Looking for ways to explore the outdoors? Here is a great starting place!
1. Find a Fun Playground
Kids love to go to new and fun playgrounds. It is a great way to begin increasing outdoor time. Climbing, spinning and swinging are all great ways to feed their sensory systems. Sadly, many parks have taken out their swings but they are great for kids. Taking risks and triumphing over new challenges are great ways to build confidence and decrease fears. Many parks have paved paths for strollers. Plan a play day to meet some friends or just go as a family. Check out this site for some of the best playgrounds in America. Maybe one of them is near you! Also, when you are travelling with kids it is always good to check out some playgrounds along the way. It is a great way to help them get their energy out and lower the boredom factor! The photo below is a natural playground we found in Portland, Oregon this past summer.
2. Go on a hike
Hiking is a simple and inexpensive way to get moving and have fun. Family relationships are strengthened as you venture to new places together. If you are new to hiking, start with a short and easy trail. Kids are never too young to start hiking. For the infant, find a carrier that is age appropriate and comfortable for you. With toddlers, find somewhere with even terrain and few obstacles. Even teens love to hike. They may initially resist but once out on the trails, it is amazing to see a change in their attitude. Take time to notice things along the way – the sway of the trees, wildflowers along the path, the quiet or the shapes of the leaves. Be sure and pack some water and a snack! For some trails near you check out http://www.traillink.com/ or http://www.discovertheforest.org/
3. Explore The Night Sky
Night can be a magical time outdoors. Being allowed to be outside after dark is a fun treat for most kids. Grab a blanket or a lawn chair and sit outside. Start at dusk and look for bats. Don’t worry – they are eating bugs! Find the moon. What shape is it? Where is it in the sky? Now look at the stars. If you live close to an urban setting it may be harder to see. Make a point of finding somewhere away from lights. Check out some books on constellations.You might even get to see a shooting star! Night time is a great time to make use of some of the latest technology. Free apps are available for both iPhone and Android phones. Check out SkyView for iPhone and Sky Map or Night Sky Tools for Android. You can even download an app called ISS Detector to tell you where the International Space Station is at any given time so you can locate it moving across your viewing area! If you really get adventurous, many parks have night hikes. Or if star gazing isn’t for you – how about a good old game of flashlight tag? or when summer comes try catching lighting bugs!
4. Visit your local nature center
Nature centers are a great way to learn about the flora and fauna (flowers and plants ) of an area. If you are not familiar with one, Google it or ask around. Get up close to animals, see their homes and get familiar with their sounds. Learn to recognize animal tracks. See how maple trees are tapped to make maple syrup. These are just a few of the things you can learn at a nature center. Seek out special programs for children. As you learn together, nature will become a familiar friend. Familiarity breaks down barriers and fears and makes connecting with nature less intimidating. We found this great nature center in the middle of Wilmington, Delaware:
5. Put up a bird feeder or a bird house
Have you ever stopped to notice how many types of birds you have in your area? Birds are fascinating. Some eat off the ground. Some perch to eat. Others peck on trees to get bugs! Having a bird feeder is a fun way to get closer to birds. Many stores carry bird feeders or you can build one yourself. My personal favorite backyard bird is the hummingbird. Some common brightly colored flowers are very attractive to this tiny bird – bee balm, daylilies, impatiens, and petunias are a few of their favorites. If you prefer to buy a hummingbird feeder - no need to buy expensive food. Just boil 1 cup sugar with 4 cups of water. Cool and add to feeder. Keep the extra in the fridge. Once they find the feeder, they are surprisingly brave and will come close if you stay still.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great resource (www.birds.cornell.edu) to learn about common feeder birds, what they like to eat and how to build a bird house. Merlin Bird ID is an app for mobile devices that helps you identify unknown birds that you see. So, hang up your feeder and start checking out your feathered friends. You'll be amazed!
Try something new this week and let me know how it goes! If you have a favorite park or activity, post it in the comments so we can compile a list of great places to go. Make sure you mention what state it is in.
From the moment our kids are born, we long for them to be successful and have the richest life possible. We put them in preschool so they can learn to read as soon as possible...because that is what other parents are doing. Then, we sign them up for soccer and dance lessons and karate, and chess club....because we want them to be well-rounded. Increasingly, though, time for unstructured play has been scheduled away. Is it any wonder that there is an alarming increase in the number of children taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicine? Studies have linked stress in childhood to actual changes in the structure of the brain which can lead to long term effects ranging from academic troubles to long-term health issues (Brown, 2012). In response to the harried lives of many families, a growing number of pediatricians have even started prescribing nature for their patients because of the positive benefits on mental and physical health.
In addition to the lack of time spent outside at home, schools have drastically reduced recess time due to academic performance pressures. (Ginsburg, 2007). Recess time has been lost to time in the classroom. I can attest to this. When my son was in elementary school, he only had one short recess time during the day. One day he came home really grumpy and upset. After a little probing, I found out that his teacher had been making him stay inside during recess to finish his work. For many kids, time outside provides a welcome break from intense and focused schoolwork. Without this time, they become irritable and (more) fidgety. I spoke with his teacher to discuss an alternative way to get his work done. But it doesn't end there. Kids are now allowed to bring their electronic devices to school and use them at recess. And when the weather reaches a certain temperature, the kids have indoor recess for months at a time! I encourage you to find out what is happening in your school and get involved in advocating for more recess time. But I digress........
Our culture often claims that children are resilient, but recent research regarding adverse effects of stress indicate that they may not be as resilient as we once thought. BUT, we have an opportunity to make a CHANGE - change the way our children are spending their time, change the opportunities they have, and by doing so, change their well-being and future. While most often parental intentions are good - wanting to better our kids- what children often need most is the gift of time. Time to relax. Time to play. Time to get outdoors.
Occupational therapists consider play to be the essential occupation of childhood (AOTA, 2008). Through play children learn about the world around them. Play helps children grow and develop their motor skills and cognitive skills, and helps them to develop socially. Opportunities to take challenges and problem solve build strength and confidence. (Ginsburg, 2007). Typically, unstructured play outside directly correlates to the amount of physical activity a child participates in. Exploration and curiosity result in walking, running and climbing, etc. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every child over 6 participates in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Many children fail to achieve this important goal.
So, my challenge for you is to get your kids outside for 30-60 minutes a day in the upcoming week. If this is new or challenging, I have some suggestions to help make it work for both you and you kids. If they are not used to the idea of being outside, they may resist. Finding things to do and being imaginative may take getting used to, if it isn't something they are accustomed to. You will most likely have to limit their screen time, which may cause resistance, but be strong and consistent. As with any new habit, it takes time to develop. They also need permission - permission to get dirt on their hands, get messy, permission to get mud on their clothes and especially for boys, permission to wear holes in the knees of their pants! You might hear those dreaded words......"I'm bored" initially but with my suggestions below I think you'll hear that less and less over time.
Kids need TIME, a PLACE, some basic MATERIALS, some SUGGESTIONS and better yet, involvement with YOU. Not only are you encouraging activity and fresh air, you are creating fond memories of childhood. Focus on knowing your child and finding things that match their age and interests. It won't be the same for everyone. For instance, I have one daughter who is very artistic so she loves to draw with chalk on the driveway, while my son is more of an adventure seeker and is more likely to be seen roaming the yard carrying a bucket and some rope.
Kids need to a place to run and explore. If you don't have a yard where they can do this, seek out some local parks, find some hiking trails. Be adventurous and try something new. We are always seeking out fun and unique playgrounds. Kids love water play so look for streams or ponds where they can throw sticks and skip rocks! Find nature centers in your area.
Provide kids with toys, games and materials that give opportunities for play and movement.
This does not have to cost a lot of money - search garage sales, trade with friends, use clean containers for water play and mud play.
Below are some suggestions of toys and the corresponding skills that they encourage. All of these promote general physical activity but the occupational therapist in me couldn't help showing you some of the many other skills used with these items!:
"There is nothing to do"..... "I'm bored" ......These are things a parent doesn't want to hear. I have found that if you make a list of potential options of things to do that it gives children a place to start. Have them get involved in making the list. The more they are involved, the more invested they will become. Then, if they say they are bored you can just send them to the list! The list can include things such as make a fort, draw with chalk, and make an obstacle course. Or try the scavenger hunts I have put together.
Click here for Printable Scavenger hunts
There are some great books out there to help you if you need some inspirations. Some of my favorites are (see my Things To Read page for links to purchase:
Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest, not only because asthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depend on it.
author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder
I don't know about you, but I don't want my children to just get through life, I want them to flourish. Interacting with nature is one way to help make that happen. From personal experience, I have seen the power of nature in my family and in my involvment as an occupational therapist. I truly believe something is built into all of us that longs for the outdoors. It is therapeutic. It provides a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, a place to nourish your senses, a place to be active, and a place that invokes a sense of wonder.
Here is a little vignette from my family:
Years ago we had just spent a week at a family camp in Vermont. Imagine being a child able to explore and experience 1000 acres of the Great North Woods Forest. Moose hunts at dusk, swimming in a lake, kayaking, and hiking in the woods were the activities of the day. No fear, no structure - just freedom to roam. My kids were 13, 11, 7, 5 and 1. They had just enjoyed a week of this freedom and exploration with no TV access and no phones. Not long before this, my parents had treated us to a week at Disney World and the Disney Cruise. When asked which one they preferred, they all resoundingly said, "Vermont!" What a strong testimony! That week we discovered something as a family. We discovered that time in nature is life-giving- that being surrounded by beauty, unfettered by distractions and emboldened by freedom is unique and it brought us closer together as a family.
We can’t always escape to Vermont, but I've discovered we can spend time in nature that is around us.
Sadly, children are spending less and less time outdoors, both at home and at school. This profoundly affects their well-being. Growing bodies of evidence show that being in nature is essential to health and childhood development. Exposure to nature plays a role in a child’s mental, physical and spiritual growth. Poor eyesight, obesity, ADHD, anxiety and sensory problems are just of few of the detrimental effects that are linked to decreased time spent outside. On the other hand, positive benefits of time in nature include increased creativity, opportunities for improved social skills, and improved academic performance - to name a few.
As a mother of seven, I have seen the powerful interplay of nature in my own children. I delight in the way they uniquely benefit from the outdoors. For some of them, they love the adventure that nature affords. For others, they relish its beauty. For others still, they find the outdoors a therapeutic haven, where they can simply “be”, without entanglements. Experiencing nature together as a family has been essential in laying a foundation for nature appreciation and it has bonded us together. Hiking, going to fun playgrounds, and working in the garden are just a few of the ways we have made outdoors a priority in our family. Don’t get me wrong….you don’t have to climb mountains or take up bird watching to enjoy nature. It can be as simple as having a picnic in your backyard or growing some flowers in a pot by your front door. How children respond to nature is a result of how they are exposed to it at a young age. Being intentional about outdoor experiences with young children can impact their future tremendously.
My passion for the outdoors has become greater now that I am an occupational therapist. Because of my training, I understand all the underlying skills that children gain from outdoor play. I see the therapeutic value of nature. Sensory input from nature is invaluable. Understanding the importance of nature exposure in a new and profound way and fueled by insight into the evidence-based knowledge, has given me a strong desire to educate and advocate for children and families to get connected to the outdoors.
In future blog posts, I will help readers:
Will you join me as we better ourselves, our families and our communities by experiencing nature together
You don’t have to go to Disneyland, nature is just a step outside.
Hi! I'm Ann - mother of seven, grandmother of two and occupational therapist. My mission is to provide the support families need to raise thriving children and to help you build a family environment that supports healthy development and a pathway to success.
Great blogs to check out:
Rain or Shine Mamma
Children & Nature Network
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