Aging well: Connecting with grandchildren through nature

Resources

- Yampatika is a nonprofit environmental education organization in the Yampa Valley. For suggestions on age-appropriate outings or to check out a "family pack" filled with props for nature games, call 871-9151. Yampatika also hosts free guided hikes throughout the summer, as well as summer camps for children ages 5 to 14, starting June 29 (camps fill up quickly, fees apply). For more information, visit www.yampatika.org...>

- Trail maps and information also are available in the Forest Service building at 925 Weiss Drive (across from the Holiday Inn on U.S. Highway 40) in Steamboat Springs; 879-1870.

- Books: "Sharing Nature with Children," and "Sharing Nature with Children II," by Joseph Cornell, includes ideas for nature games; "Hiking the 'Boat II," by Diane White-Crane includes child- and family-friendly hikes in and around the Yampa Valley.

Tips for experiencing nature

- Don't worry about knowing names of flowers, trees, etc. Focus more on sharing thoughts and feelings.

- Be receptive to children and nature; seize natural experiences and children's reactions as opportunities to communicate.

- Engage children in outings by focusing their attention on interesting sights and sounds.

- Look and experience first, talk later; allow children to become absorbed in observation - children seldom forget a direct experience.

- Keep the occasion happy and enthusiastic so children remain engaged in the experience of watching and learning.

Source: "Sharing Nature with Children," by Joseph Cornell.

School almost is out for the summer, and that means many older adults are expecting visits from grandchildren.

While the prospect of spending a week or more with grandchildren can be a bit overwhelming, grandparents need only to look out their window for abundant opportunities to engage children's curiosity and create or strengthen a special relationship.

"There are so many exciting things to see when you go outside," said Elaine Sturges, a naturalist at Yampatika who specializes in educational programs for children. "Those shared experiences are what bond grandparents with grandchildren, and [children] remember that."

The gift of nature

Exploring nature with a child can be an incredible gift, especially if they are not often able to experience it because of busy lives at home or an urban lifestyle.

A child's interest in nature often is facilitated by a significant adult in their lives, said Sturges, noting that her own love for the environment was fostered by her mother's interest in birds.

"I see grandparents having a significant opportunity to be a person in their grandchild's life that connects them to nature," she said.

In a recent presentation, Sonja Macy's, executive director of Yampatika, noted that studies suggest a lack of outdoor opportunities contribute to problems such as obesity, attention deficit disorder and behavioral issues.

The link between environmental education and activity and a child's overall achievement is the impetus for the No Child Left Inside Act introduced in Congress in April.

If passed, the bill would provide funds for states to ensure that schools are able to include environmental instruction and learning activities into their curriculums.

A child's understanding of and interest in nature also can facilitate environmental stewardship, an important consideration in the context of climate change and other environmental concerns, Sturges said.

Inspiring wonder

Like nature itself, experiencing the environment with a child can take many forms, from simple nature walks and games with toddlers to wilderness hikes with older children or adolescents.

Chances are, a grandparent living in the Yampa Valley appreciates the nature, whether through activities or the serenity of being surrounded by beauty and open space.

Grandparents simply need to latch on to whatever makes them happy in nature to inspire wonder and interest in their grandchildren. Their enthusiasm will be contagious.

"Grandparents don't need to know the name of every flower or bird : what's more important is feeling, hearing and seeing," Sturges said.

In his book, "Sharing Nature with Children II," Joseph Cornell explains that children can become very absorbed in an experience and will learn much more from that than from talk.

"You can gain a deeper appreciation of an oak tree by watching how the tree's mood shifts with changes in lighting : Quietly sit on or under its branches, and be aware of all the forms of life that live in and around the tree and depend on it."

There are many parks and trails that make it easy to explore the outdoors with toddlers and young children. Sturges favors areas such as Yampa River Botanic Park and Butcherknife Creek because they are quieter areas with few or no dogs, bikes and other traffic.

The Carpenter Ranch/Nature Conservancy in Hayden is another great place to observe birds and other wildlife and enjoy peace and quiet. Less busy sections of the Yampa River Core Trail, Fetcher Pond, as well as trails in Steamboat Lake, Stagecoach and Yampa River State Parks are among other good options.

No matter the place, it's important to have hats, sunscreen, insect repellant and water handy, as well as snacks for extra fuel. Children and grandparents should wear sturdy shoes and be aware of the weather to avoid rain and lighting.

In addition to the essentials, backpacks also can include everyday items for nature games and activities. Sturges often carries paint color tabs from hardware stores, challenging children to find items matching the colors.

A simple piece of string laid on the ground serves as a "micro-hike," encouraging children to focus on nature's smaller intricacies.

"Sharing Nature with Children," includes ideas for age-appropriate nature games such as "wildlife mystery bags," which involve paper lunch sacks, each with a feather, animal pelt and other nature item. Blindfolded, children feel the items and try to guess the items' identities.

Grandparents can visit Yampatika to rent a "family pack" filled with these types of props.

For older children and teenagers, it's helpful to incorporate a bit of adventure, such as hiking, fishing, canoeing or horseback riding into nature outings.

Grandparents with less experience in these areas still can enjoy these opportunities with professional guides and groups. Yampatika, for example, offers free guided hikes throughout the summer.

Journals, flower presses and cameras are among items that older children can use to document lasting memories during these experiences.

This article includes information from the No Child Left Inside Coalition, www.nclicoalition.org.

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