BY RICHARD LOUVE
“Grandparents can play a special role in connecting kids to nature. We now know, through burgeoning research, that nature experiences offer special benefits to children. Among them, reduced symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, better cognitive functioning and creativity, more robust physical health, stress reduction and mental health — less loneliness and more joy.
The good news for grandparents, or any adults who introduce children to nature, is that they receive all of the same benefits that their grandchildren or children receive from nature experiences. Not only children have what I’ve called nature-deficit disorder. Adults do, too. I believe that people of grandparenting age have a special responsibility to the next generation. Grandparents tend to have more practical experience in connecting to nature than their own children do. Baby Boomers, for example, are more likely to have pitched a tent, built a treehouse, or even go fishing. This history of direct experience in nature isn’t true of all grandparents, of course. But so often, those of us of grandparenting age do have the time, money, and memories that parents may not.
Most of us can recall a time when it was considered normal and expected for children to go out in the woods or a field and watch the clouds move, listen to the wind, and to feel a part of the larger family of animals. Because we can remember that time, it’s doubly important that we act — that we not take that experience and those memories with us when we leave this Earth.”
CALL IN THE REINFORCEMENTS: GRAND IDEAS FOR GRANDPARENTS & GRANDFRIENDS
Grandparents and grandfriends (that’s what children and nature advocate, Avery Cleary, calls older people who act as surrogate grandparents) can play an important role in connecting children to nature. They often have more free time, or at least more flexibility, than parents do. Also, many grandparents (one in ten in the United States) are raising a grandchild, according to a Pew Research analysis.
“A growing body of scientific evidence links healthy aging to outdoor experiences…”
Grandparents and grandfriends seem younger these days. Many are, certainly in spirit. But sometimes the new sixty-five is, well, the new sixty-four.
So health is on the mind. Here’s some good news: a growing body of scientific evidence links healthy aging to outdoor experiences, which add value to exercise, improving sleeping patterns, speeding recovery from injuries, reducing pain, and helping maintain brain function and memory. Residential developers already know that retiring baby boomers appear to prefer hiking trails to golf courses. Later, when choosing a long-term care facility, picking one with more nature in and around it helps (and some are taking biophilic design seriously).
All of this helps us age more gracefully, but nothing rejuvenates many of us quite so much as connecting the young to nature, through our families, volunteer programs at parks, religious or service organizations, and conservation groups. Not only do kids quicken the pulse, but they offer immeasurable ingredients to health and happiness: social contact, meaning, the infusion of wonder, to kids and adults, of every age.
Keep it simple, especially at first.
Barbara R. Duncan says she takes her three-year-old grandson outside to “do small things . . . that capture his attention, like picking up rocks . . . and feeding the ducks.” Jeffrey Willius advised, “It’s the very simplicity that stymies some folks. My own grandpa would plop me down on the lawn, turn on the hose, and have me watch for night crawlers to be flooded out of their burrows. Then we’d go fishing.” A twofer.
Create a grand garden.
“From an early age, I remember being in the garden with my grandparents,” writes Penny Ellis Maurer, “weeding, watering, learn- ing . . . Then the fruits of our labor were brought into the kitchen where I learned the finer points of canning, preserving, and preparation from my grandmothers. It’s the joy of sharing it with someone that makes it special.”
Pack a Grand G.O. Bag.
Marti Erickson stashes two or more daypacks in her trunk, filled with binoculars, extra jackets, and nature guides for sudden getaways with her granddaughter. She also makes a practice of keeping two collapsible chairs in her car trunk. If she’s having a particularly stressful day, she drives to the closest patch of nature, sits on one of those chairs, and is soothed. “My oldest grandchild likes nature breaks, too, and joins me when we’re out together.”
Tell the grandkids about your own childhood nature adventures.
That time you saw a mountain lion, the fish that got away, your own three-story treehouse. Ni Ke, a mother who lives in Tonga, describes how her eighty-four-year-old mother “tells her grandchildren the songs they sang” in hard times, and the simple skills they learned, including “how to make garlands and how to keep pressed flowers.” Ni Ke’s father told his grandkids “about riding from his village in the mountains in Cyprus on a donkey to help work the fields,” and he taught his grandkids how to cook outside. In addition to relating stories orally, grandparents can make a video or audio recording or write and share stories about their experiences.
Purchase a senior park pass.
State and national parks and national wildlife refuges are eager to see you. In fact, the National Park Service offers a lifetime pass to people age sixty-two and older. That’s a deal, especially if you’re entering a park by car with children under sixteen. They get in free, too.
Grandparents and grandchildren can learn a new outdoor skill together.
It’s never too late to learn to camp or hike. Take a tracking course together. Sign on with a dinosaur dig. Ni Ke’s sister, age fifty-eight, recently “learned to ride a bike herself” alongside her four-year-old granddaughter. “That’s something they did together.” (Interesting factoid: today, because fewer people learned to ride bikes when they were kids, REI is providing bike-riding classes for adults.) Ask your grandchild about snowboarding. Be brave.
Start a grandparents group.
Join or start a Grandparents or Grandfriends Nature Circle to overcome your own nature-deficit disorder. A Nature Circle is similar to a support group, but more fun and without the whining.
Invite the grandkids over for a backyard campout.
You’ll not only be helping your grandkids; you’ll be giving their parents some private time to spend as a couple.
Respect family boundaries.
A cautionary note about family dynamics: depending on the situation, grandparents should take care to offer nature experiences in a way that supports parents. Multigenerational outings of the whole family often work best. You’re the mentor, not the boss.
Pass nature forward.
Boomers could be the last generation to remember a time when it was considered normal and expected for children to play in the woods and fields. When we leave this earth, will the memory of
such experiences leave with us? Reconnecting the young to the natural world (as we reconnect ourselves) could be our greatest, most redemptive cause.
Click here to get GRAND IDEAS! 21 great ways grandparents and grandfriends can connect kids to nature
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Louv is an American nonfiction author and journalist. He is the founder of The Children and Nature Network and best known for his seventh book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. His newest book Our Wild Calling will be out in November.