Great ideas to help families spend more time together in nature

By Leslie Garisto Pfaff
Photographs by Siri Berting

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 (; 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. 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; 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.

Throw A Backyard Campout

Even if you're only steps away from the comforts of home, camping immerses you in nature like nothing else. That's the thinking behind the NWF's Great American Backyard Campout on June 22. To participate, just register at; you can make it a family affair, invite friends to join you, camp with your class, scout troop, or town, or see if a group campout near you is already registered on NWF's website. (And if you can't do it June 22, you can register for another date.) To make the event more fun for everyone involved, consider the following tips from Helen Olsson, author of The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids (Roost Books, $17.95).

Start by reading fun books about camping and nature, such as Pancakes for Supper!, by Anne Isaacs, Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping, by Peggy Parish, and The Moon by Night, by Madeleine L'Engle.

Gauge your family's comfort level: Telling scary stories is a camping tradition, but if your kids are anxious, try trading jokes, singing songs, or playing 20 Questions instead.

Keep kids entertained. Stock your campsite with a deck of cards, Nerf balls, hacky sacks, cat's cradle string, and other small fun-starters.

Light the night. Let each child sleep with a flashlight or place a battery-operated night-light (or glow sticks) in one of the tent's mesh pockets.

Make a Natural Impression

From the raylike ridges on a seashell to the delicate veins of a leaf, nature is full of fantastic patterns, and you can collect them by making rubbings. Place a sheet of paper (or see-through tracing vellum) over your quarry (tree bark, leaves, stones, seedpods, and so on), then rub gently with a pastel stick or the side of a peeled crayon. Tip: For larger projects, secure the paper in place with painter's tape. Kids can file their patterns in a binder or notebook, then challenge friends and family to figure out the source of each one.

Get Ready, Get Set, Explore!

Prepare for outdoor adventure with these simple strategies.

  1. Outfit yourselves: It may seem obvious, but to stay comfortable outside, everyone in the family should have rain pants, boots, and hooded coats (we're talking to you, parents). The same goes for snow gear if you live in a cold climate.
  2. Keep gear handy: Stock a canvas tote or backpack with a magnifying glass, binoculars, bug catcher or net, small containers for collecting finds, a compass, and portable kid-friendly references (like Golden Guides and Peterson First Guides). Keep the bag by the door.
  3. Hang a family nature board: Mount a chalkboard or whiteboard in a prominent spot and record your sightings (a salamander under a rock, rabbit tracks in the snow) for all to see. Add a bulletin board to pin up cool finds like unusual leaves, as well as nature photos and drawings.
  4. Create a perpetual journal: Track nature's progress by dividing a loose-leaf binder into 12 sections, one for each month. When you spy a new sign of the season (first robin, apple tree in bloom, first frost), jot the details on the appropriate month's pages. In future years, you'll be able to look back and compare dates.

Go on a Photo Safari

Hand your kids a camera, and they'll see nature through a whole new lens. Encourage them to capture details like the swirled pattern of flower petals, ferns dripping with dew, or an intriguing insect. Help them to identify their finds using a field guide or nature app, then post the snapshots on a Family Nature Board.

5 more ways to inspire reluctant adventurers

  1. Get out there yourself. If your kids see you having fun outside, they just may follow your lead. Plan regular family nature outings and focus vacations around special outdoor destinations.
  2. Build on your child's passion. Is she an animal lover? Introduce her to birding or tracking. Is he wild for dinosaurs? Teach him how to search for and identify fossils. Fascinated by outer space? Buy her a telescope and introduce her to the night sky.
  3. Invite friends. If your kids balk at the idea of playing outside or hiking through the woods, have them invite a friend or two to share the activity.
  4. Make it mysterious. Instead of telling your kids to "get outside and play," challenge them with nature's mysteries: "I wonder what's living in that leaf pile." "Do you think any planets are visible tonight?" "Where do you suppose that squirrel sleeps?"
  5. Start collecting. The great outdoors is filled with treasures waiting to be claimed, from shiny stones, seedpods, and beach sand to birdsongs captured on a digital recorder.

Where Can We Go?

These cool digital tools let you find nature near you. Search this website and free app by zip code for nearby hiking trails, as well as kayaking spots, scenic drives, camping areas, and lots more.

Nature Find: Just enter your zip code in this web tool ( or free app for a list of parks, trails, farms, museums, botanical gardens, and more near you. Find places to boat and fish, see which species can be caught there, and learn about state rules and regulations. Find nearby places to canoe, kayak, or paddleboard.

What Is That?

Identify your finds with these awesome apps.

Chirp! Bird Songs USA. Connect the singer -- a robin, for instance -- with the song: "Cheerio, cheerio, cheer-up!" ($2.99, iOS)

TreeBook. Identify trees by their leaves and, in winter, by their twigs. (free, iOS)

LeafSnap. Upload your leaf photo and learn the name of the tree it came from. The current version is limited to the Northeast, but other editions are planned. (free, iOS)

Pocket Universe. Point your phone at the night sky, and this app will identify stars, planets, constellations, and other celestial objects of interest. ($2.99, iOS)

Read All About It

Fire up young explorers with these activity-packed books.

Look Up!: Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard, by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick Press, $15.99). Cheeky humans and anthropomorphized birds lead the way in this captivating primer.

The Wild Weather Book: Loads of Things to Do Outdoors in Rain, Wind and Snow, by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield (Frances Lincoln Ltd., $14.95). A wealth of creative ideas for finding fun in any kind of weather.

It's A Jungle Out There! 52 Nature Adventures for City Kids, by Jennifer Ward (Roost Books, $14). A year of neighborhood nature discoveries for urban families, organized by season.

Can I Bring That Home?

NWF naturalist David Mizejewski on nature etiquette:

Q. If you go fishing, you can bring home a fish. If you come across a frog or some other small animal on the trail, is it okay to bring it home with you?

A. Fishing is in a class by itself. You often need a license to fish, and what you're allowed to catch is determined by biologists who study wildlife populations. In other situations, you should be guided by the old phrase: Leave only footprints; take only photos. At the same time, naturalists recognize that hunting for bugs or mucking around in a pond to see what lives there, for instance, are really valuable learning experiences, and there's nothing better on a summer night than catching fireflies in a jar and watching them glow. After a couple of hours of observing, though, you should let whatever you catch go, in the same place that you found it.

Q. What about collecting inanimate items?

A. Kids are going to want to collect rocks and twigs, pretty leaves, and so on. And in fact, it's one of the activities we recommend on the NWF website. But there are two important exceptions: birds' nests and feathers. It's illegal to own any piece of a migratory bird (because of a law aimed at stopping poachers). And always keep in mind that nature doesn't exist just for you -- it's something we can all share and experience. So don't do anything that could cause potential damage. Picking wildflowers, for instance, is bad for endangered species and robs other people of the experience of seeing and enjoying them. So don't take that pretty flower; take a pretty picture instead.

FamilyFun/NWF Get Outdoors Contest:

Do you have a great idea for getting your family out in nature? We want to hear about it! Go to and click on the Get Outdoors tab to submit your idea. Each of nine winning entries will receive a prize package of gear from the National Wildlife Federation and could be featured in a future issue of FamilyFun!

Originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Family Fun


Be the first to comment!