Why Kids Explore Nature Better than We Do

Growing up I was under the impression that I was the best bug catcher at least in the U.S., and probably the world. I spent hours out in the backyard collecting potato bugs and other crawlies. I dabbled in fort building, leaf collecting and what I thought was a game at the time but now understand to be weeding (thanks, Mom). I had the opportunities and encouragement to be an avid explorer, and I suppose I just never stopped.

My way of paying it forward has been to connect youth with nature and make it accessible to as many kids as possible. Here in DC, I’m accomplishing that as a leader for Inner City Outings (ICO), a part of the Sierra Club that engages inner city youth in outings to go hiking, camping, canoeing, etc. I leave each outing with a new understanding of how to be an effective outdoor leader, and I do most of my learning from the kids.

On a recent overnight camping trip with ICO middle schoolers I decided that kids are much better explorers than adults.

The eagle egg they found.

First, they ask a lot of questions. After our Saturday afternoon canoeing trip the kids came up to me and asked what kind of egg they found. I didn’t know the answer to their questions, but I didn’t want to discourage their inquiry. I guided the questions so that as a group we could determine what kind of egg it was. Which animals lay eggs? Do you think the bird is big or a small? This process, along with a field guide, helped us determine it was likely a bald eagle egg that had fallen from the nest.

My kids holding the snakeskin.

Second, they take time to really observe nature. While digging holes for our tree planting on Sunday, I looked around and noticed there weren’t any kids around me. I stopped to find them, and couldn’t help but smile. One was crawling around in the grass looking at a beetle, another had found a 4 foot snake skin, and two others were huddled over their freshly dug holes with earthworms squirming in their hands. The adults were so caught up in the tree planting we forgot to stop and observe the wonderful nature around us, but the kids took the time to explore.

Kids are incredible explorers because ask questions and take time to really observe nature – two things that are lost in a fast-paced world teeming with stimuli that we are eventually conditioned to ignore. As outdoor leaders, it is our responsibility to encourage questions and participation in the process of inquiry, instead of just giving answers, and to allow kids the time to stop and play. I learned the importance of going slow on hikes and giving youth unplanned time to simply explore nature.

The kids learning how to plant trees.