So, my last post was a nostalgic look at some of the ways I enjoyed the natural world as a child. Which was a fun romp for me, but maybe not so much fun for others. I think that "Guess you had to be there!" may be appropriate.
My point in thinking about those days, though, was to mentally move myself into thinking about how we can adapt the current reality to help today's kids have their own natural adventures.
So, let me start with today's current reality, as I understand it.
1. There is little free access to natural areas for most kids. If there are natural areas nearby, most parents are not comfortable with the kids being there unless there is a trustworthy adult along.
The photo below, actually of a local 5 year old high school "landscape," shows the current "classic" type of landscape available for kids to play in, complete with lots of well manicured lawn and a few young trees, carefully spaced far apart. There's absolutely no place for imaginary adventures nor are there even interesting things to observe.
2. Most families have both parents working to make ends meet. This cuts down significantly on the time that either parent can spend with their kids simply exploring outside, including going to those natural areas. This also means that no one has the time to fiddle extravagantly with a garden. Each weekend the yard care agenda is: mow, blow, and get back inside to the sports on TV as soon as possible.
3. Most yards are relatively barren...and boring: a lawn (see the photo above, because everyone has to have a lawn) which is kept mowed and treated with weed-control chemicals, so the neighbors won't get upset. If the kids are lucky, there's some sort of swing set or play equipment in the backyard. A tree or two is generally planted in the middle of the lawn, but it is pruned quite high up to allow easy mowing of the lawn underneath it. Any shrubs are usually foundation plantings, growing 3 feet or so from the foundation of the house. To add insult to injury, these foundation shrubs are often (prickly) evergreens so that the yard won't look "bare" in winter. Any insect seen, with a few exceptions such as ladybugs or monarch butterflies, is assumed to be a problem and becomes a reason to treat the lawn with insect-control chemicals.
So, given this trio of constraints, what can a parent do to encourage their child to interact with nature on his or her own? (Note: I am aware here that I am talking to/about people who own their own home, complete with a yard...or those who are lucky enough to rent a home where the landlord doesn't mind the tenants working in the yard, as long as they take care of it.)
Our society is what it is, so we need to accept that there are few natural areas where the kids can safely roam without our supervision. Nothing much an individual family can do about #1.
Economic realities are what they are as well, which means time constraints are what they are. BUT, there is a block of time already built in on a weekly basis for lawn mowing.... Could we do something a little different with part of that time? #2 has a small bit of possibility within it.
How we design and plant our yards, #3, has some distinct possibilities for individual change though. It doesn't take much to trigger a child's imagination. Here are a few basic ideas to transform your yard from boring to your own safe, natural playground.
How about converting one back corner of the yard to a shrub bed? The idea is to put in a couple big shrubs or small trees in a pattern that will create a central space, somewhat hidden, to become a secret fort or hideaway. Circles, if big enough, work well, but even 3 shrubs planted about 6-8' apart can be sufficient. I've seen this done very successfully here in Wichita with 'Little King' river birch, and I remember using cubbyholes in the landscape like this throughout my childhood. The trick is to trigger the child's sense of enclosure without completely screening them from Mom & Dad's watchful eyes. The photo above begins to capture the concept if you imagine finding a "secret space" between the big spireas and the side of the garage, although this bed was not designed with children in mind. (My dogs love that secret space, though!) Be careful not to choose prickly shrubs.
Plant a small tree or two (or even a big tree or two) on which you leave low branches, so that it becomes a climbing tree. Or plant a clump of trees to form a magic room. The redbud, pictured above, would be a great climbing tree if it were situated in a more child-friendly setting. Amur maples, too, can be encouraged to have open, child-friendly branching patterns. Black willows are good clambering trees, with fast growth and trunks that often become relatively horizontal with age. A standard apple tree is a classic climbing tree that also has flowers and fruit in season. (Just be sure, if there are junipers or redcedars around, to pick one resistant to cedar-apple rust.) Bradford pear, however, would not work well, as the branching pattern doesn't lend itself to climbing.
This clump of cottonwoods, if it were in a more private backyard setting, could provide hours of imagination-fueled play for kids.... And it's no more problem to mow around this group of trees than to mow around a single tree.
Make a small garden bed where you and your kids can plant a few vegetables and a few flowers. For starters, in this area you can....
...make a teepee of bamboo or straight dead branches, then grow pole beans on each leg of the teepee. If you leave one or two branches out on one side, this becomes a playhouse for the kids to use.
...plant sunflowers - big ones - that the kids can keep track of over the summer. Leave the flower heads on after they finish blooming. The seeds will develop (in cool geometric spacing) and goldfinch will come pick them clean over the winter.
...plant 4 o-clocks. These hardy, colorful flowers produce the coolest little seeds that look like small, black grenades.
Even more classic flower gardens can provide excitement for kids and adults alike. Here is a white lined sphinx moth nectaring at summer phlox blooms just 2 feet from our front porch. Watching a moth like this guy, it's hard to tell him apart from a hummingbird!
Hang birdfeeders and keep them filled with black oil sunflower seed during the winter. Be sure to put them somewhere they can be easily seen from the house, preferably from the kitchen table. Keep binoculars and a guidebook nearby so the kids can learn to look up birds for themselves as they get older, as well as learn to handle binoculars. There are basic 'Birder' binoculars available for about $30 from online sources, so you don't have to be too paranoid about the kids occasionally dropping them.
Throughout your yard, use as few insecticides and herbicides as possible. Let the white clover and henbit and dandelions grow in the (back) lawn. Then, with your kids, watch for butterflies and bees nectaring at the flowers. Examine a dandelion seed head up close for its beautiful design, then huff and puff and blow the seeds away on their little white umbrellas. Show your child how to make a necklace or a crown out of white clover blossoms.
Save a few plastic peanut butter jars that you've washed out and show your kids how to use them to hunt for caterpillars and grasshoppers and fireflies. (Just be sure to teach them "catch & release" habits.) Watching a grasshopper in the jar, they can see its jaws move side to side; with the firefly, they can see what the insect really looks like, then watch its abdomen glow right in front of them. If the kids catch a moth or a butterfly, they can see the long "tongue" rolled up like a New Year's Eve noisemaker...or, as in the photo of the great spangled fritillary below, looking like a straw stuck into a source of nectar or water.
The ideas are endless and, since it's your (safe) backyard, you can let the kids play with no more supervision than normal. While they play, they'll be learning without even realizing it. If you keep your eyes open, you'll be learning too!
Think globally, act locally. By creating little nature sanctuaries in our yards, we can help keep our neighborhoods and towns be healthier and happier...and our world a lot greener.