Let a child be the guide

Young ones can help find magic in nature’s simplest attractions


Bonnie Tawse

We often think we know what's best for our kids, whether it's choosing the foods they eat or the clothes they should wear each day. But sometimes parents need to take the lead from their children.

Appreciating nature and the seasons of the year is no exception. While parents, myself included, may plan elaborate trips to enjoy nature, kids see the beauty in nature right in front of them, from a line of ants to a leaf blowing in the wind. And that's just as magical and full of wonder for your little one as taking in all the gorgeous colors of the fall foliage. And so, in our family we now tend to approach nature as a wonderful gift that really is all around us, even in a big city like Chicago. Here are some of the ways we like to make the most of autumn:

 Beachcombing. This might strike some as odd, but autumn is when we love to explore and enjoy the beach-it's not nearly as crowded and the weather is perfect for lollygagging in the sand, collecting rocks and sticks, chasing gulls and constructing sand castles.

 Looking for leaves. It doesn't matter if you don't know the name of the tree they come from-having an emotional response to something in nature is more valuable than knowing a tree's Latin name. What's fun is to collect them and bring them home, lay them out on light-colored paper or fabric and simply observe their differences. For example you can compare the different shapes and edges (smooth vs. sharp) and sizes.

 Compare and contrast. Fall is the perfect time to pick a particular spot for recurring trips-visit now, then make a point of visiting again in the dead of winter, at the peak of spring and in the middle of the summer. We started this ritual sort of accidentally at the wetland at Gompers Park at Foster and Pulaski avenues in Chicago. We have now seen it on New Year's Day, when the leaves were bare and we could see the local muskrats' lodges, in the spring when the bullfrogs were starting to vocalize and in the summer when the prairie grasses were high and the monarch butterflies flew about. This fall we look forward to the grasses having turned gold and the enormous burr oaks starting to drop their funny "mossy cup" acorns. You never know what you'll find, and that's what is so great about returning to the same spot throughout the year.

 Watch the harvest moon. Mark the date of the harvest moon and make sure you take the entire family outside (no matter what the weather) to see it. This year it should come on Oct. 6. Ask your kids if the moon looks bigger and note its unique color.

 Search for bugs. Go outside, roll over a log and look for all the insect activity going on underneath the log and in the soil. You can simply observe or you can help your child catch a bug in a recycled jar or yogurt container. Look closely-does the animal have wings? What color is it? How many legs does it have (it might not be an insect at all but rather a spider or an arthropod)? Make sure your child knows that when you are finished observing the insect, it will be returned to its spot under the log, because that's its home.

 Look up. Take a walk around your neighborhood or over to the local park and look for abandoned birds' nests in the trees. Talk about their shape and size. You might also spot large, messy looking nests-these are squirrels nests called "dreys." You can ask your child about animal homes and even try to look for other signs of where animals might live.

 Look up even higher. Clouds are magical for children of any age. On a crisp day where there are clouds in the sky, find a comfortable spot to sit (or better yet, lay back) and look up in the sky. You can play the classic "I spy a ... dragon cloud" game or just simply watch and wonder. Check out a book from the library on cloud formations and do some informed cloud spotting.

 Collect objects from nature. For toddlers, you can collect a variety of objects and set them out for your little one to sort and explore as she sees fit. Sticks, rocks, reeds, leaves, pine cones, dried flowers and shells are all possibilities. One child might create a line of sticks while another might jumble objects all together. Make sure the items aren't too sharp and cannot be swallowed.

Remember, sometimes the secret to enjoying and learning is to rediscover the obvious and let your child be your guide. This I learned from my very literal 4-year-old: Fall is when the leaves fall. Now we go watch them, together.

Bonnie Tawse runs the Nature Oasis program with the Chicago Park District and lives in Chicago with her husband, Ted, and 4-year-old son, Sam.

Kids Eat Chicago

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