There is no doubt that nature-based play offers a plethora of benefits for our children. According to the Child Mind Institute (and a wealth of other resources), time in nature promotes creativity, builds confidence, gets kids moving, and makes them think, among other benefits. Independent free play in nature, where kids decide what to do, is the ultimate in encouraging independence and resourceful thinking. If your kids (like mine) need a little help getting started, here are 10 nature-based activities that require very little in the way of supplies and can be implemented in (almost) a moment’s notice:
Make a list of random things you might be able to find outside (snails, red leaves, ants, a purple flower...you get the idea) then copy the list, divide into teams, and set out with a digital camera, cell phone, or tablet and try to be the first team to find them all. When you’re done, show each other the photos and even consider making a collage or designing a game board you can keep.
Depending what you have around you or in a nearby natural area (sticks, logs, large or small rocks, shells, or a combination of all of these), have your kids collect at least 20 to 30 items to put in a bucket or box that can be kept outside. Once you’ve collected a bunch, set them loose building with their new set of blocks! (Credit: Angela Hanscom, “Balanced and Barefoot.”)
Some of the best games out there are the ones that require no equipment and very few rules. Camouflage is similar to hide-and-seek but is designed to be played in a natural area like a park or the woods. The person who is “it” closes her eyes while everyone else tries to blend in with the natural surroundings (hiding behind trees, lying down beside rocks, etc.). Then, without moving from her spot (except to spin around), the person who is “it” scans her surroundings and calls out anyone she can see. Bonus points if you talk to kids about animals who use these tactics for survival.
Choose a natural area near you (even your own yard) and work with your kids to make a nature guide to the area. Look up the types of trees that are present, describe the natural landmarks, or explore what types of birds or other animals people might see and describe them too. Draw a map or make a brochure, then share it with friends! (Credit: Richard Louv, “Vitamin N.”)
Get an empty cardboard box and have your kids make a miniature playground with natural supplies like rocks, sticks, or recycled cardboard. Then find a snail, worm, or other bug and place it in the box to watch how it “plays.” Please be kind and don’t leave the box out in the sun to bake the bug, remove the little creature and let it go on its merry way after observing. (Credit: Richard Louv, “Vitamin N.”)
Follow these directions from NASA’s Climate Kids website to build a solar oven out of a box, aluminum foil, saran wrap, and tape. Set it in the sun to roast your marshmallows for 30 minutes to an hour (they put the marshmallows in a pan but I’ve also seen examples where marshmallows are set over the box on a skewer; you could do a science experiment to see which one works better!). Add chocolate and graham crackers and voila, s’mores!
Follow these directions from Artful Kids to create art with bubbles. Just mix your paint with some water and dish soap then blow with straws over your paper. As the bubbles pop, you get really cool colorful images on your canvas. I’d definitely recommend doing this out on the driveway or the lawn, making it a fun outdoor activity.
For the budding artists (pun intended), a flower pressing project can provide both a cool experiment and art supplies for future projects. You don’t have to be limited to flowers – you can also dry leaves and grass. Follow these directions from Red Ted Art, which also include a ton of useful tips on how to be most successful with this project and ways to speed up the process if you don’t want to wait four weeks. Kids can then make bookmarks, pictures, or the cool jars featured on the linked post (among other things).
A college near my home hosts “salad days” once a week during the harvest season in their organic garden. The idea is that kids (and adults) can come and enjoy fresh produce right where it's grown and explore the garden a bit while they are there. If you can’t find something like this nearby, consider finding a farm or farm stand and having your child choose ingredients for a salad. Then, instead of making it in the kitchen, bring your cutting boards and kid-safe knives outside to prepare and enjoy your salad. To up the fun factor, invite friends and have kids create their own unique combinations.
After all of this excitement, it's a great idea to take a moment to enjoy nature. Have your kids choose a “sit spot” that they can return to on a regular basis, or choose a short path for an “I notice” walk. Have them quietly sit or walk for even just five minutes, then invite them to share what they saw, smelled, heard, or felt while they were quietly observing. This is a great thing to do together with your child so that you can role model your own quiet observations and appreciations.
What are your favorite nature-based games and activities? Better yet, what cool ideas have your kids come up with on their own to enjoy nature to its fullest? Share in the comments section below!