The Power of Modeling Behavior for Children: A Run-in with a Caterpillar

The power of a mother, father or other trusted adult figure to shape a young child’s life is amazing and at times seemingly limitless.

This last week, while out on a walk, I looked down and saw a very beautiful caterpillar. I stopped to point it out to my daughter so that she could admire and experience its beauty as well.

And then I came to a fork in the road. Should I pick it up or leave it on the ground?

Honestly…I had no desire to touch that creepy, crawly, little caterpillar with sticky legs. Yuck.

But I did. I went down the fork I didn’t want to go down. I put my hand in front of it, put a big smile on my face and let that little creature crawl up my hand. Surprisingly, I found myself thinking, “Hey, this isn’t so creepy after all. Not as bad as I thought!” I remembered when I was young and collected caterpillars in a box. Did I let them crawl up my hand then? I can’t remember.

No less than two seconds later the little one below me cries…”I wanna hold it.” The little guy crawled freely around her hand and on her sweatshirt for a long time. She never showed one sign of distress or discomfort. Five minutes later we put it back on the grass to let it go and as we walked away she turned back, crying for the caterpillar, “I wann caerpiwarrrr…”

She was so distressed we went back for a little more of that little guy marching up and down her sleeve.

Wow! She was in heaven. You can see a really genuine, calm happiness peeking out from behind that binky.

Had I said, “No, don’t touch…Icky,” she most likely would never have experienced the beauty of that little crawly thing and would have been one step further away from nature and its glory.

I’m happy for her and proud of myself for taking a leap and putting my finger in front of those sticky little legs. I knew it was the right thing to do and I did it.

It may seem like just a little thing but I would like to believe that the outcome was bigger than that small act.  Little did I know how much the power of modeling would hold for a child of this age and how much joy she would gain as a result.

Nature Play as an Everyday Joy of Childhood? For Kids, Frequency Requires Proximity


Most of us who enjoyed nature play in our childhoods realize that it didn’t matter if we had a pristine patch of forest to play in or just a couple of vacant city lots.  Either way, there were endless things to find, explore, capture, imagine, and play with.  But what was important is that these places were right there, within our walking/running/biking distance.  No car, no parent, and no schedule were needed to get outside and play in nature.

The children and nature movement is fostering wonderful new ways for kids to play outdoors, such as designed natural playspaces, family nature clubs, and naturalized schoolyards.  These and other similar efforts are valuable steps – not only for the kids, but for parents who are reconsidering their children’s indoor, nature-deprived lives.  Yet most of these new approaches are challenged in one vital dimension:  frequency

When Dr. Louise Chawla (University of Colorado) researched influential childhood experiences in nature, she found that, “The special places that stood out in memory, where people formed a first bond with the natural world, were always a part of the regular rhythm of life.”  Those powerful experiences didn’t typically come from annual family camping trips, but rather from day-after-day, week-after-week events in children’s lives.  Actually, no special research is needed to realize that frequent childhood activities have more lasting impact than ephemeral ones.  Practicing the violin once a month is not a very effective strategy!  Is it better than nothing?  Perhaps – but only if you set your sights very low.

The same equation applies to nature play.  If we want it to have maximum impact, then it needs to be “part of the regular rhythm of life.”  It seems unlikely that we can achieve this solely through monthly meet-ups or widely scattered playspaces – strategies that require parents, cars and calendars, and thus compete for time within families’ hectic schedules.  Are these approaches valuable?  Absolutely!  Are they sufficient?  Unlikely.

If we really want to power-up nature-based play, it needs to be available where children can enjoy it almost any day, without adult involvement or confining schedules.  For most kids this means either home yards or neighborhood parks – and (sadly) only the former is likely to alleviate the fears of 21st-century American parents.  Can a typical quarter-acre suburban yard actually support nature play?  Or a city lot half that size?  Or an apartment courtyard?  The answer is yes, especially for kids of about two to eight years old.  Younger children’s worlds are much smaller than those of adults.  They don’t need sprawling spaces or eye-popping vistas.  Their attention naturally focuses on tiny and manipulable pleasures:  on dandelions rather than rose gardens; on earthworms rather than herds of bison; on a patch of dirt to dig in rather than a yawning cave to explore.

Unfortunately, the typical American yard is no haven for nature play.  Good nature play requires “rich” settings – that is, a diversity of plants, animals, and landforms that create endless opportunities for discovery and engagement.  Turf grass lawns, solitary shade trees, and a few neatly trimmed shrubs do not meet these criteria.  However, even the sparest yard can be augmented for good nature play with a little thought, a dose of elbow grease, and much less money than what those elaborate backyard play sets cost.

The key is to create yards with a “density of diversity:” a collection of micro-habitats that will harbor lots of natural discoveries and delights throughout the seasons.  These micro-habitats might include a shrub thicket, a wildflower garden, a jumbled pile of boulders, a tiny garden pond, a butterfly garden, a berry patch, a mass of tall native grasses, or even a space allowed to just grow into whatever comes up!  Once you’ve established a few of these tiny worlds in your yard, you can enhance them with a digging pit or a giant dirt pile, a couple of large logs, bird and toad houses, a bench or hammock in a quiet nook, and plenty of “loose parts” to nurture creative and constructive play.  These loose parts can be branches, driftwood, cattails, bamboo poles, boards, tree cookies (log slices), tarps, seed pods, pine cones, large boxes, hay bales, and whatever else you can readily scrounge up.

By focusing your primary efforts on creating multiple micro-habitats, you will ensure authentic nature play:  interactions with real nature, in all of its beauty, wonder, unpredictability, and adventure.  Manufactured outdoor play components – like the plastic play equipment designed to look natural – do not create the same connections to the natural world.  Kids can’t peel the bark off a plastic log to find rollie-pollies, and they won’t find monarch caterpillars feeding on fiberglass leaves.  In fact, one big, over-grown wildflower bed — or a patch of flowering shrubs laced with tiny paths — will bring more lasting and real nature play to your kids than will any human-made product! 

Note, though, that nature playscapes are more “messy” than most home landscaping, so you may want to keep much of your nature play zone in the backyard where it won’t generate hostility from neighbors who think front yards should look like golf greens.  However, certain nature play features are usually “dressy” enough to bring into front yards, like butterfly gardens, boulders, and herb gardens.  And by highlighting street-side nature play, you may encourage other local parents to think more about “kid-scaping” their own yards.  Nature play zones get better and better when more of your neighbors imitate and add to your own efforts!

None of these steps towards home-based nature play require great knowledge, training, or expense.  They can be implemented bit by bit, and your plans can be in constant flux as you discover what your kids and their friends most enjoy.  The ultimate goal is to create enough nature play “critical mass” so that your kids are excited to play in their own yards — day after day, and whenever they wish.  Then nature play will be a regular joy for your children; then it will achieve the frequency needed to influence and benefit them for decades to come! 

A few suggested resources with ideas to support home-based nature play:

– “A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play” from Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood:

– National Wildlife Federation’s guidance on creating backyard wildlife…

“Nature Play:  Simple and Fun Ideas for All” from Forestry Commission England:

A Child’s Garden:  Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents, by Molly Dannenmaier

Plants for Play:  A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments, by Robin Moore

Natural Playscapes:  Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul, by Rusty Keeler


GUEST POST: Demystifying Attachment Parenting: It’s About Meeting Your Child’s Needs

Written by Sheryl Senkiw

I am a mother of a wonderful, energetic three year old boy.  When he was a year old, I found a useful tool, a philosophy of child rearing called “Attachment Parenting.”

To this day, my husband has never heard of “Attachment Parenting.”  He has gone with me to gatherings in a room full of parents who follow, to some degree or another, the Attachment Parenting philosophy.  All he saw was families. There was no special label on them.  Yet, surprisingly, it was my husband who led me to find Attachment Parenting.

When our son was about a year old, I was advised by a family member of how to get him to sleep through the night in his crib.  Put him in his crib, close the door, and make no contact with him until morning.  No matter how much he cries, do not communicate with him.  I fully intended to try it.  But my husband said “No.”  He heard our son’s cries, and said, “Don’t let him cry like that; you are traumatizing him.”  Thanks to my husband, I found an approach that felt better to me.”

I did some online reading, spoke with other parents, and found that there was a style of parenting that was different that what my family member and TV nannies had been teaching. It was called “Attachment Parenting.”

Attachment Parenting is a parenting philosophy.  Dr William Sears, a pediatrician, father, and parent educator came up with the term “Attachment Parenting.” It is meant to be a style of parenting that focuses on doing something parents naturally want to do: be responsive to the needs of your child. It is a way we can think about and look at how we raise our children, and make choices about how we interact within our families each day.

Attachment Parenting International ( is an organization that “promotes parenting practices that create strong, healthy emotional bonds between children and their parents.”

There are 8 basic principles as outlined by the Attachment Parenting International (  I am listing their principles, and giving my own examples of what the principles mean to me.

Prepare for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting

Before your baby is born, and if possible before you get pregnant, read a book or go to a class.  Inform yourself about good nutrition for mom and baby.  Find out about different birth options.  Read about breastfeeding, or better yet, find a friend who is breastfeeding and watch how it is done.  Get different viewpoints about raising children, and know that regardless of how you go about it, it will be challenging.

Hold your baby as soon as possible after birth, talk to your baby, connect with your baby, and learn how your baby communicates with you.

Feed with Love and Respect

Breastfeed if possible. Breastfeeding is nutritionally better for the baby, and can have hormonal benefits for mother and baby.  Whether you breastfeed or formula feed, feed your baby when he or she is hungry. Hold your baby and interact with him or her while feeding.

Respond with Sensitivity

From the first day of life, your baby is learning about the world.  You want your baby to be able to trust you, so it is important to respond to your babies needs.  As your child grows older, this means responding to your child, treating him or her with respect, and treating him or her as you would like to be treated.

Use Nurturing Touch

Hold your baby frequently.  Wearing the baby in a carrier is one way of doing that, and can make it easier to go through your day with the baby close.  Give your older child hugs.  Physical contact is good for children.

Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally

Keep your baby within arms reach at night.  This may mean a crib next to your bed. Respond to your baby’s needs to be fed and soothed during the night.   For an older child, continue to pay attention to their needs, even at night time.  Crying it Out, which means having them cry alone in a room until they fall asleep from sadness, fear, and exhaustion, is discouraged.

Provide Consistent and Loving Care

Make sure there is always a trusted, loving person taking care of your child.  If it can be one of the parents, that is best. However, children will attach to other adults and substitute caregivers that a child feels close to can serve as another trusted, loving person.

Practice Positive Discipline

Learn about gentle ways of disciplining your child that don’t involve hitting.

Strive for Balance in Your Personal and Family Life

Know that the physical and mental health of everyone is important.  Ask for help from friends and family members, house cleaners, babysitters…Try to get enough sleep.

Pretty simple, basic stuff, right?  I think so.

The Attachment Parenting philosophy is a tool.  It is something parents can use as a guide for making daily decisions about how to raise their children.  There is a lot of good science behind some of the soecific practices, and a lot of loving, nurturing ideas.  The Eight Principles are pretty basic, and many families already use them, without knowing they are part of the Attachment Parenting philosophy.  Take from the toolbox what works for your family.