From planning a road trip around "rockhounding" opportunities to building your own outdoor play area, these fun family activities are guaranteed to spark your child's interest in nature.

By Joanne Chen and Maressa Brown
February 10, 2020
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Show a child a tree stump and she’ll likely jump onto it, inspect it, or peel away a bit of its bark. One thing she probably won’t do, though, is leave it untouched. “That’s the thing about nature,” says Heather Hatada-Boyd, founder of Forest Folk New England, an organization in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that offers year-round family nature activities. “Being outdoors invites kids to observe and participate. There’s so much to see and question.”

Hatada-Boyd is part of a growing movement to make sure that nature is an integral aspect of childhood, a vehicle for learning and playing. These crusaders are building outlets—from park programs to “nature preschools” to community gardens—for kids to discover and appreciate creatures, plants, and habitats. Such programs have become a necessity: According to one study, only about a quarter of kids play outdoors daily.

I can personally vouch for this cultural shift. To my 9-year-old son, going outside is what you do to get somewhere; the outdoors isn’t a destination in itself. I’m not proud of this, but until last year he didn’t know what the word hike meant. We’re city folk, so when we spent a week in South Dakota last summer and my husband and I said, “Let’s go on a hike!” our son looked at us as if we were speaking another language. When we explained, he rolled his eyes.

Yet when we finally dragged him out on the trail and he saw a log to balance on and rocks in the creek to leap between, he declared hiking his new favorite pastime.

If the pull of screens and the comfort of the couch have made the outdoors a tough sell to your child, start by reminding yourself that you don’t have to trek to a national park. Nature is, after all, everywhere. Here’s a list of oh-so-doable ways to bring a little more fresh air into your family’s life.

Credit: Dane Tashima

Try Your Hand at Rockhounding

Have a budding geologist on your hands? Or maybe just a kid who loves to dig in the dirt? Rockhounding, otherwise known as amateur geology, is a fun way families across the country have started to spend time outside. The activity involves collecting mineral specimens, rocks, semi-precious gems, petrified wood, and invertebrate fossils from the earth. Whether you're heading out on a road trip and take a detour or heading out on a "field trip" focused specifically on digging for rocks and gems, it's wise to check land ownership when planning a rockhounding trip. You can check the Bureau of Land Management website and learn about rockhounding etiquette, as well as rules and regulations on the USDA Forest Service site.

Go Off-road with Toy Cars

When my son was a toddler, he and his buddies would take a few of their treasured vehicles to a park to vroom-vroom over rocks, dirt, and twigs. It was a more tactile experience than rolling them on a coffee table, and they liked sending cars careening on downward slopes.

Play Camp Kitchen

If your kid enjoys whipping up meals of faux food, he’ll love playing “campfire” in the backyard. Help him pack his play pots and pans, rubber chicken, and whatever else your little chef suggests into his backpack, then head out to collect kindling and build a “fire.”

Create Your Own Outdoor Play Area

By creating a special outdoor play area, your backyard can be just as adventurous and thrilling as heading out to a special destination. From building sandboxes to tree houses, hammocks to tire swings to a mud kitchen den (an outdoor space equipped with bowls, utensils, a sink, water—and mud!), there are many ways you can promote exploration and sensory play for your children right at home. You could also try an obstacle course that will get kids moving or a whimsical set-up like a magical gnome garden, a bear cave, or a wild animal safari to stimulate their growing imaginations. One-off projects like rainbow bubbles can make for a memorable experience, as well.

Take Barbie Into the Wild

One of my favorite toys growing up was my Barbie Country Camper, which my siblings and I would take to the backyard so Barbie, Skipper, and Ken could rough it. We’d pelt them with “rain” (it involved Mom’s watering can) or have them dig for treasure, pretending a cool-looking stone was a nugget of gold. The outdoors inspires this kind of creativity. That’s why, when my son was younger, I’d encourage him to take his superheroes to the park. How better to demonstrate the Hulk’s strength than to have him lift a real “boulder”? (Okay, it was a rock, but still.)

Get Crafty

Little ones who like to paint on paper will be psyched to do so on snow or the driveway. Mix water with food coloring, pour it into spray bottles, and let your kid channel Jackson Pollock.

Go Bird-Watching

"Once kids are introduced to this activity, a love of nature evolves naturally," says Jane Kirkland, author of the children's book Take a Backyard Bird Walk. "Watching birds requires that kids look from the sky to the ground and everywhere in between." Get to know the birds in your region. The next time you head outdoors with your child, bring a pair of binoculars. Survey trees, bushes, telephone poles, and grass for feathered friends. Observe a bird's colors, size, and behavior. Listen to its song, and watch how it flies. Younger kids will need you to tell them what they're seeing, but older kids can make notes and later identify the birds in books or online. Attract birds to your yard with a bird feeder, a birdbath, or a nest box.

Spell It with Sticks

Use a twig to inscribe letters in sand or dirt, or play the alphabet game (find elements in nature that start with a, b, c, and so on) while on a walk.

Play “Rock” Music

One of my kid’s favorite activities at our local botanical garden is to collect items like rocks, acorns, and sticks, then seal them in storage containers. We shake them to hear the different sounds they make.

Keep Your Eyes Open

“One winter, my kids and I drove up to Mount Agamenticus, in southern Maine, and found ourselves standing face-toface with a snowy owl, which turned and stared at us,” says Veilleux. “It was magical to have such a close encounter.”

Let Your Kids Rough It

Judy Chen, a New York City mom of Leo, 5, and aunt of Hazel, 7, does not like to camp, but when Leo begged, she and her husband took the kids on an overnight trip. It was hard but worth it, particularly as a teamwork exercise. The family had to prepare, eat, and clean up dinner before dark, so the kids helped look for sticks to make the fire and toast marshmallows while the grown-ups prepped the food. “The kids learned to be creative and patient, and realized they don’t need a lot to have fun,” says Chen. “They felt proud that they were helping out, and it was a great way to bond as a family.”

Lead Yourself to Water

Aquatic environments can reveal a whole host of creatures your child may have never seen before, not to mention textures, sounds, and scents. “My girls love to explore tide pools,” says Veilleux. “They look for sea shells and other ocean treasures, then use them to deck out their sand castles.” Little wonder the water has such good effect—research from Michigan State University found that people who live with a view of an ocean or a lake are generally happier.

Plan Nature Travel

You might want to plan a trip to an outdoor adventure travel destination where you can go hiking, rock climbing, rafting, or check out hot springs. Depending on where you live, the terrain for these activities could be right in your backyard, or you might do well to check out one of the destinations touted by U.S. News & World Report's best adventure vacations, such as the Grand Canyon (which made #1 on the list), Yellowstone (which offers 3,000-plus square miles of mountains, canyons, geysers, and waterfalls), or the Adirondacks (where you can go skiing, snowshoeing, or bobsledding in the winter and biking, fishing, hiking, canoeing, and whitewater rafting in the summer).

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