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What's the Best Gift to Spur Scientific Curiosity in Kids? Try Some Time Outdoors

Want to turn your kids into future Einsteins? Here's a tip: Take 'em out for a hike.

A USA Today article published Tuesday (Dec. 13) discussed ways to spark scientific curiosity and creativity in children. While listing toys that can reinforce that objective, reporter Liz Szabo also quoted parents and educators who stressed the importance of getting children outdoors and acquainting them with the natural world.

Future EinsteinSusan Niebur, an astrophysicist and mother of 2, says the most important thing parents can do to encourage a young person's interest in science is to "go outside with their children and explore the wide world. Turning kids into naturalists, scientists and engineers isn't about what toys you buy them; it's about how you encourage their interests and provide the materials that they can use to take the next steps."

Bob Hirshon, who leads the children's program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, thinks natural objects (rocks, crystals and shells) "make you wonder. That wondering can lead to questioning and discovery."

Hirshon views camping and hiking gear as educational toys. "Anything that lets you explore nature can be a science toy," he said. "Kids don't get outside very much, and it's important."

TrioA couple of tips for getting your kids connected to nature:

• Read the REI Expert Advice article Kids and Hiking. It contains tip after savvy tip I gleaned from discussions with more than 2 dozen REI colleagues, REI Facebook fans and Twitter followers. Some key suggestions: Bring plenty of snacks, be content to travel at a kid's pace, and rather than be focused on a destination or a schedule, adopt your child's sense of wonder when exploring the outdoors.

• If you don't feel like gift-wrapping a rock for junior, here are some alternate ideas for outdoor-minded presents that can get a kid stoked for spending time outdoors:

BD GizmoA headlamp: Headlamps let kids keep their hands free as they maneuver in the dark. Kids around age 5 have fun with the Play Visions Zoo Light Frog headlamp (it croaks when it's switched on) or LEGO Minifigure headlamp. Older children like the me-too feel and grown-up look of the Princeton Tec Bot headlamp and Black Diamond Wiz. Older kids might be ready for top-selling adult versions such as the Black Diamond Spot (a 90-lumen powerhouse) or Black Diamond Gizmo.

A water bottle: Kids appreciate any symbol of independence and self-reliance they can find. In their minds, sipping from their own water bottle can validate their outdoor cred.

A child carrier: OK, this is more for you than for them, but if you're trying to convince very small children that the outdoors is a cool place to spend time, they may tucker out sooner than you expect. Having a child carrier available to lug them back to the trailhead is a treasure everyone will appreciate.

Investigating an overhangOther options include outdoor clothing, bikes and toys. Consider a sled, a flying disc, a Darth Vader-shaped flashlight, a kite, a kick-around footbag. Lots of choices exist that give kids reasons to be outside and active.

The REI Expert Advice library also includes articles on backpacking with kids, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, even geocaching with kids. It also contains an overview on connecting kids and the outdoors by Gear Junkie blogger Stephen Regenold. They all provide support for the inviting equation presented in the USA Today report: Active parents + imaginative thinking + fresh air = potential child geniuses. It's worth a shot.

Photo credits, top to bottom: Peter Newton, Craig Brewer. REI, and Mike Bowcut with 2 photos taken in Arches National Park.

Posted on at 12:49 PM

Tagged: Hiking, gifts, headlamps, kids and science

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It has been observed that the most interesting sound in science isn't a shouted, "Eureka!", but rather a quiet, "Gee, that's funny. How's *that* work?" I can't think of a better way of engendering this attitude than taking your kids out and letting them explore the natural world, looking at all the weird bugs, beautiful waterfalls, and funny rocks, and then helping them answer the question, "Why is it like that?"

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Mike Shaw Today

Hiking is a great way for youngsters to do the research for their school science projects. My daughter did a project on wildlife ecology one year.

If you have a microscope, there are lots of specimens you can collect- for example tardigrades- the worlds most extreme creature! See my article on how to collect tardigrades at - geared toward the middle school and high school aged students.

Most of all - have fun!


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