There's a great, big, wonder-filled world out there just waiting to engage, inspire, and entertain our kids -- and make them healthier and happier. Studies show time spent in green spaces reduces stress; encourages cooperation and compassion; and helps children focus on schoolwork, think creatively, and score higher on school tests. It also offers major health dividends in the form of leaner bodies, stronger muscles and bones, better eyesight, and improved immunity. In fact, when kids are in touch with nature, the whole world wins, since nature-loving children grow up with a greater sense of environmental responsibility. Add to that the benefits of kid-directed play, and you have even more reason to shoo them out the door.
But as parents ourselves, we know that's easier said than done. In the face of busy school and practice schedules -- and the ever-present lure of technology -- getting our kids to spend unstructured time outside can be challenging. That's why we've partnered with the National Wildlife Federation's Be Out There campaign to help kids and families find simple, fun ways to get out in nature. The following pages are packed with tips and suggestions. Many more nature crafts, games, activities, and resources can be found on the Get Outdoors page. The NWF wants to get 10 million kids outside over the next three years. Shouldn't yours be among them?
Map Your Yard's Natural Wonders
Let your kids discover how much nature is lurking right outside their own back door by creating a nature trail in your yard or a favorite nearby green space. Have them sketch a simple map of the "sights" -- distinctive trees, shrubs, or plants, and places they've seen evidence of birds, bugs, and other critters. Highlight these spots with signs (we made ours from precut craft wood and twine, but other weatherproof materials would also work). With a little help, they can learn more about the flora and fauna they've found, then use their notes as a simple trail guide.
Blaze Your Own Trail
Here's a great way to introduce your kids to the fun of hiking. Using colored chalk to make marks, or blazes, on tree trunks or large rocks, they can create a temporary trail in the backyard or in a local park or green space. Remind them that when hikers reach one blaze, they should be able to see the next one along the trail. Once they've marked their own paths, head out to a hiking area to see where other blazes lead.
Be a citizen naturalist:
The scientists who study nature need our help! These apps and websites will let your child connect with them.
At NWF's Wildlife Watch (nwf.org; search "Wildlife Watch"), you can print out a nature sightings checklist for your area (with photos of the animals and plants on the list), report your findings, and see what cool critters (and other growing things) folks near you have come across.
SciStarter.com. You'll find a huge assortment of citizen nature surveys looking for input from families like yours. Depending on where you live and what piques your interest, you can count butterflies, snap photos of spiders and bees, report on the condition of local streams, collect microbes, and much more.
Project Noah. This free app sends you on special missions (such as Mushroom Mapping, Project Squirrel, and Spirals in Nature) in search of animals, plants, and natural phenomena, then lets you upload and share photos with fellow nature detectives around the globe. (free, iOS)
How to Turn Your Yard Into a Fun Zone
Play is what kids do naturally when left to their own (non-tech) devices, and it has terrific physical and psychological benefits. "When kids plan their own play sessions, solve their own disputes, and figure out their own rules, they're honing leadership and social skills and boosting self-reliance and creativity," notes Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play (Free Play Press, $9.95; playborhood.com). The key to making your yard attractive to kids, says Lanza, is offering diverse activities to keep them engaged. Try these strategies:
Set up play areas in the front or side yard where they are visible from the street. Host a neighborhood gathering so that both kids and their parents can get comfortable with your yard.
Encourage a variety of activities: offer something to climb on (a swing set, rope climber, or jungle gym, say); a flat, paved surface (like a driveway) for bikes, scooters, skateboards, and the like; and a place to relax with comfortable seating (a bench, picnic table, or hammock).
Store yard toys in the yard. Dedicate a waterproof bin to supplies and fill it with everything that transforms a lawn into a playground: flying discs, bubble soap, bats and balls, badminton racquets, jump ropes...
Set up an outdoor arts-and-crafts station: a plastic table and chairs, a whiteboard and markers, and a waterproof bin for materials (such as sidewalk chalk, cardboard and glue for nature collages and constructions, and rocks to hold down paper on breezy days). Provide materials, such as bamboo poles, fabric, cartons, and flat stones, for building projects.
Create a private play space, such as a "fort" tucked in some shrubs, a tepee made of canvas and bamboo poles, a pop-up tent, or a dropcloth lean-to stapled to a fence on one side and staked in the ground on the other. Structures like these offer kids a private retreat and can become sets for imaginary play.
Grow a pick-and-eat garden with strawberries, pole beans, or cherry tomatoes -- in pots if you don't have lawn space.