Go Outside and Play!
On paper anyway, Kristen Laine and her husband seemed destined to have children who loved the outdoors. She’s a former editor for Outside Online magazine, a hiker, a back-country skier and an all-around nature-loving gal who married a man with similar passions. The couple bought a home in rural New Hampshire on property that borders the woods and hosts plenty of area wildlife.
But, as most parents come to discover, preconceived ideas about life with kids should be thrown out the window on the ride home from the hospital.
“The truth is, our son would be happy with zero time outside,” says Laine. “He would be happy to stay connected to high-stimulus media all the time.”
If someone like Laine has to work to get her child outside, what about the rest of us? Kids today lead more sedentary, indoor lives, preferring TV or the computer to a romp in the yard or a nearby park. While many of us remember mom pushing us out the door when we were children, that doesn’t work with our own kids. The secret, according to Laine and others, is in the sell.
Kids may not get excited about a 3-mile hike in the woods. They don’t particularly see the benefits of solitude, exercise or fresh air. But they’ll jump at the chance to look for birds with a pair of binoculars. They’ll bundle up willingly to build a snow fort, make a fire to toast marshmallows, or whittle sticks with a Swiss Army knife. “We try to make everything an adventure,” Laine says of her son and daughter, ages 7 and 11, “and that really helps motivate them.”
We asked outdoor educators and like-minded parents for some ideas on how they get children to unplug from TV, the iPod or computer and head outside without protest. Here are 10 suggestions to help children get excited about the great outdoors:
1. Enjoy nature close to home. Meg Connolly runs education programs at Weir River Farm, a Trustees of Reservations property in Hingham. She’s often surprised by the number of parents who’ve lived in town all their lives but never set foot on the farm until they served as a chaperone for a school field trip. Get familiar with and explore the open spaces in your city or town. And remember, the great outdoors is not some distant destination. It’s right out the back door. “A lot of people think they have to go to New Hampshire or sign up for a guided program to get outside,” says Connolly.
2. Design scavenger hunts. Melissa Keys, a mother of two girls in Beverly, found success with this activity even before her children could read. She would draw pictures of a maple leaf, a pinecone, or even the neighbor’s mailbox, and they would set out to find the items and check them off. Her daughters were always game for this adventure.
3. Any gym game played inside can be played outside. Kids love to play such games as, “Fishy, Fishy, Cross My Ocean,” or freeze tag in the snow. It makes it a lot more exciting when they are outside and they have more room to run and be free. Beyond the physically active games, any board game, puzzle, doll or book can be just as easily enjoyed outside.
4. Bring along a friend. Having a buddy along can make all the difference with Laine’s son, she says. Instead of saying, “Do you want to go on a hike?”, she and her husband say, “We are going on a hike; who would you like to invite?” She met one mom who created a take-a-friend-with-you gear box, with extra mittens, hats and snow pants. Laine and her husband like to pack hiking surprises for the kids – a treat such as M&Ms – that they aren’t allowed to open until they reach a certain destination.
5. Let kids think that going outside is their idea. Shawna Andreasen, a mother of three, says the best way to get reluctant kids outside is to give them a choice. Ask them, “Do you want to go to the park to play or go to the lake to throw rocks?” This way, it becomes a question of what you’ll be doing outside, instead of if you’ll be going outside, says Andreasen. She also finds that new outdoor gear is a big attraction. Just like back-to-school shopping, she suggests taking kids along to pick out a new bike helmet or pair of hiking shoes.
6. Dress for the outdoors. Connolly, of Weir River Farm, says kids cannot truly enjoy playing outside if they’re worried about getting a favorite outfit dirty. It’s important to have a couple of shirts and pants where it doesn’t matter what happens to them. “It frees kids up mentally to explore,” she says. And, of course, dress for the weather. A child complaining of being cold or wet won’t last outside very long.
7. Build a fairy house. All you need to create some magic are sticks and an imagination. At Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, the operators have a designated fairy forest in a wooded area of the farm that’s open to the public. Diana Rodgers, who helps run the farm with her husband, describes the forest’s rules: Use only natural materials and nothing that’s alive to construct a fairy house (taking leaves off trees is prohibited). Rodgers, who has an art education background, says this activity helps children enjoy the process of creating – and not seeing art as solely something you make to bring home and hang on the fridge.
8. Understand your children’s likes and dislikes. After reading the Harry Potter books, Laine says her daughter loved to explore in the woods to search for potential wands. She’s drawn to anything magical. Her son loves fishing, snowboarding and riding his bike. “You have to know your kid,” she says. Maybe your child loves Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. After you read it together, head outside and try to find some caterpillars munching away. It’s pretty easy this time of year.
9. Unleash the outdoor artist. Collect sticks, leaves, acorns, pinecones and other elements found in the yard to construct unique sculptures. Get kids involved in leaf rubbings and invite the kids to sketch in homemade nature journals.
10. Bring the outside inside. Keys set up a nature table in her house for her children to display their finds. Last month, the “exhibit” included four rocks, two sticks, two pinecones and a gourd, among other treasures. The collection varies depending on the season. She also recommends wildlife, seashell or nature books, such as Critters of Massachusetts Pocket Guide. Her children use these guides to write down the date and location of every sighting. “They really and truly are nature lovers now, and I am so thankful,” says Keys. “I think you can learn things in nature that you can’t learn anywhere else.”
Susan Flynn is a former associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.
Check out valuable resources on the next page! &pagebreaking&
• Critters of Massachusetts Pocket Guide, by Wildlife Forever, Adventure Publications, 2001. Easyto- read book with fun facts about 50 critters found in our state. Includes a pictures of animals and the tracks they leave behind.
• Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids & Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future, by Judy Molland, Free Spirit Publishing, 2009. Teacher, nature lover and longtime Boston Parents Paper education writer Judy Molland’s list of creative activities and thought-provoking ideas.
• I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature, by Jennifer Ward, Trumpeter, 2008. The goal of every activity is to stimulate imagination and heighten a child’s sense of wonder. And most of it can be accomplished right in the back yard.
• The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids, by Todd Christopher, Shambhala Publications, 2010. Ideas and activities for studying nature with your kids by the creator of the National Wildlife Federation’s GreenHour.org Web site.
• Appalachian Mountain Club “Great Kids, Great Outdoors” – www.amcoutdoorskids.blogspot.com – is a fun, informative blog written by mother of two Kristen Laine, who chronicles adventures with her own kids and shares ideas from outdoor experts.
• The Trustees of Reservations – www.thetrustees.org – lists 100 places, nearly 25,000 acres, available for exploring in Massachusetts. A search-by-zip-code option makes it easy to find information about properties and learn about upcoming programs.
• Massachusetts Audubon Society – www.massaudubon.org – offers detailed information about 90 wildlife sanctuaries in communities across Massachusetts. Find out about classes and guided hikes.
• Children and Nature Network – www.childrenandnature.org – a movement created to reconnect children with nature. Site offers parents access to latest news and research, along with practical advice.