FIVE GREAT WAYS TO NURTURE YOUR INNER HUNTER & GATHERER: Wildcrafting, Wildwatching, Birding, Cloudspotting, Stargazing

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

Most of us have some kind of barrier to getting outside. Time, work, lack of knowledge. But biologically, we’re all still hunters and gatherers. So how do we feed that gene? Hunting and fishing are the traditional ways. Many families bond through these outdoor activities. In fact, fishing is still the number one gateway activity that connects kids to nature. But hunting and fishing aren’t everyone’s cup of chamomile tea. You do have alternatives.

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• Wildcrafting: A term which originally meant gaining skill and knowledge in wilderness survival, “wildcrafting” has come to be used more specifically as the hunting and gathering of plants in their wild state, for food, herbal medicines or crafts. This isn’t your mother’s leaf pressing (that’s fun, too), but a more sophisticated interaction with nature, requiring patience, careful observation and a cultivated knowledge of species identification.

Ethical, safety-conscious wildcrafting connects children to nature in a direct way, helps explain the sources of food, and teaches them the basics of sustainability. John Lust, in “The Natural Remedy Bible,”advises that wildcrafters “harvest where the plant appears to be thriving, as that is where we will be able to find the strongest plants,” and to “be sure to leave enough so that the plant can easily recover its growth.” Careful wildcrafting, he argues, can be practiced “in such a way as to aid the growth of wild plants by judicious thinning and pruning.”

• Wildwatching: You can observe raccoons in the backyard (don’t feed them), and even coyotes in urban areas. Observing wild animals can be a great hobby; it stimulates the senses, teaches you how to move quietly in woods or fields, and connects you more intimately to where you live. Some people combine wildwatching with drawing or journaling.

Because of advances in camera technology, wildwatching may become even more popular in the future. Nature photography is a terrific way for a child or family to reconnect with nature. Digital cameras dramatically reduce the cost of experimental photos of birds, worms, beetles, and small feet. Some wildwatchers use hidden nighttime cameras. Post your “catch” online.

• Birding: Birding is a specialized form of wildwatching. Traditionally a hobby for mature adults, it can also be a great activity for children and their parents. For a child who is primarily an audible learner, or whose eyesight is challenged, birding can be an especially direct way to experience nature. Little Teddy Roosevelt, with his poor eyesight as a child, could imitate hundreds of birdcalls, and did so even when he became president of the United States.In contrast to some other outdoor activities, birding may be gaining ground with young people. Part of this growth is due to the advent of compact field guides and digital cameras, as well as electronic applications that help simplify species identification in the field. But specialized gear is not required.

Mothering magazine offers some useful advice: “Don’t rush to the library for a book; let your young scientist learn to see and record the information firsthand…Make a list or chart to note down the same observations for each different type of bird. In this way, your child will learn to rely on firsthand observations and knowledge building….”Young birders can also help protect species by participating in the Cornell University’s FeederWatch program. Sign up now for the 2012-2013 season. And here’s a Cornell guide: Top 10 Tips for Birding with Kids.

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•Stargazing: One way to hunt and gather with eyes alone – or eyes and a telescope or binoculars. “Stargazing . . . bonds you, links you, fuses you to all the people who have ever lived on this planet. . . . You are the stuff of stars. The atoms that shape you were once the dust and gas of ancient stars,” writes Jack Troeger, who initiated the Dark Sky Initiative, arguing that the overuse of artificial light wastes energy, disrupts the sleeping or migration patterns of wildlife, and contributes to climate change. “The stars you see tonight are the same stars your ancestors saw thousands of years ago,” ancestors who were, indeed, hunters and gatherers.

• Cloudspotting: Jack Borden, former television reporter in Boston, MA, was so concerned about kids’ lack of what he calls “sky awareness,” that he created For Spacious Skies, a program to educate kids to “Look up.” Cirrus, cumulonimbus, and altostratus “come to remind us that the clouds are Nature’s poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag,” according to “The Cloudspotter’s Guide,” by the Britisher Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who launched the Cloud Appreciation Society in 2004. He’s passionate about clouds, and expresses it with a sense of humor: “At The Cloud Appreciation Society we love clouds, we’re not ashamed to say it and we’ve had enough of people moaning about them.” The society’s manifesto makes a stand against “the banality of ‘blue-sky thinking.’”  Cloudspotting is available to anyone, even a child in a hospital bed. All you need is a view of the sky. And to look up.

All of these activities expand the senses and help our children become better learners, better observers, and better people – no matter what barriers they might face.


Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” — which contains a special section with 100 actions that families and communities can take to connect kids to the natural world.

 More resources.

5 Simple Tips for Saving Vanishing Species in Your Yard and Community

How to Create a Neighborhood Butterfly Zone — and a Homegrown National Park

20 Ways to Create a Naturally Restorative Home and Garden

My Feet, Six Inches From the Ground: Disability, Kids and Our Connection with Nature

“The Orvis Guide to Family Friendly Fly Fishing” by Tom Rosenbauer

Great Nature Books for Kids


  1. It just makes total sense to me that learning means having first hand experience.. to feel it, to breathe it, to respect it and to love it. “In Nature” is a wonderful place to be, and no amount of reading from books will ever replace the excitement and wonderment that we can all enjoy when we get “in the thick of it”

    When I was a little girl my parents regularly took me and my brother to places where we could play and investigate without doing any harm to the environement. We couldn’t wait to go out with our jam jars and catch fish and beetles from a brook, watching them swimming around and then having a great sense of “kindness” ( if that’s the right word to use) as we returned them back into the clear flowing water.

    I don’t recall them taking us star gazing but I do recall doing this naturally as a child and several of my friends would join me lying down om the floor finding patterns in the stars and in the clouds. I most definitely recall us thinking “OMG isnt it wonderful and I wonder who is really up there floating around in their heaven”. Such things are from the creative minds of children and for many these memories stay with us for life.

    All in all admittedly our parents were not “wildly educated” and so we were sort of left to our own devices. But nowadays there is much more learning that can happen with the the help of some wondeful organizations that are able to teach children with hands on experiences.

    Thanks for the links to some lovely programs…

  2. I really like that focus on first-hand experience, too. We are making sun prints this morning…laying shells out on dark construction paper and letting them sit in the sun for a few hours until they get imprinted (the sun fades the rest of the paper so the covered-up part ends up looking like a print).

  3. Love the helpful/useful slant of this post. These tend to get mores “shares” and attention than straight information. Will share on FB & Twitter.

  4. Me again. Wanted to share this potential “wildwatching” tool:, Nature’s Racoon Nation.

    Also, someday I’ll get this BirdCam: which would be great for observing backyard nature. If C&NN isn’t advertising for them already . . . geez what a partnership. And maybe you already covered them.

  5. All of these are very interesting activities, indeed! Reading your post made me remember that we used to go wildcrafting and wildwatching though, of course, we weren’t aware of these terms before. Which are would you recommend for wildcrafting? I’m sure it’s a great activity for preschoolers for a field trip.

  6. Thank you for this particularly important post. Preschools, and schools in general, have a gender bias towards planting, and growing things in the curriculum. Yet, what captivates children most are creatures and critters.

    The hunting instinct needs to be scratched, and in my opinion, schools need to gear towards enriching the available biodiversity as a priority over growing vegetables. (It’s cheaper and easier to grow native plants, which attract the wild creatures, too).

    • Richard Louv

      That would be a fascinating debate. Thanks Jzika.

  7. John Thielbahr

    I don’t think this needs to be a debate. Both are needed. The decision to do one or the other….or both… somewhat place dependent. Harder to get creatures and critters..and biodiversity… into urban learning centers….easier to plant and grow. In other places, I agree that it would be ideal for schools to enrich biodiversity, but I have found that, in general, asking public school teachers to adjust their learning methods to include the natural world is a hard sell in the bureaucratic environment they work in. There are some who go the extra mile but not nearly enough. As states and universities focus on ecoliteracy to be part of the learning landscape for our future teachers, we will get there, but probably not in my lifetime.

  8. Thank you for including Stargazing in your list. Over the last few years we’ve been partnering with the NPS to develop interpretive sky programs, with the philosophy that half the park is after dark. Since so many natural rhythms are established by celestial influences (the daily rotation of the earth, the monthly orbit of the moon and the tilt of the earth in its annual trip around the sun), rhythms that were familiar in days gone by that we’ve simply lost touch with.

    As others mentioned, stargazing can be imaginative like making your own constellations and pondering our origins. While most investigations require a little technology, certainly reconnecting with those celestial rhythms does not. My goal in all the workshops we do is for folks to feel as comfortable and familiar navigating the night sky as they do their own neighborhood and to be able to tell stories, personal stories about their explorations of the sky.

  9. Curious what your opinion of geocaching is. My kids loved taking the GPS unit everywhere we went and looking for hidden containers. It was a great way to get them into the outdoors and made every hike into a treasure hunt. However, it does mean leaving a container hidden somewhere in the outdoors. A good geocacher would maintain any caches they’ve hidden and remove them when they’re archived from the site. But I’m sure many of them end up being abandoned. What do you think?

  10. Growing up in Central Michigan on a farm we learned to go on adventures early due to nothing else to do. My love for this continues, I will find a woods and just walk around to see what is there. When my kids were younger and I heard “We are bored” my reply was “go for a walk and find at least one cool thing.” Now I was lucky belonging to a conservation organization with woods on the property so made that last quote easier, but there is always some place around you to go to. Cliffmama, I love geocaching too!


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