By Mike Murphy, Educator in Western Maine

As adults we may stress over climate change, the loss of species, and other threats to our children’s future. But there is hope. Helping children to explore and see the wonders of nature may be one of the most important things we can do to help shape the future of our planet. And the wonders of nature may be nearby, even in our backyards.

When I was a child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, we had a kind elderly neighbor, Mrs. Stravinsky, who would invite me and my mother over to visit. During one late summer visit, Mrs. Stravinsky said she wanted to show me something very special. She took me to her backyard to a rambling, overgrown grapevine. They were loaded with grapes, but we were not there to eat them.

We crawled underneath to a hidden bench and we both sat very still. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through and lit up the purple grapes. And then came the birds. They were mostly robins, who love grapes, and we sat quietly in their presence and watched. The birds were near enough that I felt I was “with” them, connected in a way I had no words for. I didn’t need words. It was pure magic, and to this day I feel I have a special connection to birds.

Young children are naturally drawn to wild creatures, to seeds and plants, and to natural materials like rocks, sticks, and flowing water. Older children are, too. When I was a middle school teacher, there was a steady parade of kids through my classroom to see insects, frogs, and other critters that students collected to observe for the day and then release.

Becoming familiar with wild creatures, handling them when appropriate, and hunkering down to watch foraging ants or a bird in its nest is important for children to feel connected to the natural world. These can be formative experiences that help shape who they become as adults. When our kids are adults it will be their “all hands on deck” moment when they may be called on to care for nature.

Backyards are a great place to start this journey. Imagine a small corner that your child can use as their special fort (or laboratory; or basecamp). This is a dedicated area where they can imagine and create, where wild creatures- however small- will pass through, and where your child will feel the thrill of being immersed in a wild place. As a caregiver, you can make sure it’s safe but be careful not to make it unnaturally safe: a small sense of “danger’ should remain to help kids expand their bounds of comfort.

It should look messy. If there is lawn in the space, kill the grass by covering it with cardboard (weigh it down with rocks.) This will discourage ticks. The basic framework can be purchased or built, but then liberally add sticks, rocks, plants (including vines like scarlet runner beans for hummingbirds), and a bowl sunk in the ground and filled with soil to create mud. Your child can enhance it with signs, string, a table surface (a board on bricks), a low chair, tools, and containers.

Then, one day in the late afternoon, sit with your child in this intimate place to listen and watch. You never know what might happen that changes both of you.


Mike Murphy is an educator in Western Maine who works with adults and children. He focuses on infusing science topics with creative, hands-on experiences. His latest project is Anna and Oliver’s Garden, a story-based creative learning space opening this summer at the Mahoosuc Land Trust in Bethel, Maine.