When Lauren Gay’s son was little, it wasn’t unusual for him to bring “friends” home in his pocket. “He was the kid who would come home with a salamander,” she recalls with a smile and a shrug. “It happened.”
And though she wanted to encourage her son’s love of the outdoors, she still gently explained to him that taking the salamander from its home wasn’t exactly good for the salamander.
The inclination to collect seashells at the beach (without considering what might live in them) or turn a salamander into a pet is common among naturally curious kids. But despite good intentions, a child’s curiosity can accidentally damage wildlife and their habitats.
And when taught the right way to interact with the wild, kids usually rise to the occasion, says Jaylyn Gough, a social worker and the founder of Native Women’s Wilderness. “It’s important for us to invest the time of telling our children: We’re not owners of the land. We’re here to take care of it.”
So how do you keep your children from wreaking havoc in the wild while still enjoying the benefits of spending time outside, like increased confidence, focus, and empathy? Here are alternatives for some of the most common outdoor behavior no-nos.
Take an interest, not stuff
Kids might be tempted to pick a giant bouquet of flowers, pluck leaves off trees, or stash rocks, shells, or small critters inside backpacks. But remind them that these things are all part of the habitat and play an important role in its health.
Animals depend on plants for food and hiding places, and rocks and shells for homes; plants depend on animals for things like fertilization and pollination. Gay says explaining to her son how plants and animals work together in nature helped him temper his temptations.
“When you teach them that these are living things, that they grow, eat, and have a habitat, you’re teaching them about the ecology,” she says. “That leads them to be conservationists.”
Instead, let kids explore with a magnifying glass instead of their curious fingers. Getting a close-up look at tiny parts of a habitat can help fuel their curiosity—and show children all the life that happens around what they once thought was insignificant.
“We’re here to take care of our four-legged cousins and the creatures and the birds,” Gough says. “By remembering that the rocks and the flowers or whatever you find outside should stay outside, we’re helping to do our part.”
Share snacks with people, not animals
It might seem like a fun idea to toss bread crumbs to local ducks or sprinkle seeds to feed chipmunks, but animals aren’t meant to be fed by humans. “Wild animals survive by relying on the food in their environments and ecosystems,” Kahn explains. “We do not want them to become dependent on human food.”
Bears are a prime example of animals that often have to be killed after developing a taste for human food. “Animals have unique dietary needs that are different from humans,” Kahn says. “Eating human food can make them sick.”
That’s why kids should take extra care to pack up any snacks they bring with them on hikes or trips to the park. Parents can encourage the principle by turning clean-up efforts after a picnic or afternoon snack into a game or competition. Break the family into teams to see who can collect the most trash.
Take well-worn paths, not off-road romps
Kicking piles of leaves, trampling bushes, and trekking through forested areas instead of sticking to prescribed pathways can unintentionally wreak havoc on animal dwellings. And if surprised animals defend their homes, everyone could get hurt. “Trails are designed to cause the least amount of harm to delicate environments and ecosystems,” Kahn says.
Instead, kids should be encouraged to understand the importance of paths. Cleaning up and maintaining trails through community initiatives is a start; art projects can help, too. For instance, collect leaves off the ground or bring a sketch pad to record what you see.
Take animal snapshots, not animal selfies
The urge to get closer to or even touch a squirrel, bird, or slow-moving turtle can be strong for kids. But approaching an animal disrupts their behavior, which could affect eating, sleeping, or other things they need to do for survival. It can also be dangerous for children if the animal perceives them as a threat or exposes them to illness or injury.
Instead, remind kids to stay away from any animal—even ones that seem harmless—and admire with their eyes. Bring along some binoculars for a closer view or show them how to use a camera’s zoom button.
Make sure dogs are leashed animals, not wild animals
A dog’s inclination is to chase. And though it may be amusing to watch them track squirrels or rabbits, the introduction of a domestic animal can be harmful for the environment and the animals. Wild critters trying to escape from enthusiastic dogs might waste energy that’s crucial for things like feeding and raising young.
And don’t forget about picking up poop!
“Fecal waste introduces pathogens to the environment that could be picked up by wildlife,” Kahn cautions. And that can be detrimental for the ecosystem.
The bottom line is for parents to remind children that outdoor spaces are someone or something’s home. “Nobody likes having a guest come in and destroy their home, leave trash, and act rudely,” Kahn says. “The same rules should apply with visiting wildlife in their homes.”