September is a great time to get involved and make a difference in your community. As your family gets back into the routine of school, sports and everything else, why not also do something that can have a very positive effect on your surrounding environment?
It doesn’t matter whether you have a little time or a lot. It doesn’t matter whether your children are younger or older. No matter what we do to take care of the natural community, it does make a difference. Teaching our children how to care for the land is the best thing we can do for their future.
The most important thing is to keep it fun and to help build a sense of place. Once a child is enjoying a natural area and feels comfortable there, they are an easy sell for taking care of it. Find out what makes your children happiest in nature. Is it water? Thick trees? A sense of mystery? Similarity to what they are used to? Having adventures? Sitting quietly, absorbing nature?
Once you know what they like, create opportunities for them to find that again and again, preferably in the same natural space so it becomes comfortable for them.
Help them see how even simple things like picking up litter, staying on existing paths and leaving things as they find them or better can make a huge difference.
One of the best ways to drive that home is to show how quickly impacts multiply. For example, when a child wants to pick a wildflower, explain how taking that one flower probably won’t make a difference, but that if each person who visited took a flower, there would be none left to enjoy. If we take one shell off the beach, that is one less hermit crab that can find a place to live. If everyone does it, no hermit crabs would be able to survive.
Like anything you teach, modeling the best behavior is the surest way to make an impact. If you are prepared with a litter sack each time you go out to a natural area or park, your children will come to see that as normal and will eagerly help you collect garbage. Wear gloves or use the bag as a glove to protect yourselves.
Point out signs of erosion and areas of dead or dying plants where many human feet have strayed off the path. You can easily see the paths that people take. And, it is often only to save a few steps. Why not teach your children to take those few extra steps to help prevent damaging the area?
While you are enjoying nature together, also look for the paths that animals make. Don’t forget to look at things at “animal-level”. Kids are great at spotting animal paths because they are closer to the ground. Once you start looking, you will see all kinds of tunnels through the bushes, worn patches and trails in the grass too small to be made by human feet, and even amazing ant highways. Take a field guide with you that has information about animal signs to see if you can figure out what might be leaving the signs you are finding.
Even if your family never does anything more than build affection for one or more natural areas, stay on trails, pick up litter when you can and leave natural areas in the same or better condition than when you arrived, you have become stewards of the land. If one tenth of all Washington families did that, our state would be well cared for. But many families choose to take the next step in stewardship. It is easier than you might think. There are many organizations to choose from that welcome families for beach clean-ups, tree plantings, invasive plant removal and more.
Build a sense of stewardship
Here are a few activities that might provide the motivation to get the family up off the couch and enjoying family time outside. A certain amount of competition is common in most families. Have family members compete as individuals or as a team.
• Create an alphabetical list of things found in nature. See how many each individual or team can find on your next outing.
• Collect a few paint color chips, but don’t just go for greens or browns. Cut them into individual color pieces, put in a small paper bag, shake well and have each family member or team choose a chip. As you are walking, search for an item that is the same color as the chip. You might be surprised at how hard it is to match a green or brown and how easy pink might be. If the family agrees it is good a good match, collect points for each match.
• Take turns picking out something unique you can find in nature like a knothole in a tree, an odd-shaped stick or a flower that is unlike any others around. Then, see which individual or team can come up with the most likely story of how it came to be that way. Or, maybe vote on the most fantastical and least likely to be true story. No matter what you do, if minds and imaginations are engaged, then you are experiencing nature with a sense of discovery, which breeds care and stewardship.
Keep these competitions friendly with some simple prize ideas.
• The winner gets to pick the next adventure’s location.
• The winner gets to lead the group on the next hike.
• The winner gets to have someone else carry their water bottle, extra clothing layer and other gear on the next outing.
• The winner gets to choose the radio station or music on the way home.
Saturday: Point Defiance Marina beach clean up, metroparkstacoma.org/calendar/?cid=1781&park_id=11
Sept. 21: Tacoma Nature Center habitat restoration, metroparkstacoma.org/volunteers-nature-center
Sept. 21: United Way Day of Caring, uwpc.org/daysofcaring.htm
Sept. 22: Priest Point Park work party, olympiawa.gov/city-services/parks/volunteering/volunteers-in-parks
Sept. 22: Wake Up for Wapato: metroparkstacoma.org/wake-up-for-wapato-chip-in
Sept. 29: National Public Lands Day, publiclandsday.org
Oct. 20: Green Tacoma Day, metroparkstacoma.org/green-tacoma-day-chip-in