Q&A with Jennifer Ward, Author “It’s a Jungle Out There!”

July 18th, 2011

Your book is geared toward city-dwelling kids ages 4 to 8. Why is it important for these kids to connect with nature?

Jennifer Ward: It is important that all children connect with nature, regardless of whether they live in the country, in the heart of a city, or in urban spaces. But the truth of the matter is that the majority of children today live in urban spaces, hence my writing, IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE!

We know that children today are more disconnected from nature than children in generations past; today we are a society of plugged-in technology and over-scheduled schedules.

I am amazed when I speak in schools to elementary age children who inquire as to whether my books are available on Kindle or iPads.

Young kids are today are very plugged in! And then there are other factors that keep our kids disconnected from the natural world: as parents, we fear for our child’s safety, we have fears of our children getting dirty. Not to mention many of the green spaces “planned” in urban spaces for our enjoyment are not to be fully explored and played in. Many are okay to look at and sit in, but are off limits for true exploration. (Keep off the grass, no tree climbing, etc.)

When children are deprived from experiencing nature up close and personal, they are deprived of rich experiences that afford unstructured play with the mind and senses. Nature helps children unwind, relax, explore, wonder and imagine.

Experiences in nature help our children develop and grow. In contrast, children who lack experiences in nature may suffer from depression, obesity and possibly even attention deficit disorder.

What advice do you have to help parents who work full-time away from home make more time for nature play and outside adventures with their kids?

Jennifer Ward: Excellent question. I’ve worked full time since my daughter was born (she’s now 18), first as an elementary school teacher with a long daily commute, and then as an author and teacher, and then as full-time writer who travels extensively.

Indeed, there’s nothing more inviting than returning home after a long day and collapsing. Especially when there are household chores in the mix of the day: cooking, tidying, homework…

However, experiences in nature with our kids need not be time consuming or feel like work. On the contrary, they can be very simple and very rewarding.

For example, simply moving a bedtime story time to the porch or patio in the evening, or having an evening meal or after dinner dessert outdoors. We don’t need to do this every night, but once in awhile it’s nice to mix up the day-to-day scenery that is our home life. Anything to awaken the senses and experience a bit of fresh air and take in the sounds around us that aren’t indoor sounds.

After a long day at work, just five minutes outdoors with our children at the end of the day, on a porch or balcony, is a fabulous way to unwind and de-stress; a mini-vacation of sorts. With our children we can seek out the first star in the sky. We can listen for sounds of nature and have an auditory scavenger hunt of sorts, trying to identify what we hear.

IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE!offers 52 simple, sensory ways we can explore nature with our kids, especially among busy days, as each activity requires nothing more than a few moments of time and our senses. Not only will these experiences relax our children and us, but they also help our bodies and mind recharge.

How did your own childhood influence your choices for activities included in your book?

Jennifer Ward: I was rarely indoors as a child; when I was growing up, we didn’t have cable t.v. or computers. My family camped a lot, all over the country, as we journeyed annually from our home in California and Illinois on treks to visit family in Canada. My dad loved the outdoors, and he would take us on outdoor picnics regularly – I believe to give my mom a break from us!

I have four siblings, and my parents let us run wild in nature, and we did. I have rich memories of my childhood and playtime, and they are all outdoors.

Today, I am rarely indoors as an adult. I still play outside. I catch airborne seeds. I hunt for rocks that have special shapes (hearts) or face images in and on them. I explore sidewalk cracks and tree bark. I like to watch bugs and other wildlife; observe them in action in their habitats and theorize why they behave the way they do. I observe. I listen. I cloud watch. I daydream. And daily, I sit outside, even if it’s just to sip coffee, a glass of wine or a glass of tea and take in the sights and sounds and outdoor air around me. Nature is simply part of who I am and my daily existence.

Do you have anything to add?

Jennifer Ward: From the moment they are born, children use their senses to figure out the world around them. As their caregivers, we are fortunate that we can provide nature – for free – as part of their life-learning experiences.

Nature stimulates all the senses. It offers sounds. It’s tactile. It’s visual. When kids are outside, all of their senses are stimulated.

Kids are also curious by nature, and when outdoors, they have the opportunity to explore and wonder. Their imaginations kick into high gear, and that’s a great thing. They synthesize the information they take in and try to construct meaning from it. Why does wet grass stick to my toe? How does a seed float on air? How can a lizard or bug cling to a wall without falling off? Why are clouds white?

Basic observations in nature serve as a springboard to higher cognitive learning. Children simply cannot get these same experiences from watching nature on television or being indoors all day, every day.

But most importantly, every experience we have in life shapes who we are and who we become. Each experience we have becomes part of us and is integral to our being. Don’t you believe it is vital that we provide our children with experiences in nature for this simple fact alone?

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