Project Learning Tree encourages families to get outside and connect with nature

Joan Goodchild
Project Learning Tree, offers many free resources online for using environmental surroundings to teach kids and get them excited about nature.

With warmer weather starting to emerge and longer days on the horizon, most of us who have been cooped up inside for the winter are bursting to get outside and enjoy some fresh air.

After a year of quarantine, getting outside is critical to our mental health. On top of the cold weather, lockdown orders have kept us inside more than usual – without as many opportunities to socialize to get through the tough winter months.

Jenn Luke, a Shrewsbury mom of two, says the season has felt particularly hard this year and she is thinking of creative ways to get outside more often.

“I think it’s important for kids to play outside more due to the pandemic,” said Luke. “Since so many kids are engaging in remote learning, the amount of screen time they have is increased tenfold. It’s great to be able to take a break and get outside, whether it be for a walk or bike ride. Although it has certainly been challenging in the cold weather.”

Project Learning Tree's curriculum helps connects families to nature and the environment.

There are lots of resources parents can check out to find fun and engaging activities to do with children outdoors. One non-profit, Project Learning Tree, offers many free resources online for using environmental surroundings to teach kids and get them excited about nature.

“It is more critical now than ever that families find ways to get outside,” said Jennifer Byerly, a manager with Project Learning Tree. “Taking children outside regularly to explore nature helps them get physical activity, connects them to the real world, and improves their performance at school.”

Like Luke pointed out, as many children have transitioned to remote learning, ever-present screen time has increased and they are less exposed to nature, missing out on the many proven benefits for improved mental and physical health at a critical time of development.

Founded to develop youth awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of the environment, Project Learning Tree emphasizes activities that help kids make informed decisions and encourage them to take personal responsibility for sustaining the environment.

The PLT website offers a wide range of activities for many ages and settings. For example, their suggested activities for walking in the forest guides families and learning groups through suggested ways to get kids thinking about different types of trees, various kinds of seeds and plants, and the distinct characteristics of certain ecosystems, like fields and streams.

“Early experiences with the natural world excite children’s imaginations and foster their inborn sense of wonder and curiosity—important motivators for lifelong learning,” says Byerly.

Project Learning Tree's Pocket Guide Seeds to Trees introduces children to nature through exploration of trees and forests.

PLT recently released a Seeds to Trees Pocket Guide focused on connecting children ages 3 to 6 to nature through sensory experiences and hands-on learning outdoors. It includes some of PLT’s most popular early childhood activities that encourage young children to learn about the natural world around them using their senses, the seasons, and neighborhood trees. Activity suggestions in the guide include a ”shape hike” in which kids are encouraged to find shapes on walks outside – much like a game of I Spy.

The activities are easy for young learners, require little preparation, and no special supplies. Exercises in the guide are designed to work well on their own, or collectively.

So, with warmer days in front of us, head outdoors. Any outside space will work – both urban and rural settings have trees, grass, plants, sights and sounds worth exploring.