Outdoor Activities

Easy ways to get your child to spend time outside

Pull back your hair and grab your child's hand, it's time to head outdoors! Every great naturalist, outdoor athlete or animal photographer was once a child, as hungry for knowledge and new experiences as your own child. By fostering a love of the outdoors at a young age, not only will you be ensuring your child's physical health, but you will also be introducing them to an endless amount of new information about the world around them.

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Nature hikes are a wonderful activity at any time of year. In the spring, hunt for the first flowers of the season. Whether they grow wild in the areas around your home, or are carefully manicured in neighbor's gardens, children will love examining the different types of blooms that the season brings. Birds also abound at this time. A younger child will be perfectly content to merely watch a bird fly, while older children can find enjoyment in noting the different characteristics and identifying the breed of the bird they've discovered.

Once summer arrives, animals of all varieties are at their most active. Even the most urban park has a few squirrels in the trees, as well as a wealth of playground equipment to get your child moving. Your flower and bird watching activities can easily carry over into summer as well.

Autumn is the season of harvest and reproduction for nature. Make sure to give your child a bag to collect pine cones, acorns, seeds and other items that can be used for crafts or displayed as is. A bouquet of colorful fall leaves is incredibly easy to create and will give your child a constant reminder of the fun they had outdoors.

While winter is not the most hospitable season for many, nature hikes can still be incredibly rewarding. Try picking out a specific spot and throwing out seeds, bread, apple chunks or bird feed. When you return, examine the ground for animal tracks, and try to determine which animals have been enjoying your feast. If you continue to supply the same area all winter, you will most likely get the chance to see if your guesses were correct before the snow melts.

But don't stop there! You don't need to be constantly hiking to enjoy the outdoors and entertain your child. Try placing a circle of string or wire in your backyard once the snow has melted. Take your budding naturalist to check on it every day and note the changes that are taking place. Make sure to give them a journal to record their finds. Younger children and artistic types may be happier illustrating their finds, while an older child will be happy with a disposable camera to commemorate the changes they notice.

In late spring, prepare a garden patch for your child. Keep their attention span in mind while planning the size and number of plants, unless you want some extra work on your hands. Vegetables like carrots, leaf lettuce and radishes are almost foolproof, and many children will be thrilled with nothing but one or two pumpkin plants for jack o' lanterns.

Outdoor activities are most prevalent in the summer months. However, since most parents continue to work for the bulk of summer, finding time to get out and enjoy the activities available can be a challenge. Many children love the idea of camping, but rather than giving yourself the hassle of planning a week-long trip, just set up a tent one morning in the backyard. Cook your meals outside, fly kites and play tag. When it's time for bed, crawl into your tent and tell stories by flashlight. The best part: your hot shower is just a minute away the next morning!

Gardening is an outdoor activity that spans spring through fall and can be accomplished around work hours. Even better, it allows children to directly enjoy the fruits of their labor and has the added benefit of promoting healthier eating. Garden-fresh vegetables make a much better snack than potato chips, and even if those carrots are turned into carrot muffins or a carrot cake, they're still more wholesome than processed brownies or cookies. Get your child involved from the beginning, allowing him or her to choose one or two items to grow. Older children can be given full responsibility for caring for their choices, while younger children can simply assist. Picking apples or berries in the fall is also a great activity that yields delicious results. Whether you have a few raspberry plants in your yard or make a trip to an apple orchard, children will delight in helping to collect fruit for the family.

Every child loves a fort, and a heavy snowfall in the winter can produce one of the best forts around. Pile up snow as high as possible with your child. If necessary, take numerous hot chocolate breaks between shoveling. When your snow pile is big enough, leave it for about a day so the outer layer can crystallize slightly. Then, begin hollowing it out, making sure the entrance is no bigger than necessary. When you've finished, make an air hole in the roof. You've made a quincy, one of the warmest and longest lasting snow forts that exist! A quincy is hard work, but once made, it will last almost all winter, and hold heat so well you can even spend the night in one if you want!

The most important thing to remember when looking for outdoor activities is to think outside the box. If your child wants to finger-paint, throw a cheap plastic tablecloth on the grass, set out your supplies and get busy. If you normally carve pumpkins for Halloween in the kitchen, put on your coats on a crisp fall day and head outside to scoop some guts. One of the best parts about taking indoor activities outside is that you save yourself the lengthy indoor cleanup!

The UCLA Center for Healthier Children has examined numerous studies that have found a physically active child has a higher classroom performance than a non-active child due to increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain. According to them, "Studies have shown that physical activity helps the mind to work better and being physically fit is associated with higher self-esteem." In other words, keeping your child active helps his brain as well as his body. By moving outdoors, your child gets the added benefit of ready-made lessons about their world.

As the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu once said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Start your child on their own thousand mile journey through life today. With the whole world to explore, there's no time to waste!

By Kathryn Lavallee