ones:

  • Contact the volunteer group: confirm accommodations for children.

  • Dress for mess: volunteering in the outdoors can be messy, make sure to dress in clothes that can get messy or can incur a rip or two.

  • Dress for the weather: as the weather cools down in Chicago boots, hats and gloves are coming out of storage.

  • Pack a snack: whether it be for a group break or for the ride home.

  • Pack a water bottle: some events might involve digging, lifting or walking, make sure to stay hydrated.

It’s highly rewarding to see little ones involved with caring for and protecting the outdoors alongside you, especially if it involves child-size tools and tasks. Once you’ve found a space that works for your family, make it a goal to return to volunteer there again. Returning to the space time and time again, your family’s relationship to the natural space becomes layered with different cherished experiences and memories.  

Volunteer opportunities around Chicago:

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“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart.”

–Richard Louv

Written by Brenda Rivera

Let's go for a walk!

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We have officially reached fall here in Chicago. While the temperatures may be high, there are other signs of fall all around us. Leaves are turning golden yellow and crisp red, squirrels are gathering acorns, and pumpkins are appearing on porches. With cooler weather ahead, it’s a wonderful time to head outdoors and explore. Are you ready for a nature walk?

Going on a nature walk with your child(ren) is an excellent way to inspire a love and appreciation for the natural world. Nature walks are as simple as they sound - but sometimes it can be difficult to know where to begin! While there’s no right or wrong way to do a nature walk, we wanted to share a few tips and ideas to get you started.


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  • Prep for the weather! Nothing ends a nature walk quicker than being too hot or too cold. So bundle up (or for now, leave the layers at home!) and pack a water bottle. When you’re comfortable, it’s much easier to focus on exploring!

  • Bring a bag! Searching for treasures is a wonderful nature walk goal. Carrying a bag allows you to collect colorful leaves, rough sticks, and smooth rocks. When you get home, place these items in your play area for further observation and exploration.

  • Choose a “theme!” If simply going outside and walking makes you feel unprepared (As an educator, I hate that feeling!), choose a simple theme to guide you as you walk. If you want to explore textures, bring a blob of play dough to create impressions as you walk. If you want to explore sounds, bring a toilet paper tube to help amplify all the sounds you’ll hear. You can look for colors, bugs, smells – the list is endless!

  • Use technology! What?! Technology in nature?! While technology can sometimes take away from time outdoors, there are many apps that can add to your nature walk. We’ve created a list of apps that we love – check them out!

  • Pretend you’re a scientist! This toddler-friendly field guide is perfect for any and all nature walks. Download it here and take it with to help you feel right at home in nature. Don’t forget your magnifying glass!

Nature walks can be anywhere – the beach, the zoo, down your block – and that’s what makes them so fun! We’d love to hear about your walks. Where did you go? What did you see? Let us know!

Written by Nicole Hodur

"Be Careful!"

We say it all the time—the words seem to automatically fall out of our mouths when we see someone, especially a child doing something we perceive as dangerous. Children hear the words so often they start to become meaningless. What are we really trying to say when we tell children to be careful?

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Risk is a part of childhood play. In fact, true nature play cannot be void of risks because risk is an inherent part of nature. As a child, taking risks allows children to match their skills with the demands of the environment. Can I balance on that log? What happens when my shoes are slick with rain? Am I strong enough to pull myself up onto that ledge without falling? A child that grows up in a risk-averse environment may grow up very timid and reluctant to take risks or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, may have difficulty judging a situation and put themselves in serious danger.

As adults, we can help children manage risky situations without removing the risk altogether. We can allow children to engage in healthy risk, guiding them using more specific words and phrases. Next time you want to say “be careful,” think about what message you want to share. “Backwoods Mama” created a list of helpful, specific suggestions:

Fostering Awareness of Body & Environment

  • Notice how… these rocks are slippery, the log is rotten, that branch is strong.

  • Do you see… the poison ivy, the hanging branch, the gap between those two rocks?

  • Try moving… your feet slowly, carefully, quickly, to the left.

  • Try using your… hands, feet, arms, legs.

  • Can you hear… the rushing water, the singing birds, the wind?

  • Do you feel… stable on that rock, the heat from the fire?

  • Are you feeling… scared, excited, tired, safe?



Encouraging Problem Solving

  • What’s your plan… for climbing those rocks, crossing that log?

  • What can you use… to get across, to reach that ledge?

  • Where will you… put that rock, place your foot?

  • How will you…. get down, go up, get across?

  • Who will… be with you, go with you, help you if?

 

Ways to help children navigate tricky situations don't end with the suggestions above. Next time you want to say be careful, try taking these steps in your head first:

  • Is the situation actually risky or is this just a perceived risk?

  • Does the child need my help or can they handle it on their own?

  • What can I say that will help them in this situation?


To learn more about risky play, visit our page.