Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Instilling a love of nature in kids through birdwatching

Have kids carry binoculars to better see birds they might encounter on a hike.
Today, nature writer and birder Ernie Allison guest blogs for Hikes with Tykes.

Autumn is a great time for birding – there’s a lot of migration starting, and it’s great weather to be outside and see some wildlife. I’ve worked hard to make nature a big part of both my kids’ and grandkids’ lives, so that means lots of hiking year round. Throughout the years, I’ve learned some tips to making bird-centric hikes more engaging for kids, making the experience more pleasant for everyone involved.

Rob did post an article a few months ago about making bird watching fun for children on a day hike, so you should check that one out if you missed it and then continue reading for further tips.

Human preparation
As in most ventures with kids, making sure everyone is well-rested and fed before the trip will save a lot of frustration. Birding is most fruitful in the mornings, so following the “early to bed, early to rise” rule is best.

Tell the kids what they’re looking for
You’re probably not going to go birding without knowing what’s common in the area. Pull pictures of your most likely sightings from the internet so that the kids know what they’re on the lookout for. Let them study the pictures in the car, but when it comes time to hike, gear their attention to actual nature, not picture replications.

Making the kids aware of what to look out for makes it easier to create an “I Spy” game of the day. You can also make a checklist and see how many you can check off. If your kids are disappointed for missing some, make it an opportunity to elongate the game and return another time.

Teach appropriate outdoors behavior
Birding is a quiet activity. This isn’t to say to expect your kids to be silent, because that just probably isn’t going to happen. But let them know why animals are so skittish of humans. Encourage low voices and careful walking. Have them look out for signs of wildlife on the ground (this can also keep them from taking unexpected falls). Impart the importance of “pack it in, pack it out” and treating nature with respect. The whole experience of birding is educational. Take the opportunity to teach behavioral, scientific, and eco-centric lessons.

Kids pick up habits and passion through repetition. Going on a yearly family hike is great if that’s all you can do, but try to incorporate nature into your family’s everyday life. After the trip, you can look up more information about the birds you saw, teaching feeding, migration, and mating habits of different wild bird species.

You can also put out bird feeders to bring nature to you. I love the idea of wildlife gardens, utilizing plants to attract birds, beneficial insects, and other wildlife to your yard. Gardening as a family creates a family project, allows bonding opportunities, and has great nutritional benefits. And of course, can allow for some great bird sightings.

By instilling a love of nature in your kids, you can make individual hiking trips a lot more fun for everyone. If you have any tips and tricks for bird watching with kids, share in the comments!

Ernie Allison is a grandfather, hiker and birder who writes about nature and conservation. He resides in Idaho.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.