10+ Powerful Ways to Connect Kids to Nature, and Foster a Future for Wildlife


“We must teach our children to smell the earth, to taste the rain, to touch the wind, to see things grow, to hear the sun rise and night fall – to care.” – John Cleal

A connection with nature heals, inspires, entertains, and educates us. As beings bound up in and dependent upon natural systems, a connection to nature emphasizes the roles we play in them. Our modern world often severs that connection, distancing us from the natural world of which we are intrinsically a part. 

This has significant implications for how we engage with the natural world, including its wildlife, even those species beyond our immediate surroundings. The disconnection from wildlife and the natural environment impacts everyone, but it holds special consequences for children, particularly in how we educate them about the natural world and our management of natural resources, including wildlife.

In the words of Robert Michael Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”

To that end, our efforts in connecting children to nature has tremendous implications for the next generation of conservationists. Several of our most prominent wildlife conservation leaders began their journey with nature during childhood.

Eleven year old Theodore Roosevelt, who would become the 26th President of the United States and a champion of American public lands and conservation, found that his debilitating asthma attacks were aided by family nature hikes in the mountains.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and the figurehead of the ban on the harmful pesticide DDT, grew up learning about wildlife and plants from her mother on excursions on their family farm.

Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac and regarded as one of the fathers of the North American model of conservation, grew up hunting, exploring, and birdwatching with his father.

Connecting children with nature not only fosters play but also links them to the intricate web of life, promoting an understanding of ecological balance and their place within it. It instills an appreciation for wildlife and habitats, nurturing future generations of conservation leaders.

This blog post explores insights from two educators dedicated to bridging the gap between people, especially children, and the natural world.

Mary Bures and Lauren Daniel professionally connect kids to nature

Mary Bures (left) and Lauren Daniel (right)

Mary Bures, Vice President of Outdoor Engagement at NCWF, directs the Great Outdoors University, which dismantles barriers preventing children from experiencing and connecting with nature.

Lauren Daniel, recognized as Educator of the Year at NCWF’s Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards, serves as the North Carolina Project WET state coordinator for NC DEQ in the Division of Water Resources, where she facilitates programs that empower students and educators to understand and protect water resources.

Together, Bures and Daniel offer invaluable guidance on effectively engaging children with nature, shaping tomorrow’s conservation champions.

1: Find woods. Walk through them.


Walking through the woods with your child/children is a great opportunity for you to model specific behaviors that can help your child take on new situations. Be intentional about how you explore – look around, look up, stop and pause sometimes. Notice how often you speak – do you offer silence? How does the tone of your voice impact the tone of your experience? As much as you can, speak calmly, softly. If you feel the need to redirect your child’s behavior, try to do so with as few words as possible. 

One time I was hiking with my child while I had a lot on my mind and realized that I was unnecessarily correcting a lot of behavior. If your child isn’t hurting themselves, the environment, or putting themselves in danger – try to just let it go. Your child is watching you and how you manage risk assessment, uneven terrain, curiosity, and even just breathing – be intentional about how you model these things. 


Our city and county parks offer great opportunities to see animals in their natural habitat. For example, you may find a pond where children can observe tadpoles. Take them back there over time to see how the tadpole develops and grows into a frog. Ask them what they notice that is different about the tadpole. They may notice it now has front legs…then back legs… that it lost its tail, etc. This will help children understand natural life cycles. As you explore the natural world, there are many examples of animal life cycles to observe and talk about (i.e. frogs, birds, mayflies, deer, etc.). For example, you may install a birdhouse in your yard or find a nest in a tree or shrub and watch the mother sitting on her eggs, the eggs hatching, the babies growing and eventually leaving the nest, fledging, and learning to fly. Or you can install some pollinator plants in your yard and watch the butterflies, bees, and/or hummingbirds at work helping the plants to fruit, seed, and produce new plants.

2: Find Tokens


Turn any walk in to a child-guided scavenger hunt. Encourage your kids to find artifacts as you walk: cool leaves, unique rocks, beetles, and countless others items. While you don’t want to disrupt or remove anything, you should definitely take time to check these things out. You can turn this type of exploration into a game, too. Have the child close their eyes and place the item in their hands to guess what it is. 

We will sometimes do a “Pepsi Challenge” where we compare two items with questions like, “Which item would an insect like to live in? A or B?” These are simple conversation-starters, and there don’t have to be correct answers. You have the power to guide how your child thinks with the questions you ask; so if you’re trying to develop curiosity, ask them to think through the perspective of another animal. If you’re trying to develop focus, ask them to draw a small portion of the item in their journal and have you guess what the item is. Whatever you do with the tokens you find – leave them where you found them. 


You may begin a walk on a trail with an observation game. Since kids love games and challenges, you could try the “Un-nature Trail” game. In this game, you place items along the trail that do not belong (i.e. toy bugs, snakes, lizards, etc.) – some on branches, some camouflaged, and some obvious. Then have your children try to find things along the trail that do not belong there. This activity helps to build their observation skills, which are very important when exploring the natural world. 

You may also find a spot where they can stop and listen for a minute noting all the sounds that they hear. Encourage the use of all their senses (except taste!) when on your outdoor adventures. You may get a small collection of paint color sample cards to have on hand and have them try to find things in nature that match the colors.

3: Do Voice-Overs for all found critters


I’m not sure why I put this as #3 on the list, because it’s absolutely my favorite thing to do when I’m outside with my child (and even by myself!): take on the voice of critters and objects that you find. For example, once my son found an earthworm wriggling around in the dirt and picked it up. We had the best time speaking like the worm! : “Hey! Guys! When are y’all going to put me down! I was warm in that hole!” My son started laughing at the thought of the worm speaking to us and so the story progressed: “Hey! Can y’all put me down over here in that nice spot by the garden?” Before too long, my son was able to offer the critter-voice himself. It is a great way to help your child think about other’s perspectives – a true life skill. 

4: Pinch the soil and inspect


It’s easy to focus on all the “big stuff” when wandering outside, but sometimes I like to pause in the moment and explore the ground. When you are exploring nature with your child, take a moment to just stop, squat down, and use a stick or a finger to pull back the ground cover. Have your child gently “scratch” the surface of the ground to see what kind of soil is beneath the groundcover. I like to get a good pinch of soil and smell it. I know – that may sound crazy – but once you do it, you’ll want to do it every time you’re outside. I don’t wear perfume, but if they made a “Coastal Plain Soil” scent, I’d wear it every day. 

The cool part is to compare soil composition from one spot to the next. Is the soil holding water? Did you find the soil near a body of water? Are there trees nearby? Does the soil allow water to soak through it easily or is the soil really dense, like a clay? How might that impact what grows in that soil? 


Nature is everywhere. From the cracks in the sidewalks, balconies, planters, backyards, greenways, parks and nature preserves. Have fun exploring and observing changes over time. Plant a tree as a family and observe its growth and the animals that call the tree its’ home as you nurture and care for it. Plant some herbs, vegetables, and pollinator plants. There is a microcosm of life in a bucket of soil, decomposing log or leaf litter. Take time to discover the decomposers (you can remember it as “FBI”: the fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates/insects) that break down the dead leaves and trees and turn them into soil.

5. Ask intentional questions while outdoors


If you’re a licensed educator, then you’re already familiar with the value of intentional questioning. I hinted at this earlier, but how you ask questions shapes how your child develops critical thinking skills. Questioning should also align with their interests. 

If your child is really into Minecraft and you’d like them to work on making inferences, ask them what items in their surroundings would be good to include on a farm in Minecraft. Making inferences, summarizing, emphasizing cause and effect/compare and contrast, and using evidence to support claims are all standards addressed in reading comprehension – so make time to lay the foundation for these skills while you’re verbally interacting. Notice when the child hits a barrier, becomes frustrated, or is otherwise unsure of a response… because that could lead to unengaged behavior. Keep the questions as light as possible to maintain enthusiasm and offer encouragement.

6. Use Technology


Don’t be afraid of screens, especially if your child already interacts with them. Take pictures and videos with your phone for a post-exploration debrief or gallery-walk. My son loves watching the little montage that my iPhone puts together with photos from the day. That photo replay brings the adventure back into their mind and allows time for reflection. As you watch your video with your child, ask them questions like “What were you thinking about when you did this?” or “What do you think that tree was experiencing when he saw you walk past?” You can also play games with your phone’s camera. Allow your child to take a REALLY CLOSE-UP picture of an item and then you have to figure out what item is in the picture. 

Also in the realm of technology are scientific instrumentation and measuring tools you can use. You can always making a fun exercise with a ruler, thermometer, magnifying glass, and even a measuring cup. 

My favorite purchase was a $20 infrared thermometer. My child used it to look for the hottest/coolest surface as you walk around outside. I was surprised by how fascinated my 4 year-old was to “zap” various surfaces on a hot day to figure out where the hottest spot was (spoiler alert – it was on a black mailbox in direct sunlight!) on our street. We had a full conversation about the value of tree canopy coverage during hot summer days. 

Squirt a little water on the asphalt in the direct sun and watch it disappear- where did it go? This was not only really fun, but he also became confident with comparing decimals up to the nearest tenth! 

Install a rain gauge in your yard and monitor how much rain you receive. There are so many math standards that require a good foundation on reading measurements and making mental calculations, so there are really countless activities you can do with basic measurement tools. It’s not really about reading the measurements accurately, but rather the experience, confidence building, and understanding of quantitative measurements. This is also building the foundation for scientific reasoning – that is, using data to form conclusions.

7. Water Impacts


If you’re in a largely developed area with a lot of concrete and buildings, look for signs of water. This is a great time to look at how water flows on the surface of the Earth. Use vocabulary like “pervious,” “impervious,” and “erosion” because each of those words will likely be visible in a developed area. Look at how water flows around the concrete. Look for clues for how water flows – such as rugged, exposed dirt or plant roots. Gullies are eroded canals that channel runoff from rooftops or paved surfaces – ask your child if these are natural or created because of human activity? Are there pipes? Where do the pipes take the water? What would this space look like if people didn’t live here? What might the area have looked like 500 years ago? Also remember that the area you’re standing in is a watershed that drains to a river or creek downhill. Can you find the body of water that drains the area you’re standing in? 

Pretend to be a water droplet and just start walking downhill. If you see pipes or storm drains, trace their path. 

Remember: In North Carolina all stormwater is piped straight in to streams. The #1 misconception I find throughout NC is that stormwater is “filtered” before it flows in to a stream. If you see a storm drain, it flows directly to a nearby stream. There is no processing plant. So whenever you’re out exploring nature, if you see a piece of litter – pick it up! Litter can easily flow in to a stream during the next rain event. 


Kids love to explore creeks and streams so if you don’t mind them getting their sneakers wet and muddy – or if you have some rubber boots – head to a creek or stream with a clear plastic cup and an aquarium fish net and have fun exploring the creek! 

Some helpful tips: Check the area first to make sure it is safe and move slowly, trying not to stir up a lot of mud/silt because it makes it harder to find and see the animals. When you lift a rock, have your net positioned downstream to catch anything that may be under the rock, and be sure to put the rock back where you found it so as not to disturb the animals’ homes. After you have observed the animal in a cup or pan filled with creek water, remember to gently put the animal back where you found it so it can return to its habitat.

8. Incorporate vocabulary whenever possible and revisit that vocabulary after it has been introduced


There are entire books about effective vocabulary instruction. I’ll keep it simple here: spending time with your child is the best time to infuse new vocabulary into discussion. When you incorporate new terms into a conversation, your child builds confidence to use context clues to understand the meaning of new words. You can use new words by pairing them with familiar words, like, “Hey, check out how that pervious pavement allows the rain water to soak through it!” Or “The root system on this tree is very intricate, like a busy playground.” The more comfortable your child is hearing new vocabulary, the more confidence they’ll have to break words down or otherwise infer their meaning.


I have found that children can understand what animals need to live – food, water, and air. Children can grasp that the animal’s habitat is their home and that it therefore needs to provide food, water, shelter, and places to raise young. One way to explore animal habitats is with a scavenger hunt. Scavenger hunts can be general, or they can be themed so, for example, one could be focused on elements of a habitat for different animals. Depending on the age of your child you may use words, pictures, or a combination of both on the scavenger hunt and include things like a bird nest, rotting log, hole in the ground, creek, leaves with holes in them, nuts, fruit, berries, a snag, a hole in a tree… As the children find items, it is a great opportunity to reinforce that animals have different habitats; some live in water and others live on land.

9. Connect with what your child is interested in


My child loves Mario, so we compare insects to various characters on Mario Kart or other video games. Children learn more effectively when new information “attaches” or connects to something they’re already familiar with or – better yet – love. If you’re taking students out into nature, take a moment before the trip to “activate prior knowledge”. Find out what they already know, what they’re interested in, if they have any questions that they may wonder about. Incorporate what you find during that discovery throughout your interactions with them. If they love video games, ask them to compare and contrast what they see to their favorite video game. If they’re interested in sports, ask them to make connections with the ball field and the natural environment. Not only does this technique encourage engagement, it also validates their interests and builds trust – because you recognize their interests! Ultimately, this technique distinguishes your interaction from a presentation to an experiential learning opportunity.

10. Acknowledge and encourage appropriate risk-taking. 


Risk-taking is such an important aspect of development for children of all ages. I will never forget shadowing my son’s preschool teacher as a new mother. My son was just over 2 years old and I went for a nature walk with the class. I had all the materials to do a lesson about leaf-pounding, and my teacher-brain was focused on my lesson plan and pedagogy. However, as the small children approached a scoured stream bank with a shallow stream flowing through, I watched the teacher stand silently as children calculated a route to get to the bottom of a stream bank. I’ll never forget this moment because I asked her, “Aren’t you afraid they’ll fall in and get their shoes wet?” Her response was life changing. She shrugged and said, “They might, and it will be okay.” 

It was at that moment I realized that I needed to step back and get out of the way of my son’s learning. None of the children were in any danger of being hurt, they were all working together to get to the bottom of this stream bank, and they were all very engaged in the problem solving process. They were feeling dirt under their fingers, they were watching water meander downstream, they were finding insects working hard to build homes and find food – none of this can be taught with a book or a power point presentation. It was a profound reminder that my role as a parent was really to facilitate their engagement with the natural world. Moreover, as these students continue through their educational careers, they have these outdoor experiences onto which they can attach their future learning! These experiences will support a deep understanding for reading comprehension and mathematical reasoning – which are the foundation for academic success.


There are so many fun and lifelong memories to be made as a family in nature. So put on your sneakers, head out the door with your water bottles, and get started! Experiencing the awe and wonder of our natural world benefits one’s mind, body, and spirit.

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