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Learning about nature through books

Learning about nature through books
Being in nature has many benefits for children. We asked writer and illustrator Nicola Davies for her tips on using books to kickstart an interest in the natural world.

It’s often said that the current generation of children has lost the ability to play outdoors. A recent study showed that 72% have never played conkers, and 60% have never flown a kite or built a den – and yet three-quarters of kids say they want to spend more time outside.

‘Spending time in nature is so beneficial for mental and physical health, as well as children’s understanding of the natural world, but many don’t have the unfettered access to the outdoors that we had growing up,’ explains BookTrust’s writer and illustrator in residence, Nicola Davies.

If your child is unused to spending time outside, it can be hard to coax them away from screens and other indoor pursuits. This is where books can help to provide inspiration.

‘It’s a good way of getting them interested in getting outdoors,’ agrees Nicola. ‘Books about the natural world tap into children’s experiences of being in nature, and appeal to their rich imaginations.’

So how can getting stuck into a book help your child develop an enthusiasm for the world outside their window?

The power of poetry

For many children, reading and writing poetry about nature is the catalyst for an appreciation of the great outdoors.

‘It’s a very accessible form of writing for children, because it’s a short form: you don’t have to read or write reams of it, and if you find a poem or book of poems that you like, you can carry it around with you,’ Nicola says.

‘It also encourages children to find their own voice as writers.’

There are many inspiring poems and poetry compilations about nature that are aimed at children, such as The Hound Dog’s Haiku and Other Poems for Dog Lovers by Michael Rosen, and Nicola’s own Outside your Window, as well as classic poems by great writers of the past like Wordsworth and DH Lawrence.

Poetic conventions like onomatopoeia, sibilance, simile and metaphor help to bring the natural world to life (for example, the swishy swashy grass in Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt), so why not head to a park, woodland or riverbank with your child and read some nature-themed poetry in the open air?


Get spotting

Beetles, butterflies, spiders and snowdrops… The natural world is the perfect place to discover and learn, especially if you arm your child with a field guide, such as the Usborne Spotter’s Guide series.

‘There’s something about turning the pages and identifying what you’ve seen that really appeals to children, especially inquisitive types who like making lists,’ Nicola explains.

Spotting a bird or plant and trying to work out what it is based on its characteristics turns nature’s playground into a real-life treasure hunt, and being able to tick something off their list gives kids a huge sense of satisfaction.

Encourage children to take their books out and about with them, and let them make notes on their pages: ‘Field guides are most valuable if you take them outside with you and let them get worn and dirty,’ says Nicola.


Grow your own

The best way to get your child to fall in love with the natural world is to allow them to get hands on, and there are some brilliant books out there that will give them the gardening bug, such as Gardening Projects for Kids by Jenny Hendy and Gardening with Kids by Martyn Cox and Catherine Woram.

‘I’d highly recommend giving your child a gardening book and a little plot of land of their own, even if it’s just a pot on a balcony,’ Nicola suggests. ‘Growing something they can put in a vase or something they can eat is like a magic spell, and it makes the practical connection between the child and the natural world in a way that nothing else can.’


Become a nature writer

One of the great things about nature is that it’s packed full of writing inspiration, whether your child is an avid writer or needs encouragement to put pencil to paper.

‘Encourage your child to take a notebook out with them and get into the habit of writing down what they see in very short form: just a sentence about the highlight of their day, what they saw or how it made them feel,’ says Nicola.

‘They can then shape these notes into something more: for instance, if they write a line every day of the summer and read them all aloud at the end, they’ll have something that’s beginning to sound like a poem.

‘Their notes will also trigger memories that they wouldn’t have retained otherwise.’


Learn together

As parents juggling the time pressures of day-to-day life, we often lose touch with nature ourselves – but if we’re too busy to spend time in the natural world, our children miss out, and so do we.

‘Parents are sometimes worried that they don’t know how to tend to a vegetable garden or identify wildlife, but the great thing about nature is that you and your child can discover it together,’ Nicola says.

‘If there’s something you don’t know, go and find a book and look it up with your child. The process of discovery is what makes the natural world so exciting to spend time in and learn about.’

Nicola’s top 5 nature-themed books for kids

To the Edge of the World by Julia Green: ‘A really wonderful introduction to being at sea and having an adventure in the wild.’

The Last Wild by Piers Torday: ‘It captures the powerful emotional link that children have with nature.’

Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis: ‘This novel has a conservation theme and will get children thinking about the impact of the human race on nature.’

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane: ‘A beautiful book of poems and illustrations for children to drink in and carry with them.’

Beetle Collector’s Handbook by MG Leonard: ‘This will captivate children who love looking at detail, honing their powers of observation and paying close attention.’


Follow Nicola’s activity as the BookTrust Writer and Illustrator in residence here.

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