Earthwork Wilderness Survival Training School | 413-340-1161

How to Be a Mentor for a Child’s Immersion in Nature

Just Add Kids and Nature

leave shelterThe first thing you want to keep in mind is that you want to create a safe learning environment for your child or students to interact with their surroundings. It is important that children have ample opportunities to be stimulated by direct experience. This is a special place that you visit over and over for continuity, so you develop a relationship with that place.

leave shelter young girl

Examples include sitting near your backyard birdfeeder, a place on a hill with a good lookout so you can see animals moving if you’re still and quiet, bury them in leaf piles, stick forts and sculptures to allow the imagination to express itself, a stream to explore. Maybe bring to a beaver pond to see nature’s engineers. Immerse your children in Nature. Spend a few hours (or all day!) outside on a hike, in playful exploration.

group of kids in leaves

Explore the 5 Senses

Once you’re out there in the fields and woods, allow yourself and your children to take in all the sights and sounds and smells. Pause. Take a deep slow breath. What do you smell on the wind? What does the wind feel like on your face? What do you hear? What do you see?

goose tracks

Surrounded by the birds and insects or the trees or the leaves or the snow or whatever the elements of Nature provide, there is sure to be a bounty of ways that children can reach out and engage with the great outdoors.

Ask your children to share what they are seeing. What does the landscape look like? Do they know whether they are near a wetland? How do they know? Can they feel they are going uphill? Would they like to roll down it?

It is really important to have them to full engage their senses as they explore. Touch, smell, look, listen, taste. All those different senses are the doorway to connection.

The Gift of the Present

Be in the present moment, allowing them and yourself to be completely in the “here and now.” Let those pesky thoughts of “what are we doing for dinner?” or “I need to make time for homework” or “when are they having a play date with so-and-so?” – whatever the brain clutter is—pass. By creating a space to experience Nature in the present moment; you are gifting yourself and your children. You are opening up a moment to just be a “human being” rather than “human doing.” This is incredibly healing as well as healthy to teach our children how to be in the world.

Ask Questions

making a fire on snowA mentor does not need to have all the answers. In fact, you actually don’t even need to have any of the answers. Some of most powerful experiences people have are stimulated by questions. For example, when they hear a bird, stop, listen, look. Ask, “Do you hear that sound? Where is it coming from?” Pause. Allow your child the time to listen and look around. Then add, “Can you point to that sound?” This engages your child in an adventure, in a quest of being able to find that sound. “Can you copy the sound?” Take turns attempting to mimic the sound; this opens up a space for deep listening. The same thing that can be done for animal tracks. “What is that? Is it bigger or smaller than your hand? Where did it come from?” Get down on the ground close to the tracks. “Can you tell which way the tracks are going? Can you see how many digits are in the track?” This also opens the door for using resources. Take a picture. When you get back, you can look through resources to find out who made those tracks.

Your Intention, Their Passion

Discover what your children are jazzed about. What excites them? Listen to their stories and listen for clues so that you can better facilitate experiences to further their learning in their areas of interest.


Consider, what is your intention? What do you hope for them to get out of this experience when you take them into the woods? Begin with the end in mind. Your goal as a mentor is for your children to find their own place of discovery. Create that for them. Help them feel connected. Help them to understand that they are connected to something that is beyond words and beyond them. Provide an outlet for them to feel a sense of peacefulness in nature and sense of belonging.

As you discover your children’s passions, it is time to look down the road at what other experiences you can put in front of them to engage in. Each activity helps them to work the edge of their knowledge to bring them deeper into engagement.

Work Your Edge

Create your own learning environment to continue your studies in your areas of interest. Explore the woods on your own. Have access to a library of resources. Have something to share. For example, the other day, I was walking within six feet of a moose. I was so silent; the moose walked right up to me and didn’t even know I was there. Now I can ask the kids, “Can you tell how far six feet is? Do you know how big a moose is? Do you know where you might find a moose?”

Remember, it is your own inspiring stories that inspire your children to share theirs. Now listen.

Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors

Create Your Own Nature Map

There’s a real power in naming places in Nature. This transforms your yard, back woods, special hiking or camping area into a magical land of possibilities!

Raccoon TracksIt’s one thing to be in the woods by that tree over there, but it is quite another to share a story about a place you have had a rich experience in where you saw raccoon tracks. It creates a hook of wanting to know more about the raccoon’s habits and life, and discover if there are more of them and if they had kits this year. The power of imagination and our deep connection to place can really awaken. This can be a way to bring magic, mystery and excitement back into our daily routine.

We live in a world full of changes and notice the technological advances that are happening–the power of TV pulling us all in where we can just sit there for a few minutes which turns into hours. I have noticed there seems to be this need to be constantly “plugged in.” This is embedded in our culture now. It is difficult to go through the day without being plugging in or seeing someone else having “screen time.”

It is believed that our environment shapes us; that what we are surrounded by consistently and our mind focuses on and our senses take in becomes our reality. So what do we do about this culture of which we are a part? Make it a habit to get into the outdoors and plug into Nature!

Nature has its own “screen time.” When you go out in nature, there’s a potential of experiencing a theatrical play. The story of the sharp-shinned hawk who visits your feeder daily may be seen as the dark force; however, the hawk is there waiting for a song bird to drop her awareness so that he can feed his young. The next day, there are cardinal feathers found right near where you see that bird retreat to when you walked outside your door. You may ponder, “What happened?” Now a story is born; one that reminds us of the delicate balance of life and death. Maybe it is as simple as what you learned from the cardinal at your house. In that initial story, we may feel the pull to go out and watch the birds at the feeder, noticing things completely differently.

Insert Nature Mentor

Then Dad or Mom starts asking questions –
Dad: “Did you see those feathers? What color were they?
Daughter: “Red, bright red.
Dad: “What birds are red around here?
Daughter: “Uh, yah, a cardinal, maybe?

At this point your children are on a journey OUTSIDE even though they are in the house talking with you. This is the power of mentoring! They are going back in their “mind’s eye” and trying to picture the event. This is a very common practice of how native cultures mentor their children. They create associations and a compelling desire of wanting to go back and look. The human nature of wanting to figure out a mystery is deeply embedded in our psyche. We just have to piece it together, take it apart, have it make sense, have a connection to it. To strengthen the connection, together come up with names of these special places in your yard: “Hawk’s Spot,” “Dinner Plate,” “Raccoon Trail.” As a mentor, you can encourage your child to map the yard with all the adventures and mysteries you both find there.

The next step is going out together and letting your child find the area and become a detective while you serve as observer and questioner. This allows you to put the “quest” back in question. This allows your child to feel like it is his/her discovery. There are so many other layers you can integrate too.

In just this story, can you see the power of influence to create nature connection and fostering an understanding of place? This in itself is transformative. Try it; see what happens, and share with us your results and learnings.

Another Story and the Effect of Seeds Planted over Time

Often people ask me, “How do you help kids connect to nature?” I usually tell them it is about establishing core routines; a special place and time in nature over and over where it builds on itself.

Bare Feet CircleOver five years ago, during a class, we were off in the woods, exploring while on our way to the camp where the students loved to spend their time. We stopped to take off our shoes, going barefoot to feel the earth under our feet. I shared a little story and described a natural way of quiet-moving called “fox walking.” Everyone slowly rose to their feet and started to practice this way of movement and awareness.

There were background sounds of trees rustling and birds singing and the soft sound of leaves under our feet. The sound of a call was off in the distance to our north then it stopped. No one really noticed but then a few minutes later it screamed above us in a high-pitched voice. We were all shocked, but in a good way. We looked up and saw a giant silhouette of a bird; a huge wingspan just above the tree line. It cast a big shadow then circled to the south. The call repeated. Everything seemed to stand perfectly still in that moment; as I looked around, I saw the children mesmerized by this majestic brown bird with white head and tail—a Bald Eagle was visiting us. As the one eagle flew with such grace, we all noticed we were sharing a special moment, for some had never seen an eagle before and this marked that special day. Others never saw one this close. The look on their faces was awe and inspiration. Then I noticed there was another eagle flying over to the first, then another, and another, until there were six eagles in all circling this small group of barefoot children of the earth. Everyone was even more amazed at this miracle.


Photograph by Tom Ricardi

This place was then named by all of us present that day. It is now “the place of the soaring eagles.” Now whenever we return to this land, the children often say, “Let’s have snack at the place of the soaring eagles.” When a new student joins our community class, the kids share this story which not only introduces and includes the new child into the story and our community, but also deepens the connection of place for the storyteller. The kids also bring their parents to this spot and share the story with them, which helps foster and deepen the parent-child relationship.

One last thought: I have been practicing this core routine with many children over the years, my own daughter included. One of my magic moments, just recently, was driving down Route 116 with my now teen-age daughter and her saying “Bear Pass,” which reminded us both of seeing a bear crossing at that place and watching it together many years ago. It made me quite the proud Papa to know that what we shared years ago is still retained in her memory. This is the lasting impression of mentoring and the power of naming.

Hope you enjoyed our stories and now understand the power of naming places in nature. Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors.

Nature Connection and Cultural Mentoring

Nature ConnectionThe Transformational Power of Nature Connection and Cultural Mentoring

Nature connection is not just important but wildly important! The last Valley Kids was packed with several stories on nature-based learning with some powerful evidence to share about Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, and his work about Nature Deficit Disorder and what is happening locally and internationally.

What the Research Shows on Nature Deficit Disorder
Nature deficit occurs in kids, adults, families and communities. A study found that young people could identify 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants or animals native to their backyards.

Nature is not just important; it is like an essential vitamin for all beings, for our development mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Nature learning is part of our genetic makeup; it is in our DNA—we are related to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are specially designed for this type of learning. Our eyes can pick out the subtlest movement without looking directly at an object.

OWL EYES is a Routine for Seeing More in Nature
Exercise: Look at this magazine by setting it down in front of you. Allow your eyes to relax, not focusing on the words but a soft look. Next, bring your hands out to your sides, arms extended and wiggle your fingers without looking directly at them (move arms forward a little if you do not see movement). When you see movement, notice your fingers are just on the edge of your vision (this is called “peripheral vision”).

This is a way of seeing more in nature. This is how you spot the hiding deer on your walks through the forest, a spider making a web and you see a strand dance in the breeze glistening from the sun’s light reflecting on it, or the pumping of the tail of a phoebe (fly catcher type of bird) right above you in the canopy as it hunts for insects and snaps it’s beak ever so quietly. Things like these are constantly happening around us.

Mind Workout and Scientific Study
Exercising the power of our senses…sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste…can change your biochemistry. Every time you engage the senses fully, this creates little electrical impulses in the brain and creates new pathways for brain activity. Imagine the possibilities of learning if you are constantly engaging the senses and creating more brain use. Inside our brain, areas are firing that have never been stimulated before when you interact with a plant you recognize, and feel its texture and notice its inside is mucilaginous (slimy); this is a new little electrical storm in your brain.

This electricity can be measured and gives us another reason to be immersed in nature. Having these transformational experiences on a regular basis changes the capacity of the brain and the mind. This provides a holistic way of perceiving reality and perceived reality.

A Walk Alone in the Woods
I was walking barefoot, moving slowly with full awareness, feeling the earth in between my toes as I moved like a heron with such grace and balance and free flowing like the current of the water rolling over the rocks in the stream. As I moved through the tall grass, frogs were still and let me pass, then my eyes noticed movement of a very small bird in the dense thicket. I froze and in that moment, saw a mink, which is a small weasel, on the bank of the stream moving like a shadow gliding along. The bird was the messenger for me to pause and listen. This bird’s body language and movement was erratic and seemed nervous to me. That was all it took, then that magic moment happened, seeing the mink…relaxed and in its natural rhythm, not running from me or hiding.

Powerful Storytelling
As I share this story and describe it in detail, there is a curiosity that is awakened—something primal. This may cause a response of wanting to experience something similar. It gives a reference point of possibility. There is a fire sparked through the power of storytelling and imagination that the listener could be the one who experiences an intimate encounter in nature as well.

Our Role as Mentors
Let’s ask ourselves powerful questions that will foster our relationship and create a powerful culture with nature and people and unite us together. “COME UNITE WITH ME!” This is what the word COMMUNITY is. Here is a question: how do we have “QUALITY NATURE CONNECTION?”  What is the secret to integrating nature into our lives on a regular basis?

We are gardening all the time. Everything we focus on with intent, we can help create. Every time we share nature, we plant seeds.
Are you planting seeds?

Enjoy the Summer!