Alex Brooks wrote this story about getting kids off the couch and active in the great outdoors for the Australian Women’s Weekly.
TV is not really an enemy. It’s more like a time-sucking device that can weld a child’s backside to a couch, forcing them to miss out on the excitement of nature, says early childhood educator Rosana Nemet.
“Motivating kids from a young age to get out there and watch the sun set or to see a flower that’s bloomed is the best way to show them,” says the mother to three boys aged between four and nine.
“If they don’t start young, they just find it all boring by the time they get older and TV will win.”
Rosana and her horticulturalist husband Roger Cameron are passionate about helping children see the beauty and joy of nature – and firmly believe that parents, grandparents, friends and babysitters can help ignite that passion.
“It really is the simple things like just having a picnic in your backyard or doing a project in the garden that works,” Rosana says.
“Parents have to get outside to show their kids the joy.”
The couple, who have written a book called Outdoor Kids to showcase exciting ways for kids to interact with nature, say the following activities can help busy parents brainstorm new ways to love being outside.
Rosana says parents should get to know their kids and understand their interests and personalities before embarking on plans to oust their children from the lounge room forever.
“It really is a matter of finding what interests them, and then you don’t have to do anything at all except watch them,” she says.
“Our oldest son seemed to have a bit of a thing for rocks. He loved them. So we showed him how to build his own rock sculptures and then we showed him how to make his own ochres and paints by grinding the rocks.”
Roger says children don’t have a long attention span and parents need to understand that kids might not like the first activity you suggest – but will happily wander off to find what they do like.
“I was trying to show my kids how to pot some plants but they preferred just playing with the soil – so I let them do that. At least they enjoyed it,” he says.
Roger says children’s favourite garden activity is helping. Yes, it does seem like an anathema to parents, but apparently children genuinely do enjoy helping in the garden.
“I just ask my kids to carry a watering can or bring me a garden stake – little things that they can do easily,” he says. “It involves them and keeps them interested.”
If all else fails, go for dirt. Digging in the dirt. Putting dirt in buckets. Or just plain rolling in the dirt.
“Kids love anything dirty,” Roger says.
“You have to tell yourself not to be precious and just accept it.”
Rosana says she hasn’t found many children who don’t enjoy putting a spade in the dirt and “digging for creepy crawlies”.
“I love to explore things in the garden. Find some worms and show the kids how they break things down and enrich the soil,” she says.
“Or find a snail trail and see where the snail went – or follow the ants back to their nest.”
If the dirt doesn’t get them interested, then critters usually will.
Most garden-loving adults know the joys of a compost heap, but did you know that kids love them even more? No, not to play in.(That really would be taking this outdoors thing too far.) Kids enjoy the daily rituals of composting, according to Rosana.
“We get our older kids involved in chopping up the fruit and vegie scraps that we will put in the heap, and then when the bucket we keep inside is full, the kids take it down to the heap outside,” she says.
“We also get them to give the heap an aerate or whatever. And while we do it, we explain why compost is so good for the garden and the kids can actually see for themselves how things break down and return to the earth.”
Planting a kids’ garden is one of the best and most exciting ways to spark a love of nature – but don’t expect instant enthusiasm.
“You need to plant things that are quick to grow because a week is a long time to a child and they can easily get bored,” Roger says.
Roger suggests that people who are lucky enough to have large gardens try growing cucumbers, pumpkins or potatoes as they are fast-growing and rapidly bear edible vegetables. He says peas and beans are also fast-growers.
“If you’re lucky, they might just eat their vegies, but don’t get too enthusiastic,” Roger jokes.
He also suggests growing Australian native wattles from seed, as the plants change rapidly as they mature.
“I was showing my oldest the juvenile leaf of the wattle and just the other day he came to me and said ‘Dad, look at this juvenile leaf’ – it was all very funny to hear my words come back to me,” he says.
This article was first published in Australian Women’s Weekly