By Nan Mattingly
With the long end-of-year holidays, kids need healthy and fun activities, things they can do with their families and friends. If they’re visiting Florida in December, this is the perfect time of the year to introduce them to the world of nature. The weather is fine for all kinds of outdoor activities. And the four different CREW trail systems offer a variety of sights, sounds and experiences.
But some kids have little experience with the great outdoors. Worms, spiders and other creepy-crawly things may intimidate them. They may resist getting wet or muddy. And they might find trees, trails and rocks uninteresting. Given a choice between playing outdoors or playing a video game, some kids would opt for the indoor game.
Some kids just need an introduction to nature. They need exposure to the physical world in order to learn to be comfortable in it. The adults in their lives can show them how to love nature and be safe in it. Nature promotes healthy growth by encouraging kids to be active. It’s also good for their imaginations, stimulating curiosity by introducing them to new and different experiences. Just being outside in our gorgeous Florida winter weather makes everyone, kids included, feel better.
So how can you persuade your kids to come outside with you? We have some suggestions.
Prepare before you load up to hit the trail. Before you take the kids on a CREW hiking trail, share your own enthusiasm about what they might see, hear and experience in the woods. Keep your research simple, and note anything that seems to capture their interests. If they express an interest in spiders, help them do a little research to figure out where and when they might see a spider in the woods. Early morning sun at any of our CREW trails illuminates spider webs and makes them look like jewels adorning the bushes. Choose one particular web and study its construction with your kid, explaining how the spider builds its webs to capture its prey. The Green Lynx spider is a bright shade of green and can be found on many trails.
(photo of Green Lynx spider)
Tell your kid what he or she is likely to see in the woods. Here in Florida’s forests there are Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats and other mammals, as well as too many birds and insects to name. Address any fears they may express. You can explain, for instance, that Florida’s panthers and bears are shy and can smell you from a long way away, so it’s easy for them to avoid us. If your child is fascinated by panthers, bears and bobcats, show them how to look for the tracks of these animals on a muddy or sandy trail. We have a dazzling array of butterflies in Florida. The beautiful white peacock tends to fly low to the ground so they’re easy to spot. You may also be lucky enough to spot the striking zebra longwing, the Florida state butterfly. Show your kids the photos here and help them look for these colorful treasures in the woods.
Devise a simple game or set a few easy goals for your time outdoors. If your kid is reluctant to touch things in the woods, you can create a simple scavenger hunt that they can complete through observation. Give them a checklist to allow them to check off each item as they spot it. Keep it simple; don’t name a specific bird. Just list “bird” as one of the things they can look for. Other things you can put on the list: worm, bird’s nest, flower, animal track, and big tree. Or you could announce that whoever spots the first bird or butterfly during your outing gets a special prize.
Parents, prepare for your kids to play in the mud. Bring clean clothes, extra shoes and water to wash their feet.
Model good behavior for your kids. Explain the “Leave No Trace” principles to them and make sure you take any trash home with you. It’s important that kids learn to respect nature, so explain to them why we don’t feed animals in the wild. This is especially important in Florida where every pond or lake is likely to house an alligator or two. Feeding them destroys their natural fear of humans and encourages them to approach people. Alligators are fascinating to watch but teach your kids to do so from a distance. In Florida’s public parks and nature preserves, it’s illegal to pick plants or to remove anything, so encourage your kids to take photos instead of collecting wildflowers. Take the things you need for safety (bug spray, hat, sunscreen, lots of water) and explain why you’re putting them in your backpack. Let the kids choose a snack.
Before you go, take a look at the CREW website (CREWtrust.org) and decide which of our four trail systems would provide a good introduction to nature for your kids. The rainy season has ended and most of our trails are now dry. If you want to experience the magic of walking through a cypress forest on a boardwalk, consider Bird Rookery Swamp. The red trail at Flint Pen Strand offers easy hiking through pine flatwoods and a prairie where you may spot some deer or even a red-headed woodpecker.
Your child may be excited to get outdoors if you allow him or her to bring a friend. Recognize that kids usually walk at a slower pace than adults and allow them to linger over things that interest them. Most of all, enjoy yourself. Show your own curiosity about things you see. Your enthusiasm for nature in all its varied forms will be contagious.
At the CREW Project, we’ve got four different trail systems for hiking, biking, running and just enjoying the outdoors.