Over the last few years, there has been a lot of focus on identifying and overcoming the barriers that are preventing children from connecting with nature. There has been a big push to get kids outside and playing and this movement has been supported by many groups worldwide. Family nature clubs, nature preschools, nature playgrounds, school garden programs, and summer nature camps are some of the ways in which communities are working together to encourage nature connection.
Sometimes the biggest barrier keeping a child indoors is their own fear. They might be terrified of bugs, bees, spiders, or getting dirty. They may fear coming across a snake or other potentially harmful creature. When a child has fears like these, it can be very difficult to get them outside.
Here are 5 tips to help a child overcome nature fears
1. Be Patient
It can take a while for a child to work through their fear, and showing frustration can make the situation worse. You can encourage participation in outdoor activities, but don’t force it.
2. Learn together
People often fear what they do not understand, or what they are not familiar with. Much of what people fear about nature comes from misinformation, so it’s important to separate fact from fiction.
I was recently able to help a child who was stung by a bee and developed a fear of all things that fly and buzz. The child and I visited a nature center and spoke with a naturalist about what had happened. I asked the naturalist to tell us a little about bees, and give us some information to help the child feel safe again. The naturalist explained what bees do, where they live, and what their role in nature is. She let us observe a hive and explained how bees only sting to defend themselves. The child felt reassured after speaking to the naturalist, and while she does still run away if she feels that a bee is too close, she is able to enjoy the outdoors once again.
3. Be mindful of how you react to your own fears. Try not to pass your fear on to your child.
I sometimes observe the snake feeding time at a museum where I work. Before the snake is fed, the children are offered the opportunity to touch him. It is always interesting to see how eager some children are to touch the snake, until they hear their parent express fear or disgust towards the snake. The way a parent reacts to a situation can have a big affect on the way a child will react.
4. Let them bring Pink Puppy outside
This tip was given to me by a 4 1/2 year old girl. She said, “If I was afraid to go outside, I would bring Pink Puppy (a special stuffed animal) with me, and then I wouldn’t be scared anymore.’
Ask your child what would help them to feel less afraid, and if possible, try to accommodate them.
5. Encourage lots of outside time every day
Let children experience nature, daily, from birth. Allow them to get messy, splash in puddles, climb trees, play with sticks, and watch bugs. Let them feel the wind blowing across their face and rain dripping on their head. Let them crunch their way across a pile of leaves, and stop to observe an ant hill. Exposing children to nature as much as possible, from the start, will help them become familiar and comfortable with the natural world.
Some children may be working through many other challenges, and conquering a fear of nature might not be high on the priority list. These children can still benefit from being offered daily, no-pressure opportunities for outside play.