How to Encourage Wild and Free Learning When You’re Stuck at Home

Spring is a glorious time for nature exploration. But how can we give our children access to nature when public parks are closed, trails roped off, and #socialdistancing limiting excursions?

As part of my “Quarantine Reading List”, I recently finished The Geography of Childhood by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble, which emphasized children’s developmental need for “wild spaces”. Before the COVID-19 quarantine, we may have limited our definition of ‘wild spaces’ to nature reserves, undeveloped land, and places where wildlife actively roams. However, with stay-at-home orders active in many parts of the US, we are forced to look closer to home for “wild” spaces. Stephen Trimble says, “As parents, our job is to pay attention, to create possibilities—to be careful matchmakers between our children and the Earth” and our pool of eligible matches has now shrunk to our homes the immediate vicinities.

Don’t worry; that’s plenty! What’s more, nature can help fill the void left by lack of social interaction with other children. In studying children living in the country (social distancing before it was cool), Trimble noted, “Working with the land gives children the age-old familiarity with animals most of us have lost. Ranch and farm kids rely on animals as friends where human friends are few and far between”.

I may not live on a ranch, but I noticed my almost-3 year old has started referring to the dog as “my friend Ranger”.

To encourage as much exposure to wildlife as possible, we have painted and hung a birdhouse, made bird feeders from recycled milk jugs, and have been practicing naming local birds such as dove, robin, cardinal, crow, and blue jay. (Updating the post on our bird unit study shortly! I’ll add a link once it’s up).

A common misconception is that “wild and free” means the learning must focus on plants and animals. While, yes, plants and animals do make up the natural world and most of our ‘wild & free’ moments occur outside, child-led learning means following the child’s interests – which doesn’t always mean plants and animals.

I have perhaps the most stereotypical boy (despite my best efforts to provide gender-neutral toys and encourage all types of play). He LOVES vehicles. For him, spotting birds is fun, and planting a garden is a great adventure, but driving trucks in the mud? That’s the life. This week as we prepped our small garden for spring planting, we learned that water + dirt = mud, and mud + our favorite washable trucks (Green Toys) = hours of quarantined enjoyment.

Wild and free learning can happen anywhere. All you have to do as the parent “matchmaker” is cultivate an environment that encourages creativity, even if it’s messy. The good news about stay-at-home orders is there’s no where to go and no appointments to meet so go ahead and get muddy!

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