Caring for plants and animals can improve your child's Social Emotional Skills, including increasing compassion, responsibility, sense of belonging, and interpersonal skills. Myriad studies have shown that plants and pets have positive psychological effects, and some that go beyond producing emotions that feel good and actually improve academic outcomes. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv presents evidence that nature itself can decrease the symptoms of ADD and ADHD and improve academic achievement. He coins the term "nature-deficit disorder," and then cites multiple studies that show astounding finds including, but not limited to, the fact that the color green produced by leaves has a calming effect and can increase students' ability to focus.
In order to gain these positive effects, students must be exposed to plants and animals inside and outside of the home. Below, find some nature-based activities and adventures that will help decrease your child's "nature-deficit disorder" and improve their wellbeing and academics.
New Mexico Flora and Fauna
In New Mexico, we are blessed with a temperate climate and experience all four seasons. Nothing can compare to the smell of cedar and piñon woodsmoke that fills the sky backlit with luminarias in winter. Conversely, nothing can compare to the aroma of the fall's Hatch and Lemitar chile harvests in fall. Further, nothing can compare with the delightful appearance of flowers that pepper our Bradford flowering pear trees in the spring. And nothing beats the flora and fauna of both the desert and bosque climates of the Middle Rio Grande Valley.
Within two hours of Albuquerque, we are privy to mountain, desert, forest, and wetland biomes. What an opportunity for us to take advantage of when teaching earth science! My highest recommendation for teaching this subject is to take your children on daytrips across our state to experience the differing landscapes and geological formations therein.
Teach about erosion by going to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks Monument and discussing the formation of the various "tents." There, you are also bound to find some Apache Tears--small pieces of obsidian that were smoothed into small "droplets" by water erosion. The slot canyon you hike through also provides a beautiful backdrop to discuss water erosion and the natural formations it causes.
Teach about endemic and invasive species by walking through the Bosque and North Valley. The elm trees in the North Valley are invasive and can create real problems to the endemic species that surround them. Salt Cedar trees are also invasive and can acidify the soil, preventing other species from growing there and decreasing our natural biodiversity. Cottonwood trees are endemic and provide many benefits to the native fauna of our space.
Teach about plate tectonics and volcanoes by visiting the volcanoes to the West of Albuquerque. Volcanoes are formed by pressure pressing on the crust from the mantle of our earth. Though our volcanoes are extinct, you can still explore and connect myriad topics by visiting them, including the layers of the earth, the rock cycle, plate tectonics, rifts, lava flows, and seismic activity.
Drive out to Jemez to learn about calderas and why hot springs exist. Teach about deciduous vs. evergreen trees. Explore the pueblo and teach about indigenous cultures. Stop at the Coronado Monument in Bernalillo on the way to explore New Mexico's colonization history.
Search for and document the different types of animals you find in various regions of New Mexico according to biome. Take a trip to Bosque del Apache to look for whooping cranes and other wetland birds and animals.
The possibilities are endless, and, in addition to providing subject area material for your instructive practices, they provide opportunities for your child to practice protecting the environment, leaving no trace, and connecting with nature.
Indoor and Outdoor Gardens
In certain seasons, daytrips across our state may not be as feasible. Whether it is too hot or too cold to explore, you can create indoor or outdoor gardens to teach about photosythensis and the care of plants.
In the spring, take your child to a nursery and allow them to choose one or two plants that is theirs to take care of. Teach your child about the needs of plants and allow them to find a suitable outdoor garden spot for planting. Discuss whether the plant is a perennial that will come back next year or an annual that will just last the season. Create a schedule with your child for when and how they will care for the plant, including providing it food and water.
In the fall, take your child to purchase one or two indoor plants. I recommend flowering plants as they tend to draw more interest. Teach about plant respiration and how it oxygenates your indoor space and helps purify the air. Choose a spot inside where the plant will receive adequate light and then create a schedule to help your child care for the plant. Make a math connection by documenting and graphing how much the plant grows week by week.
Plants not only provide opportunities for learning, but also help beautify a space--which is its own reward. Teach your child about the rewards of having such a beautiful, living creature in your space and encourage him or her to understand that such beauty requires care. That care is their responsibility. If they fail and a plant dies, use it as a learning opportunity to discuss responsibility for living things and try again.
Getting and caring for a pet requires an immense amount of dedication and responsibility. If you already have pets, shift the responsibility for pet care to your child! Ask your child if they love the pet and talk about why. Discuss the specific benefits your child gets from the pet, including companionship, friendship, anxiety reduction, etc. Then talk about how pets depend on us to keep them healthy and happy. Create a schedule for your child to feed and water your pets, clean up their waste, and enjoy their company. Monitor their activities to ensure your pet is getting the proper amount of food, water, and exercise.
If you do not have a pet and/or averse to getting one, consider something simple like a betta or goldfish. Purchasing and maintaining these pets is quite inexpensive and requires a lower amount of responsibility than a mammal, amphibian, reptile, or bird. Watching a fish move about in its tank can be meditative and calming.