Nature Prompts & How to Use Them

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I am a big advocate for child-led, unstructured outdoor play and exploration. I believe that kids need to have lots of unstructured time in nature that allows them to make their own discoveries, ask questions, and simply wonder.

In light of this some may ask, “If that is the case, then why do you give nature prompts?”

It is a good question!

Let’s first start with the basics.

What are prompts?

I see nature prompts as little bits of inspiration for investigation. They are an invitation to explore, dig deeper, and open up a door to a world that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

They can serve as a SPARK to get the mental wheels turning and a leaping off point for greater investigation.

Kids, and their adults, often need an incentive to slow down and wonder about the world around them; an invitation to stop, be idle for a moment, and mindfully look a little closer.

Nature prompts are a great tool to achieve to this goal and bring nature into daily family life.

That’s nice but, really, what are they?

Okay, so if you have not seen the nature prompts you may be wondering what they look like, EXACTLY.

Below are some examples of both short-term and long-term nature prompts.

Short-term prompts are those that can be done fairly quickly. They could take just 5-10 minutes and can be done around the backyard, walking down a neighborhood street, or on a trail.

Short-term prompts are things like:

  • Going on a color hunt (for a specific color or as many different colors as you can find)
  • Finding five different types of leaves (and identifying them if you want to extend the prompt)
  • Going on a build a poem walk to write a poem with nature things you find along the way

Long-term nature prompts are those that you return to daily, weekly or monthly to do what amounts to a longitudinal study of your chosen subject.

Long-Term prompts include things like:

  • Tracking the sunrise or sunset over the course of a year to watch how the sun moves along the horizon as the seasons change
  • Tracking the phases of the moon over a month
  • Doing a year-round tree observation, checking in monthly with your chosen tree

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Now that we are clear about what nature prompts are, let’s talk about what they are not.

They are NOT:

  • Hard and fast “lessons” like you might find in a nature study curriculum  
  • Set in stone to be followed exactly as they are presented

 

They are loose and intended to be manipulated, molded, and played with in any way the child, or their nearest adult, sees fit to make it their very own experience. Remember, they are a spark of inspiration!

When using nature prompts keep in mind that a set outcome is not the most important part of this exercise. There will be an outcome, it just might not be what you thought it would be, and that is okay. In fact, that is far better. It means that child has taken the prompt beyond the surface intention and made it their own. They have turned the spark into a raging fire. (Time to roast the marshmallows!)

 

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Now, all of that being said, what if the child is simply not interested in a nature prompt? What if you bring it up and they blow it off?

That’s okay too.

In that case, know that you have planted a little seed and you never know when it might grow. Have you heard about those wildflowers in the desert? They sit dormant for years and years waiting for the right conditions to grow. That is what that prompt might be. You never know when the topic may come up again. Once you throw it out there let it drift and see what happens. Weeks or even months down the line you may hear an exclamation of delight and wonder when they hit upon something that ties directly into the prompt you tried to share. It just needed the right conditions to truly flourish in their mind.

If you find your prompt being rejected but you find it interesting, go on to investigate it yourself. One of the quickest ways to get kids engaged in nature is to engage yourself in nature. As with anything else in parenting, lead by example.

Depending on the age of your kids and their experience in nature you may have to frame the prompts in different ways. If kids feel like nature experience is a chore or one more lesson to check off they will likely be uninvested in the prospect of heading outside.

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This leads me to how I use nature prompts with my own kids.

I use prompts in three main ways.

  • As inspiration to get the kids out the door. It is a surprise to some people that even I sometimes have a hard time getting my kiddos outside but I do. They can be just as adverse to the heat, biting bugs, and general disinterest as any other children. So occasionally I will invite them out with an investigation (prompt).
  • As inspiration for myself to get out the door. It is not always about the kids and we mamas and papas need to lead the way and inspire by example. Remember the idea that if you want your kids to do something (write, be active, clean up their room) you need to do the same. Well, as I said above, nature study and connection is no different. I would not be a very good example if I call to the kids to get outside while I am sitting on the couch looking at my iphone or never show any interest in getting outside for my own benefit. Granted I have gotten to the point where it does not take much to get me outside but it has not always been that way, especially when faced with challenges like biting bugs and super hot weather. I have done my share of whining in the past when conditions are not ideal. Prompts are just as good for adults as they are for children. With more and more parents coming of age in an indoor society, with less personal childhood outdoor experiences to draw upon, it is more important than ever that they build their own nature vocabulary through experience.
  • Lastly, I tuck them back in my brain for when the right moment arises. As my kids get older they are not as enchanted with many aspects of nature. Many of the mysteries have been solved, and my daughter (almost 13 now) can sometimes feel as if there is nothing left to know. I keep encouraging her to find the NUGGET of new information. There is always something more to learn! So, I keep nature prompts and the motivation behind them in my mind as we move about our time outside. When I see a window to wonder I throw something out there to see if it will stick. I don’t usually say, “Hey, there is this nature prompt I wanted us to try…” as that would most likely lead to rolling eyes and a shut down. I do say, “I wonder….” and lead into whatever it is there is to wonder about: Why the water flows that way? If all flowers have the same parts? Why some birds hop and others walk? These are things that are of genuine interest so I am not belittling or pretending I wonder. I really do wonder and the kids know it. They often join in and we have great conversations about these things. So the prompts provide a leaping off point for my own wonder and pull the kids along as I go.

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The point of all of this is to spend more time out of doors and in nature. However your family uses prompts, or not, is perfect, as long as the end goal is achieved: time outside!

How do you use prompts?

What do you do to motivate your family to get outdoors?

I give free nature prompts here on the blog each month. To get those sent to your inbox you can sign up right here.

 

Let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment or emailing me at dawnsuzette@gmail.com.

Happy Exploring!

Dawn

 

P.S.

Mark your calendar! The Mud Puddles Nature Lab opens for enrollment for a short time on June 26th!

4 comments… add one

  • moongirl June 3, 2016, 1:40 pm

    What a wonderful post!!! I love your analogy of a desert wildflower and how seeds lay dormant for years before coming to life again. I find often when we go outside something that we talked about long ago will come up again, an idea sparked by something they’ve seen. The way you talk about prompts and how to use them, how they don’t have to be the ‘be all end all’ of an outdoor experience, is wonderful and so key, and certainly helps parents to feel less pressure about having an ‘agenda’ when going outside. Love it!!!

  • dawn June 4, 2016, 6:19 am

    Thank you, Tam!
    I am so happy you found it helpful!
    Let wonderful lead the way…
    xx

  • Catherine @ Ten Thousand Hour Mama June 4, 2016, 7:11 pm

    I hadn’t ever been intentional about loose nature prompts, but it turns out I do some of these things already. I totally use the “I spy” game to move my preschooler along when she’s dragging on a hike, and when I wonder out loud, I LOVE hearing what my daughter comes up with.

    • dawn June 5, 2016, 1:13 pm

      This is great, Catherine! It is really super to have these things flow and just simply be a part of your family life. Wonderful to hear!

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