Kids are spending less and less time in nature. Only about 10 percent of kids spend some time outside every day, and 64 percent of children in Britain play outdoors less than once a week. There are a lot of reasons behind this drop in outdoor activity—lack of access to natural areas, too-cautious parents, funny cat memes on the internet—but the result is clear: a decreasing interest in nature as kids grow up.
It’s an unpleasant thought. Though I wasn’t a birder as a kid, I was outside all the time, and mostly unchaperoned. The love of exploration and freedom I developed as a youngster found a natural outlet in birding later on; I’m as excited about visiting a weird new place as I am about seeing the weird new bird that lives there.
I’m sure that I would have loved birding had I known about it as a kid. I’m sure lots of kids would. The trouble is, a lot of them don’t even know birding exists or understand what it really is. I had a vague notion that old people liked to look at birds, but I didn’t know what birding actually was until I met some birders in college.
Some kids are lucky enough to have parents that are birders, but others might need a birding mentor to help them discover their love for birds, which can spark a lifelong love of the outdoors and adventure. You, dear reader, can be that mentor.
I’ve birded with lots of kids over the years, and I think the key to getting them interested in birding is to make it fun. I know that sounds obvious, but fun for kids isn’t the same as fun for adults. Birding isn’t exciting all the time and can require a lot of patience and attentiveness . . . things kids don’t necessarily have. But it can be done. Here are some tips on how to put some fun into birding and get the young ones outside again.
Make It a Game. One of the best ways to make birding fun is to provide a fun context. New birders of any age can get overwhelmed or confused if you just go outside and say, “Look, there’s X bird, and there’s Y bird!” When I take a kid out for the first time, I tell them that what we're doing isn't just about pointing and staring—there's a goal to it.
Once I explain the general concept of birding, I set the stage by saying that we’re going on a big outdoor scavenger hunt. Birding is a game that you’re playing at all times, across the whole world. It’s like PokemonGo except completely real. Using this frame makes the birds into prizes, with each new species identified being a goal achieved. In other words, it makes it fun.
Let Them Lead. Another way to make birding more enjoyable for the youngins is to give them a little taste of autonomy. Birds can be found pretty much anywhere, in all kinds of habitats. So, let the kid pick where to go!
Give them a map and have them put their finger on a green spot. Then, help them figure out which birds they can find there, and go get them! Giving the kid some ownership over the experience will change it from “I’m being taken to a place by my a grownup” to “I’m in charge of this adventure!”
Get Them Using the Gear. Fancy scopes, binoculars, and cameras are a birder’s toys, and they’re just as fun for kids as they are for adults. For a kid who’s only seen birds with their bare eyes, seeing the details of a bird’s feathers and other features through a lens can be revelatory. Give the kid ample time with binoculars or at the scope, and they really get into the experience.
Whenever I’m out birding with a kid, they always go for the scope first. It's understandable—scopes just look cool. When they do, I lower the legs on the tripod to make the eyepiece more accessible and then ask them what’s the furthest thing away they can see. Can they spot any mountain lions on the top of that mountain over there? That’s pretty much what I do with a scope, and kids love it.
They also love looking through binoculars and feeling them dangle from their necks.. And who can blame them!? These things are like magic glasses. It can be difficult for kids to use binoculars, though, and frustrating if they can’t see what they’re looking for. As a good beginner exercise, getting them to read the words on some sign in the distance will help them learn to use the focus and hold the binoculars steady. When looking at birds, the same advice that works for adults works for kids: lock onto the bird with your bare eyes, slowly raise the binoculars up without moving, and you will be looking in the right place. Success.
Finally, try giving the kid a camera. Getting a photo of a bird, even with a smartphone or a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot, will give the kid something concrete to remember their experience. Photographs will help with them learn identification, too, as they review their images from the day.
Don't Force It. There’s nothing more annoying than adults trying to get you to do something, you know? Play it cool. Just making kids aware of what birding is—again, more than I had until college—can provide a basic foundation that they can return when they’re older and looking for a new activity.
At the same time, some kids are just into other stuff. Fishing or hunting might be the outdoor activity they’re into, or rock climbing or snowboarding. If kids don’t take up birding right away, try something else. In the end, if you can just get kids outside somehow, they’ll be alright.