03/09/2012 03:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Good Are Your Urban Nature Spotting Skills?

Yes, I'm a huge fan of spending time in nature with my kids. And yes, I live in an urban jungle. One in which the nearest neighborhood park is about a mile away. Beyond that, the nearest trails, rivers, creeks, city or state parks are at least 20 minutes away. By car.

When you live in a concrete-filled city like Los Angeles, sometimes connecting with nature can seem... a little challenging.

Then again, sometimes you just have to slow down and take a closer look at what's around you.

How exactly do you do that? In the seven years since having kids, I've developed a few skills that come in quite handy if you're trying to connect kids with nature when you're not actually in nature. Here goes.


Develop a 'nature radar.'

Okay, I made that name up. But I think this is probably one of the most important things you need to do to appreciate nature in an urban setting. A "nature radar" allows you to connect with nature even if you're somewhere you wouldn't expect to discover it.

Case in point: Earlier this week, my 3-1/2-year-old and I were on a walk around our neighborhood. He stopped for a second to point out a flower he'd spotted. When we leaned in for closer inspection, we noticed something like ten different bugs living on the stem of the flower. Needless to say, we talked about our discovery for hours.

Don't count out the concrete.

The other day we spotted a row of dandelions growing right alongside the curb where my car was parked. Before getting inside the car, the kids and I spent a few minutes looking at the flowers, stems and leaves growing out of apparently thin air. This isn't the first time we've seen signs of nature peeking up through the pavement.

Use your commute time to your advantage.

Have you ever noticed what's going on in nature right outside your car window? We've pulled over more times than I can count because one of us spotted something worth watching. Cool cloud formations, gorgeous sunsets and make-you-smile rainbows. And the birds. From bird chases to group meetings on a wire, they never disappoint.

Get to know your local critters.

We talk to the crows that live in and around our house. (And no, we're not nuts.) So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that my 7-year-old gives me regular updates about the bird activities he sees while he's at school. Stuff like which direction the birds are flying, how many of them are gathered and whether they're quiet or noisy. He even uses their behavior to predict storms.

Break free from the pack at your neighborhood park.

Step away from the sandbox and playground for a few minutes. I know it's a scary thought. But you might be surprised at just how much nature discovery can take place at an otherwise man-made green space.

A few of our favorite ways to make a nature connection at the park? We'll take a walk around the perimeter of the park; if there's a paved path even better. Once on the "trail," we might try to count how many animals we can spot in a minute. Or maybe we keep it even simpler and lie down on the grass and do some cloud watching.

Take a closer look at the things you see every day.

Like the roses outside our front door, which one afternoon housed a winged critter that sent my 7-year-old over the moon with excitement. Last fall, we spotted all kinds of cool spiders and webs in the shrubbery right in our driveway.

How do you like to explore nature in an urban setting?