You may have heard about SeaWorld’s new program “Generation Nature,” headed by budding spokeswoman Bindi Erwin, but did you stop to wonder if this program is really how we want to teach our children about nature and wildlife? After all, there is very little “natural” going on at SeaWorld and other wildlife entertainment parks. I do applaud Bindi and the Erwin family for giving a spotlight to endangered animals, using their celebrity status to raise funds and awareness for various animal and environmental issues. But, I just can’t get past the fact that this program supports caging animals for profit and entertainment. What can a child learn from an orca or a penguin living in a man-made artificial landscape that they couldn’t understand from a textbook?

Getting kids to engage with the natural world in a meaningful way should not involve the feeling of disconnect and superiority that comes with feeding peanuts to an elephant through wrought-iron gates. We need our children to respect animals and the natural world, a task that really can’t be done through the guise of water parks and exotic animal souvenirs.

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So, if you are looking for a program that will help your child really connect with the natural world, I would consider the following awesome programs:

1. Be Out There

A program run by the National Wildlife Foundation, Be Out There encourages parents to get their kids outdoors with fun activities. This program includes simple ideas like teaching your children to plant a garden or just get outside to play rather than sitting in front of a T.V. Geocache Trails are an awesome part of this campaign that allows the entire family to get involved in an outdoor adventure. Using a GPS enabled device, you can navigate Geocache Trails hidden in campgrounds, nature centers, and parks, taking your kids on an interactive treasure hunt, getting them to engage with surrounding wildlife.

The NWF also has many other integrative outdoor programs for kids that foster a love for conservation and appreciation of the natural world and animals that inhabit it.

2. Let’s G.O. !

Let’s G.O. (Get Outside) is a campaign that’s run by the Children and Nature Network, which combines play, service, and celebration to help get children actively involved in natural restoration projects in their neighborhood. This program can be adapted to a local group or organization and inspires children to involve local government leaders, parents, and teachers alike to take on projects that benefit the natural world. Some previous projects include creating guidebooks for local nature trails, taming invasive wild garlic on a nature preserve, and building a community garden. This years campaign kicks off April 1, 2014, so check it out and start thinking about what projects you will take on!

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3. REI Family Adventure Program

The outdoor outfitter, REI, also runs outdoor programs for kids and families. Programs include lists of local hiking and bike trails as well as a variety of outdoor school courses. These courses are taught by professionals and include fun outings like kayaking on local waterways, basic rock climbing, wilderness medicine, and camping classes.

4. Sierra Club Outdoors

The Sierra Club has local chapters across the country that run educational and fun outdoor programs. Follow this link to find your local chapter and find programs. Depending on where you live, activities include hiking, skiing, paddling, bird-watching, and conservation-oriented activities. They even offer tours of the natural areas left in some of the country’s major cities!

5. Ocean Guardian Classrooms

This program is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and works to educate children about marine conservation. This program includes activities kids can do to learn about their local watersheds as well as more structured programs like the Ocean Guardian Kids Club. There is also an amazing option to get your local schools involved by becoming a certified Ocean Guardian School (this feature is only available in California) or you can organize a trip for your school to one of the many Ocean Guardian Classrooms across the United States.

Image source: Wikipedia Commons

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