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How to save the world by raising a river rat

That distant river bend isn’t just the perfect way to frame a photograph. It’s also the ellipsis to a daring journey, the “to be continued” in an epic exploration.

These are the solemn truths that children instinctively know, and that we can be privy to if we give their stories the right time and place to blossom. Our state’s awe-inspiring waters are one of these spaces. Has there ever been a more perfect setting for imaginative play?

In the days of “nature-deficit disorder,” children need the mental health, creativity and immune system boosts that come from getting outdoors and enjoying our rivers – and our waters need kids just as much, because children who play outside are more likely to value and defend nature as adults. If part of our job as parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, community leaders or role models is to raise up and provide for the next generation, perhaps the best way we can accomplish our momentous task is to teach them a genuine love of and respect for our state’s waters and natural areas.

In honor of No Child Left Inside Day, here are five tips for nurturing a love for our state’s rivers, springs, creeks and bays in your children:

1. Don’t feel pressured to “dive in” right away.

Your child’s first water outing doesn’t need to be spent cruising through rapids on the Rio Grande, or even floating lazily down the Comal. There’s plenty of time for that as your child becomes comfortable with these settings, but raising your kid to love and care for our state’s waters doesn’t have to involve a lot of fanfare or extravagance.

Start off simply . Have a family picnic alongside a pond or river bank, or go for a walk on a waterside trail. Point out interesting parts of the river to your child. Wander closer to the shore with them to explore more if they show an interest.

2. Start your own water-inspired traditions.

One of the greatest gifts we can give to the next generation is a rich tradition of meaningful time spent outdoors, especially exploring our rivers, creeks, springs and bays.

This tradition can start orally as you tell your children stories about your favorite water adventures – maybe the time your parents snuck you out of school early to leave for a Gulf Coast paddling trip, or the time you spotted an elusive river otter while you stood knee-deep in cold water, casting for bass. Or maybe it’s something uncomplicated and peaceful, like a memorable afternoon spent perched on the river’s edge with a good friend.

Begin building your own family’s river traditions by setting aside time for your family to visit a nearby state park, paddling trail or preserve. It’s great if you can make a weekend out of it – but if not, you can still nurture a tradition by returning time and time again.

3. Marvel together.

Talk with your child about the many plants and critters that live in riparian areas or in our bay systems. Explain that these plants and animals need the water to survive, just like we do, and that we can help save water for these habitats by using less water at home.

While you’re out exploring our state’s waters, point out any interesting plants, critters, bugs or fish that you see. Share in the special sense of amazement that comes from discovering entire ecosystems at your children’s fingertips. As you explore and discover together, you can help nurture a respect for nature and a desire to protect these remarkable spaces.

4. Plan your adventure together.

Involve your child in the journey from the beginning. Talk with them about where you’re going, and explain to them why this is a special place. Ask them what they’d like to do on their adventure. Of course, there’s no need for structured activity – but if your child has a particular interest in one, helping them to explore it could lead to a newly-discovered love for a sport or hobby. Hobbies can give us a reason to keep coming back, and help us to foster a love for a place.

Learn more about teaching your kid to fish or introducing your child to paddling.

5. Let things flow.

Don’t head into your adventure with too many expectations. Sticking to plans isn’t nearly as important as giving your child the space and time to explore. More likely than not, they’ll discover the magic of our state’s waters on their own terms – and as you keep the tradition alive, they’ll carry this magic with them throughout their whole lives.

Lizzie Jespersen
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Lizzie Jespersen

Communications and outreach manager at National Wildlife Federation
Lizzie develops and implements strategies for reaching new audiences and engaging Texans in the Texas Living Waters mission. Lizzie is constantly plotting how to spend more time outdoors, and usually does so through photography, rock climbing, hiking or fly fishing.
Lizzie Jespersen
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