Out My Backdoor: Connect Kids to Nearby Nature

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse


By Terry W. Johnson

The spread of COVID-19 is having an unimaginable impact on our lives. In an effort to stave off the spread of this dreaded disease we are being asked to make major changes—changes that are challenging for adults and children alike.

During this time, I am certain we are all looking for ways to fill the void created by not spending our leisure time away from home. With that in mind, I would like to suggest a worthwhile endeavor that you and your family can do together.

For decades, those of us who are interested in the natural world have lamented that studies have shown children rapidly losing touch with nature. Experts believe one of the major contributors to this disconnect with nature is that young people spend little time outdoors. One study revealed that the average American youngster spends in excess seven hours a day with their eyes glued to a TV or other electronic devices. In comparison, they spend only four to seven minutes outdoors.

It is widely believed one of the ramifications of this disparity is the inability of youth to identify the plants and animals that live in their neighborhood. This belief was corroborated by one study in which researchers found that an average 10- to 14-year-old cannot identify 10 native plants growing nearby but can recognize 1,000 corporate logos.

If you are concerned your children have what conservation educators often call “nature deficit disorder,” why not make use some of the extra time we all will be spending at home during the coming weeks to encourage an appreciation for nature? There is no better place to begin this journey of discovery than outside your door. Because many Georgia yards (and even greenspaces at apartment complexes) are home to an amazing variety of plants and animals, they make ideal outdoor classrooms.

Fortunately, spring is an ideal time to be outside. The weather is pleasant and populations of biting or stinging critters are low. It also is a season of great change. Some plants are just emerging from their winter slumber while others are blooming or beginning to leaf out. Birds that wintered alongside our resident bird neighbors are leaving while birds that spent the winter well south of the U.S. border are just beginning to arrive. And with each passing day, more wild pollinators and other insects are emerging. Each of these organisms is truly fascinating in their own right.

If you decide to lead your children on this adventure, it is important that you approach your role as mentor brimming with enthusiasm. Do not be concerned that you cannot identify everything you will encounter on your backyard forays: Nobody can. Just be forthright and tell your children that you are going to explore this amazing diversity of life together.

More than likely you already have many of the things you will need, such as a pair of binoculars, a notebook, camera (cell phone cameras work fine) and a magnifying glass.

I cannot overemphasize that when trying to find wildlife, it is important to move slowly and silently. Refrain from making rapid movements. Stop often and look closely all about.

When searching for plants, keeps your eyes peeled for even the smallest plant. For example, violets and bluets are currently blooming in my yard. Although both plants have breathtakingly beautiful blooms, because they are so tiny, they are often overlooked.

Encourage your children to photograph the various plants and animals they encounter. I am amazed with the quality of photos that can be taken with smart phones. These photos will be helpful when trying to identify your discoveries later.

A good way to begin is to take your children on a walk around your yard. Point out the diversity of life that lives there. I am certain most young people have no idea how many different critters and plants live so close to them. If a child shows great interest in one of the animals or plants, focus your efforts on it.

If you are looking for outdoor activities that might be interest, the Internet is awash with sites featuring an amazing list of activities that can be carried out in backyards. Here is a brief sample:

  • GoExploreNature.com offers 10 teachable moments in your backyard.
  • Birds often captivate the imagination of children. The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s website, www.massaudubon.org, sports “Our Feathered Friends,” a guide for teaching ages 3–5 about birds.
  • The Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife has a page packed with nature activities for families.
  • Kids love to collect insects; however, sometimes these six-legged critters are difficult to identify. BugGuide.net is a great resource for identifying insects. The site has photo galleries of insect groups, including photos submitted by the public and identified by experts around the country. If your child cannot find the insect he or she photographed, they can submit the picture for identification.
  • Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology's Merlin ID app is a popular tool used by beginning birders. This free app can be used to identify birds in two quick steps.
  • Trying to identify a plant in your backyard? Visit www.southeasternflora.com. Working through a set of five questions, this site can help you identify more than 2,000 plants in the Southeast.
  • One final note, encourage your children to engage in unsupervised play. Kids often make amazing outdoor discoveries on their own.

How long the threat of the coronavirus will last is not known. In the meantime, while we are doing our part to stem the spread of the disease, the time we spend with our children trying to foster their appreciation for the natural world could enrich their lives and help them become better stewards of the world in the not-too-distant future. Let's give it a try!

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”