Earth Matters: Picture books can enrich kids’ outdoor experiences

By ALLIE MARTINEAU

For the Recorder

Published: 04-10-2023 5:03 PM

The days are longer, snow sculptures have melted and the seeds sleeping in the dirt are considering their next moves. Spring is here, and the outdoors of western Massachusetts are calling.

There are plenty of day trips to community gardens, public parks, mountain trails and campsites. When your family sets off, pack a few picture books like those below to strengthen the experience — to add context, vibrancy or fantasy, or even to inspire art projects. In these books, you’ll find a reason to go outdoors and get to know the flora and fauna of the Pioneer Valley.

We pride ourselves on being a part of the Connecticut River Valley, where the great outdoors is only a short bus ride or walk away. Access to cars, or cities outside our window can make us forget how green spaces improve our mental health, or that we can bring nature to us. Visit your library and check out “Rock by Rock: The Fantastical Garden of Nek Chand” (Bradbury/Boughton), “Harlem Grown” (Hillery/Hartland), “Errol’s Garden” (Hibbs), “The Curious Garden” (Brown) and “Florette” (Walker) to show kids how a city rooftop, empty lot or unused public land can be turned into community gardens of plants, food and art.

Bulbs are already blooming in local botanical and public gardens. They’re inviting you to frolic or romp among the flowers at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, the Botanic Garden of Smith College, the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett and Stanley Park in Westfield. Sit under a tree with your toddler and read board books like “Baby Botanist” (Gehl) and “Goodnight, Veggies” (Murray/OHora).

Bring along “Yasmin the Gardener” (Faruqi/Aly) and “Garden Day!” (Ransom/Meza) for early readers, and write down how many petals, pots and pollinators you see in their greenhouses after reading “The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter” (Larkin).

Our valley is full of woodland and mountain trails that families can explore in just a few hours. Mount Tom State Reservation and Mount Sugarloaf have parking, hiking and biking trails, and great views of the Pioneer Valley. When you stop your hike for a snack break, pull out “Hike” (Oswald), “Spring Hike” (Dowd/Moyo) and “Hiking Day” (Rockwell/Rockwell).

Appreciate the trees and diverse flora at the National Natural Landmark Bartholomew’s Cobble (and other Trustees of Reservations locations across Massachusetts) with titles including “Wake Up Woods” (Homoya/Gibson/Harris), “The Things that I Love About Trees” (Butterworth/Voake) and “Look What I Found in the Woods” (Butterfield/Verona). At historic locations such as Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, books like “Daniel Finds a Poem” (Archer) can inspire a creative project.

Who can write the funniest haiku or limerick? Can you write an ode to a found object from your hike?

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Pack a few books with your water and snacks when visiting the many conservation areas of western Mass. Take a walk at Fitzgerald Lake in Florence, Mittineague Park in West Springfield and Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, where you can get creative in their arts and crafts cabin while reading aloud from middle-grade titles about navigating nature and friendships like “Partly Cloudy” (Davis), “Paradise on Fire” (Rhodes) and Newbery Medal winner “Hello, Universe” (Kelly).

If you’re making camping plans along the Mohawk Trail or in your backyard, pack a reading light. Early readers will love “Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping” (Watt) and “Bug Scouts: Camp Out!” (Lowery). Middle-grade readers can laugh all night while reading graphic novels “Camp” (Miller) and “Be Prepared” (Brosgol), or add a touch of magic with “Chiggers” (Larson).

Young adult readers will never forget “Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults” (Kimmerer/Smith/Neidhart), or one reluctant queer kid’s summer retreat in “As the Crow Flies” by graphic novelist Melanie Gillman, who can draw big skies that never end with just a few colored pencils.

Shared spaces like city parks help us get moving and meet our neighbors, as we learn in “A Park Connects Us” (Nelson/Rooney). Pulaski Park in Holyoke has a skate park that may inspire you to put on roller blades or put air back in your bike tires. In that case, bring along books like “Emmanuel’s Dream” (Thompson/Qualls), “Skater Cielo” (Katstaller) and “Kick Push” (Morrison).

The ways our bodies play and move are unique and worth celebrating, so pick a picture book rooted in disability justice and body positivity like “We Move Together” (Fritsch/McGuire/Trejos), “Bodies Are Cool” (Feder) and “We Are Little Feminists: On the Go.”

Even if our city is more gray than green, nature is all around us. Check out “The Street Beneath My Feet” (Guillain/Zommer), “Sidewalk Flowers” (Lawson/Smith), and “Expedition Backyard: Exploring Nature from Country to City” (Mosco/Hu). After reading “Miss Rumphius” (Cooney), you may find yourself tossing flower seeds into unused dirt plots on your way to work and school to “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

At any age, picture books inspire us to connect with the outside world and engage with nature. Each of these books can inspire activities: making your own footprints in mud and guessing how long they’ll stay, tossing seeds into an unused patch of city dirt, or creating fairy houses along the trail. With subjects like building your own community garden plot, drawing the world around you and getting to know your neighbors, picture books teach us valuable life skills and connect us to each other.

Allie Martineau (they/she) is the communications and marketing coordinator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment who holds a master’s degree in writing for children from Simmons University. You can find their work at alliethebrave.com and on Instagram @AllieTheBrave. Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 14 years. After more than two years of the pandemic, the center’s doors and trails are once again open at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.

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