I was lucky enough to be a somewhat “free range child” of the late seventies/early eighties. My parents’ house bordered a state protected forest and I hold fond memories of summers filled with outdoor play – riding bikes, splashing in the creek, building forts in the forest, following a trail that linked my house with the elementary school playground.
Now more than ever, with the corona-virus limiting indoor activities, children need to get outside and explore. Preschools and childcare facilities currently in operation are maximizing their outdoor time for safety, while those that are operating virtually or closed for the summer are looking for outdoor inspiration to pass on to parents. A good picture book can offer just the right inspiration for nature exploration.
I read "The Listening Walk", by Paul Showers to my preschoolers at the beginning of every school year. While walking to the park with her father, a little girl uses her sense of hearing to “collect” sounds. We use the book to encourage the use of senses beyond just sight while out in nature and “collect” our own sounds on a hike through the woods. The children usually just call out sounds as they hear them, but a sound scavenger hunt would work as well. Children could be challenged to find sounds from the book as well as sound particular to their own forest, school or home environment.
Like "The Listening Walk", Daniel Finds a Poem, by Micha Archer invites children to take a closer look at nature. A young boy goes searching for a poem and learns that each animal he encounters finds poetry in something different. A spider finds poetry in the morning dew, for example, while a frog finds it in a cool pool of water. The book leads naturally to an exercise in perspective taking. Challenge preschoolers to think about what parts of nature are important to animals. Can they tell a story from an animal’s point of view?
"Roxaboxen", by Alice McLerran is another perennial favorite at Wildwood Nature School. A group of children use discarded boxes and other found objects to create an imaginary town in a vacant field. This book inspires my preschoolers to create their own shops and houses outside with sticks, rocks and other found objects. They visit each other and create elaborate pretend play scenarios.
My preschoolers love to act out books in dramatic play, and "We’re Going on a Bear Hunt", by Michael Rosen easily lends itself to a recreation in the woods. A family goes on a bear hunt, encountering obstacles such as, tall grass, a rushing river, and a snowstorm, along the way. When they finally come face to face with a bear, they run back through all of the obstacles until they are safe again at home. In the photo accompanying this post is a group of children (unprompted by any adult) carrying walking sticks and stopping at pretend “obstacles.” At each stop, the girl in purple mimicked a repeated phrase from the book, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it.” So, they went through it to the next obstacle. Of course, they found the bear and ran all the way home to pull the covers up over their heads!
Inspire children to do some gardening with The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown. In a gritty urban setting, rendered in dull brown and grey illustrations, a boy finds a tiny sapling. When he decides to nurture it with water and care, it spreads into a larger garden, changing the landscape around him and the outdoor activities of the other people in the city. Before diving into planting, let the children do some of the planning and dreaming about what kind of garden they would like to grow.
Suzy Lee is a master of the wordless picture book and Wave is one of her best. It is a simple story of a girl’s day at the beach, chasing seagulls, discovering seashells, and playing with the water as it ebbs and
flows along the shore. While a field trip to the beach, is probably not feasible, the story is an excellent introduction to water play. After filling in their own words to the pictures, children can experiment with the way liquids move, fill containers and change shape.
These are just a few of the many picture books that can inspire children to get outside and explore the natural world. Find one that speaks to your particular environment and see what the children’s imaginations deliver.
Wildwood Nature School