Get up and get out — outdoors, we mean. Getting outside is one of the best ways for your child to be active. That’s because it means less time playing video games or watching TV. Studies show that kids who regularly get outside amid greenery and natural light generate more Vitamin D, and they are happier and more relaxed. Children with ADHD who take a walk in the park can concentrate better than those who just walk through a neighborhood or downtown.
Kids can even suffer from a syndrome called “nature deficit disorder,” losing out on the benefits of seeing nature in all its glory.
For kids and the outdoors, nature beckons with healthy things to do year round — not just in the summertime. Make time for family fun and outdoor activities for young children, and your child will be a better student and a well-rounded kid.
Activities for Exploring the Outdoors With Your Child
Maybe you think you don’t know how to explore the outdoors with your child, but you don’t have to be “outdoorsy” to enjoy nature. Even if your family isn’t the kayaks-on-the-roof-rack type, you can encourage a child to play outside. You simply have to look around to find four seasons’ worth of nature-inspired activities that keep you and your child moving.
- Biking: Kids love biking. It gives them a sense of freedom and control. Parents love it because it builds heart health and strong muscles while it encourages independence and self-confidence. Take a spin around the neighborhood, or find a nearby rail trail or bicycle path. Bicycle clubs offer safe, organized rides for bicyclists of all abilities and ages. Find the right bicycle for your child by talking to knowledgeable bicyclists or checking websites for advice. Look for bicycle recyclers who rehab old bikes to good-as-new. Make sure your child wears a quality helmet.
- Camping: Kids who go camping shed stress, sleep better, enjoy new challenges, gain self-confidence and eat a more nutritious diet. Camping builds healthier relationships by encouraging families to share time without distractions. Don’t know where to start? The National Park Service’s “How to Camp” offers tips from start to finish — essentials to pack, setting up the campsite, cooking, safety, bringing the pets and cleaning up. An Outdoors retailer may offer classes and events led by experienced guides to introduce you and your family to a safe, fun experience. Start by staying close to home, at a campsite in a state or national park, or even in your own backyard! Camping offers parents a great opportunity to teach their kids the Leave No Trace principles of respecting the environment and other campers.
- Go on a scavenger hunt: The only special equipment needed for a fun scavenger hunt are pencil and paper. Use your imagination or find suggestions for searchable items online. Create a list of things your kids can find in the backyard, neighborhood or local park. Tie it to the season, perhaps listing a purple flower, a robin and a green leaf in the spring. Sneak in a bit of math skills by sending your kids to look for two worms, or literacy by creating a search by alphabet, such as “bugs that start with W.” Build excitement by designing the search around something your child loves, such as insects or rocks.
- Go stargazing: Since the beginning of humankind, people have looked toward the stars. For kids, stargazing encompasses a world of learning in a world of wonder. You can simply find a spot to spread a blanket and look up at the night sky. Or, you can prepare by visiting a planetarium and reading a sky map. Then, look for those constellations, letting your child connect the dots from one star to the next. This is a chance to learn about stars and planets, space exploration and the movement of the cosmos.
- Swimming: Dive in! The water is warm. Pools and beaches call to us in summertime. Swimming is great exercise that promotes flexibility, strength and stress relief. Swimming lessons give kids skills they’ll use for life, including how to react in case they fall into water by accident, how to set and strive for goals and how to have safe fun. A day in the water helps kids socialize and make up their own games, while Mom gets poolside time to read the latest thriller.
- Create a flower or vegetable garden: Where does your food come from? Gardening builds appreciation by teaching your child that food doesn’t magically appear at the grocery store. Plus, all that digging, raking and carrying is great exercise for young bodies. Kids and families who garden eat healthier because they’re excited about enjoying the fruits — and veggies — of their labors. While gardening gets kids outdoors in the sun, it also teaches patience and the STEM skills of reasoning, planning and organization as they choose their vegetables and decide where to plot their gardens.
- Have a picnic: Whether it’s in the backyard, a local park or beside a flowing stream, a picnic creates a little time bubble for unplugging and enjoying family moments. Kids who picnic with their parents feel listened to, and their moods improve. Picnics count as family meals — proven to help kids improve their academics and avoid risky behaviors. Keep the menu simple. Freeze water and juice ahead of time (they double as chillers for keeping food cold), and prepare finger foods and handhelds, such as wraps stuffed with greens as an alternative to salads. Bring fun games and activities that everyone can enjoy, or encourage the kids to explore nature by searching for interesting leaves and rocks.
- Pick berries at an orchard: Fresh berries are one of the best things about summertime. They taste even better when kids pick their own! Find a local orchard, or plan an excursion into the country. Call ahead to make sure there are plenty of berries to pick, because fruit grows according to its own timetable. Consider going early in the day, before the sun gets too hot. Bring blankets and water for breaks. When you get home, let the kids make simple fruit tarts, ice pops or smoothies with their harvest. Celebrate the day by discovering and reading a book about berries, such as “Blueberries for Sal,” by Robert McCloskey, author and illustrator of the beloved “Make Way for Ducklings.”
- Hiking: Nothing puts a kid closer to the great outdoors than hiking. It’s free, and it’s great exercise for the whole family. Hiking teaches kids about caring for the environment, the rhythm of the seasons and the multitude of local flora and fauna. Children can learn perseverance and the sense of accomplishment from reaching the top of the hill. Fall, when the weather is cooler and the colors are brighter, is the perfect time for hiking. Start in age-appropriate fashion, choosing short, level trails that little ones can master. Look for accessible trails that introduce kids with disabilities to the joys of hiking. Encourage your child to look up and around by creating scavenger hunts or games like “hiking bingo” featuring things they’re sure to see on the trail. Check for local “story walks” that post pages of a book at intervals along the trail. Kids can’t wait to see what comes next!
- Pick apples at an orchard: Apple picking is a time-honored tradition, enjoyed by people of all ages. Make it multigenerational by inviting along Grandma and Grandpa to share their memories of autumn. Before the trip, borrow library books on apples, and talk about how they grow and what you’ll do with them. Remember that different apples are best for different dishes — a tart Granny Smith for pies or a sweet Fuji for applesauce — so talk to the orchard staff members about what’s available. Then go home and enjoy fun time with the kids in the kitchen, cooking up your culinary creations.
- Collect pine cones or leaves for a craft: There’s something about fall that pairs perfectly with crafts. Backyards, parks and woods offer everything kids need to express their creativity. Crafts help kids develop coordination, thinking skills, imagination and persistence. When they’re done, they have the satisfaction of sharing something they made with their own hands. Send them outside to search for anything that catches their eye — colorful leaves, spiky pine cones, acorns, horse chestnuts, seed pods (who doesn’t love peeling the ends of a maple tree “helicopter” pod and sticking it on their nose?). Find instructions online for wreaths, animals and mythical creatures to make, or get out the glue and felt, and let your child dream up an artistic masterpiece!
- Pick pumpkins to paint or carve: Nothing announces the crisp, delightful days of fall better than a jack-o-lantern on the doorstep. Local farms offer activity in the outdoors, roaming the pumpkin patch in search of the perfect gourd. You might even find a farm adventure near you, with corn maze, petting zoo and hayrides, for a full day of fall fun. Bring home your pumpkin, and help your child paint or carve a face — scary or funny, it’s up to them.
- Ice skating: Ice skating is a classic. Help your child build fond memories of gliding across the ice with a visit to a local rink, followed — of course — by hot chocolate. Ice skating helps kids build stability, control, strength and endurance, while it improves posture, balance and flexibility. Sure, there will be falls, but ice skating teaches kids to get up again and keep going. And remember that ice skating isn’t just for winter. Many indoor rinks are open year round, which is great for the child who falls in love with figure skating or hockey.
- Sledding: Snow day! They are probably every child’s two favorite words. When the snow falls and covers the hills in a carpet of white, your child will forget video games and YouTube. Be ready when the day comes. Get out the sled or saucer the night before, and line up the winter boots. Scout out local parks and backyards — yours or a friend’s — for the perfect slopes. When they’re sledding, kids are having so much fun they don’t realize they’re getting exercise while going up and down those hills. And of course, have the chicken noodle soup heating up when they come inside.
- Build a snow fort or sculpture: Snow is one of nature’s great building materials. It can be packed into any shape and size, from a tiny snowball to a giant snow fort. It can even be packed into buckets or boxes to make blocks for backyard igloos. Let your child’s creativity soar with a snow sculpture, whether it’s a classic snowman or a snow monster straight out of their imagination. Challenge your kids to a snowball fight, build your opposing snow forts, and let the snowballs fly.
- Have a bonfire: The crackle of the fire. The warmth of the flames. Who says bonfires are just for summer? On a crisp winter’s day, join your child in a hunt for dry kindling and a search for things around the house that you can burn safely, such as cardboard, newspaper and paper bags. Even setting up chairs and getting out the marshmallow roasting sticks give your child physical activity while building anticipation for family time around the fire.
Tips for Spending Time Outdoors With Children
Children who are encouraged to explore outdoors are happier and healthier. The more fun it is, the more likely it will turn into a lifetime habit, for lifetime benefits. Consider these practical tips to make time outside safe and enjoyable.
- Be prepared for the weather and conditions: Weather can make a day glorious or a washout. The right outfit ensures a more pleasant experience. Light clothes help ward off insects. Hats and scarves keep the sun from beating on heads and necks. Long sleeves for that berry-picking excursion prevent scratches and bug bites. And, yes, slather on the sunscreen, but talk to your pediatrician about whether a few minutes of direct sun exposure a week would help your child’s body build the Vitamin D essential to strong bones and teeth.
- Explore carefully: Getting outdoors teaches children to respect the environment. Hazards lurk anywhere, so a few precautions help to keep kids safe and nature undisturbed. Kids should learn to watch where they put their hands and feet, learn what brown recluse spiders and poisonous snakes look like, be careful about lifting up boards or rocks to see what’s underneath, and learn to recognize poison ivy, sumac and poison oak. Parents should learn first-aid skills for the outdoors and teach their children what to do in case of mishaps.
- Ask open-ended questions: The outdoors is a young explorer’s dream. There’s so much to see and learn. Parents can help their children reflect on what they see and experience by asking open-ended questions. Instead of asking, “Did you have fun?”, ask “What does that bug look like?” or “Why do you think the leaves are changing color?” If you and your child don’t know the answer, set out on another exploration — researching that curious bug or that towering tree to learn more about it.
CCA Takes Kids Outdoors
Time spent outdoors is fulfilling, educational and energizing. Nature never fails to amaze and entertain. CCA immerses children in the wonders of nature through a wide selection of outdoor field trips. CCA students explore parks, nature centers and Pennsylvania’s abundance of trails and streams, getting hands-on outdoor learning activities that bring textbook lessons to life. Contact CCA to learn how we provide outdoor learning experiences through field trips.