When was the last time you took your children camping, particularly in the forest? I bet many of you did this over the recent summer. Have you ever thought of the forest in terms of a full-on sensory experience for your kids? The forest ranks as my second favorite place to be on earth, topped only by the ocean.
There are so many things in forests to appreciate with all of your senses, and even the youngest children can take these in and enjoy them, even if they’re too young to verbalize what they are learning! Let’s take them sense by sense, in a no non-sense kind of way!
Visual: Point out the vast expanse of skies, at any time of day. What do they see? If they’re too young to answer, they can learn by what you verbalize to them. It is a good time for the youngest to learn the names of colors, whether they are the simple names or the colorful ones that might be found in crayon boxes. If you have crayons along, you might ask your toddlers and pre-schoolers to pick out the colors that best match the sky at the moment.
For older children, the night sky can be a time to learn about astronomy. If you don’t know much on the subject, pick up a kid’s book on it at the library, and see if your family can find the Big Dipper, or any other constellation. During the day, pre-schoolers can look at clouds and imagine what their shapes look like. There’s no wrong answer! They will cherish this quality time you’re sharing with them, and who knows, it could foster a life-long love of nature, or even an occupation down the line. Autumn is a wonderful season to spy brilliant colors.
Hearing: Crows, hawks, bluejays, all have varying calling cards. Can your older kids guess from the sounds, which noise belongs to which bird? What other noises might you hear in the forest? The rustling of a deer stepping through the brush? Frogs croaking in a creek? In my area of forest, there are free-range cows and some horses, so we’re equally likely to hear mooing or whinnying. It is a great opportunity for toddlers and pre-schoolers to identify animal sounds and match them to the animal who made them. What about hearing a stream gurgling? Can you all find it as a family? A child in elementary school can learn the proper name for the noises she’s hearing, like whinnying, neighing, and lowing, and learn how to spell these terms.
Tactile: This is the fancy word for touch. What can your child touch in the forest, to get a fuller idea of the complexity of this environment? How about the bark of different trees? A crayon and paper can be rubbed gently over the bark, to see the differences in various trees. An older baby can hold a pinecone, a pine needle, or a tuft of grass, while you tell them about it. A pre-schooler or toddler can lay on their bellies on the grass, and feel its lushness, or wave their arms through a stream. Older kids can rub their hands across different kinds of rocks, to determine which types are smooth, and which are rough. If they have cameras of their own, they can take pictures of a range of different rocks, and compare them with a geology book later, to see what they’d found.
Smell: The forests can be full of different smells that usually are pleasant to the olfactory sense. Out here in Central Oregon, the juniper trees have a wonderful scent that is like sage but sweeter. Pine can also have a pungent, great smell. If there are free-ranging cows in your forest, don’t inhale too much!
Taste: This one is tougher. I don’t recommend drinking the water from streams, especially if cows are nearby! There can be a host of micro-organisms or E-coli in there, that can make you sick. This is particularly true with young children in tow, whose bodies aren’t ready to fight such things. But hey, let’s leave the tasting to the delectable meals you can fix while camping or having picnics in the forest. There’s nothing like the gooey deliciousness of roasted marshmallows.
You don’t have to wait for great weather to have these outings. You can have autumn picnics! Or, have a night drive out to see a lunar eclipse, or go star-gazing! Of course, there’s little as magical as a snowy night in a forest! Just make sure you have extra blankets, food, water, and chains! Just in case! That’s a whole other sensory experience! The coldness, the moon shining on the snow and making it look all sparkly, the pointiness of icicles….and so on!