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 Winifred Yu Maressa Brown and Leslie Garisto Pfaff
Updated January 14, 2020
Steve Sparrow/Getty Images

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 rounded up some fun and easy ways to get outside this year. Whether your have an afternoon, a weekend, or a week of vacation time to plan, there's an activity you can manage—we promise!

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.

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).

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.

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.

Stroll With Your Senses

Teach your kids to explore the woods with eyes, ears, nose, and fingers on high alert. Bring a magnifying glass or binoculars for a close-up look at plants, flowers, and trees. Peer under logs and rocks for salamanders and insects. Sniff the pine trees. Feel the rough bark or the sticky sap. Then, silently listen to the sounds of birds, water, and small animals. It's best to go without an agenda to spot specific plants or animals, says Hank Art, author of WoodsWalk. "Part of the joy of being in the woods is never knowing what you're going to discover."

Gather Nature's Collectibles

Help your child turn nature's debris into a fun hobby. Young kids can gather acorns, pinecones, and colorful autumn leaves. Older children can look for deer antlers, snake-skin sheddings, and bird feathers. At the beach, scour for pretty rocks, bleached-out sand dollars, and shells. Store items in a shoe box or a plastic display case, or showcase them in craft projects. Glue seashells onto a wooden frame, for instance, or seal fall leaves between sheets of wax paper using an iron.

Bring the Outdoors In

Continue the lessons with books and magazines or trips to museums, aquariums, and nature centers. Many of these places allow children to touch natural objects and study plants and animals up close. Also look for local nature classes, workshops, and activities just for kids.

Catch a Critter

Choose an insect that fascinates your child, suggests Connie Zakowski, author of The Insect Book: A Basic Guide to the Collection and Care of Common Insects for Young Children. Ladybugs, grasshoppers, and fireflies make kid-friendly specimens. Using an insect net, help your child capture the bug, and place it in a plastic jar along with a small twig and a few fresh leaves. Cover the jar, but make sure to punch several tiny holes in the lid for air. Kids can spritz the lid with water each day, supply new leaves, and clean the jar every three days. Some insects, like ladybugs or butterflies, are tough to feed, so it's best to release them after a day.

Pick Fruit

A trip to a berry farm, an apple orchard, or a pumpkin patch teaches kids that produce doesn't come from the supermarket. Ripened blueberries and raspberries are edible right off the branch. Be careful picking blackberries, which often grow on thorny stems. If your child likes to eat apples off the tree, make sure they're organically grown. When you get home, make a pie, a cake, or jam to show how nature's bounty can be put to good use.

Gaze at the Stars

Check out astronomy books, or visit an observatory or a planetarium to learn what different constellations and planets look like. On a clear night, go outside with binoculars or a telescope, and look for Orion or the Big Dipper. Even toddlers will enjoy gazing up at the moon. As your kids get older, they might spot a galaxy, a shooting star, or a planet. When a comet, a meteor shower, or a lunar eclipse comes around, gather the family to watch and learn.

Enjoy the Weather

Look at the clouds, and ask your child what shapes and images he sees. Older kids can identify different types of clouds, from puffy cumulus to wispy cirrus. On a windy day, watch how quickly clouds sail across the horizon. And while we all love sunny days, bad weather can be fun too, says Michael E. Ross, a naturalist who leads tours at Yosemite National Park, in California. Watch a thunderstorm from a cozy window. Take wind chimes, kites, or flags outdoors to illustrate how a blustery wind can set objects in motion. Dress your kids in the right gear, and let them stomp in the rain or snow.

Get Growing

Give your child her own patch of garden or pot of soil, and have her plant a flower, vegetable, or herb of her choice (quick-to-sprout plants such as marigolds, basil, or tomatoes can offer fast, rewarding results). Invest in small but sturdy gardening tools, and let your child dig a hole and plant the seeds. Teach her to water her plant regularly and in proper amounts. But try not to overdirect her early gardening efforts, says Kathy Bond Borie, co-director of educational media for the National Gardening Association. "Relax your standards. It's okay for your child to have crooked rows or a few pampered weeds."

Celebrate the Sunrise and Sunset

It happens every day, yet few of us take the time to catch the changing hues of the morning or evening sky. If your kids are early risers, take them outside to listen to birdcalls and note the flurry of activity shortly after sunrise. Budding artists can draw what they see. Older kids can record the moment the sun appears on the horizon and note how it changes as the days pass. At sunset, enjoy the sky's multicolor show, and look and listen for nocturnal creatures.

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