Category Archives: Nature Activities

Connecting to Nature from Home

TL; DR: There are so many physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting with nature. But parents may face barriers to getting outside. Perceived barriers could be: the parents’ lack of knowledge / experience with nature, minimal access to wild lands, and health/disability issues which limit ability to explore outdoors. This post will highlight super simple ways to connect more to nature by just looking out your window more, by bringing a little of nature into your home, by spending time in your own yard or in any outdoor space, or by using webcams and educational videos to learn more about nature.

Looking out the window:

Studies of hospital patients have shown decreased need for pain medications and shorter post-operative stays for those who can see nature outside the hospital window. Here are some things you can do without even going out:

  • Weather Checks: Notice what the weather is, even if you’re not going out. Teach about weather. In my lesson plan about Weather Science, you’ll find ideas about teaching weather vocabulary, drawing the weather, creating weather charts, observing and identifying clouds.
  • Notice seasonal changes: The view outside your window is always changing. Maybe the flowers are blooming, or the leaves are changing colors. With your child, take a picture from the same view once every week, and then compare them side by side to notice what has changed.
  • Gaze at clouds – what shapes do you see?
  • Keep a tally: Decide what you’ll count: birds? people passing by? dogs? cars? Whatever it is, looking outdoors and counting means lots of time looking outdoors!
  • Tell stories: when a car passes by, imagine who is in it, and what they might be doing.

Bringing Nature In

Try any of these easy activities:

  • Dissect vegetables and fruits. When you’re prepping food, try “dissecting” it with your child – carefully cutting it apart and examining the parts. You can use books or the internet to learn more about plant parts. Save your seeds – apple seeds, cherry pits, or whatever.
  • Sprout seeds Use seeds you saved, or dry beans. Fold a paper towel, wet it, put it in a ziplock baggie. Add a seed. Seal the baggie and tape it to a window with the seed facing in where you can see it. Wait a few days.
  • Once you’ve sprouted your seeds, if you have access to dirt or potting soil, you can plant them. You can use any container you have.  For example, if you have a margarine or yogurt tub, poke a couple holes in the bottom for drainage, set it on its lid before putting it in the window. Or you could make a terrarium from a 2 liter bottle.
  • Propagate a succulent plant. If you have a succulent, you can gently twist off a leaf or two, let it dry for a day or two, set the leaf on top of some soil. Every day or two, spritz some water on the soil to keep it moist. After a few weeks (this is a slow process!) they will have roots. Then plant those roots in the soil. Water these new plants once a week, and they will grow. It can take months for that leaf to become a little plant – this is a slow process, but I love my little baby succulents!
  • Plant potatoes in a container. (Just do a search for that, and you’ll find all the details!) Grow sweet potato vines.  Grow celery from the base of a bunch of celery, or lettuce from the core.
  • If you have celery, cabbage, or white flowers, you can teach about the science of wicking by putting them in colored water, and over 24 hours or so, they’ll pull the color up into them.
  • Vegetable prints. You can cut the base off a stalk of celery, or the base off of a bell pepper, or slice mushrooms in half, then use those to print paint in fun designs. Lots of plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles have a sort of flower shape on the bottom that if you dip it in paint you can print flower gardens. (see pictures)
  • Consider a pet. But please don’t buy any pet without serious research… I firmly believe that if I bring an animal into my home, I’m making a commitment to caring for that pet for its natural lifetime. A manageable starting place for a family with young children is a betta fish, perhaps with a nerite snail to manage the algae.

Your Backyard / Sidewalk

Getting outside helps connect you to nature, but it can also let your kid MOVE more and get out some energy. It’s also a great opportunity to let them use their “outside voice”! Don’t let the weather stop you from going out. Being outside in the rain or cold won’t make kids sick! Just have them put on appropriate clothes for the weather.

  • Work on a garden together. Or even on an outdoor project like building raised beds, building a brick retaining wall or a cobblestone path. “Heavy work” is great for children, and helps them burn up a lot of energy as well as gain pride from building something real.
  • Make a bird feeder, hang it up, and then keep a record of what kinds of birds you see. Learn about those birds online. Here is a guide to bird calls for birds commonly found in the Pacific NW.
  • Go on a bug hunt.
  • Nature crafts: gather grass, flowers and more to spell out your name, or to make bookmarks (take a piece of contact paper or clear packing tape, lay your flowers on it, then put another piece of packing tape on top to seal it. Trim the edges to a nice shape). Make a wind chime, from old keys or a plastic cup and beads.
  • Don’t feel like you have to entertain them or educate them continuously outside. It’s also fine to let them discover ways to self entertain. Put out toys or equipment that are fine for outdoors: jumpropes, balls, toy shovels if there’s somewhere they can dig, a container of water and scoops and funnels, sidewalk chalk, etc.

Walking in your Neighborhood

While I love going on long hikes and discovering new wilderness areas, there are also a lot of health benefits to walking anywhere – including just walking around your neighborhood every day. If you’re walking the same loop every day, it might start to feel repetitive… here’s some ways you can keep it interesting:

  • Notice nature’s changes: Nature provides an always-changing experience…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Have new trees blossomed? Have trees dropped leaves or seeds? Are there birds? squirrels? bugs? What did yesterday’s wind blow around?
  • Practice traffic rules: practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and talk about what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. Teach about turn signals, stop signs, watching for driveways and more.
  • Learn navigation: teach addresses and street names. Bring a paper map and teach how to use it. Use a mapping app on your phone and teach how to use it. For little ones, practice turning left and right on command. Draw a map of the neighborhood.
  • Play red light, green light.
  • Try “nature shopping“, where the child gathers a collection of natural items, like rocks or pinecones or leaves.
  • Collecting photos: on every walk, you can take photos of things you want to remember and make a little photo album of your favorite finds.
  • Scavenger Hunts: prepare a list of things you would expect to be able to see or hear or do on your outing. Bring stickers along and as you’re out on an adventure, any time you find one of the items on the list, your child can put a sticker on it. Then when the scavenger hunt is complete, you can have a snack when you get home as a reward. Ideas for scavenger hunts:
    • Things to listen for: crows, bird calls, running water, wind in the leaves, people’s voices in the distance, dogs barking
    • Things to look for: pinecones, mushrooms, ferns, moss, spider web, bugs
    • Things to do: go up or down stairs, cross a crosswalk, wait for a light… if you know your neighborhood, it will be easy for you to make a list they can successfully complete
    • Go on a bug scavenger hunt
    • Go on a numbers scavenger hunt – how long does it take you to find all the numbers 1 – 10?
    • Go on a letters scavenger hunt: can you find all the letters A – Z on your walk? Check street signs, license plates, etc.
    • For more ideas, just search “backyard scavenger hunt.”
    • For older kids: try Pokemon Go,  geocaching or letterboxing.

Resources for Hands-On Activities

The Wild Network is dedicated to easy ideas for getting kids outdoors and connected to nature. They have lots of wild time ideas at and more inspiration –

The National Wildlife Federation encourages parents to ensure that children get one “green hour” outside every day. They have lots of activity ideas at:

Nature Mentoring has 22 ideas for Sharing Nature with Beginners:

Virtual Nature

Lots of zoos have webcams that let you observe animals in action. Check out: You’ll find the Panda Cam from Atlanta, the penguins from Woodland Park in Seattle, otters from Chattanooga, and many more. The San Diego zoo has many live cams, plus lots of videos. The National Zoo has four. The trick with live webcams is that sometimes you see nothing… At the exact moment I type this, if I try to look at the naked mole rats in DC, all I see is an enclosure with a spinach leaf and a piece of corn on the cob. So, plan on flipping between several webcams till you find one with some good action going on. Here’s a  Virtual Field Trip Lesson Plan you could use to enhance your viewing.

There are also aquariums with webcams: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, and the Seattle Aquarium has a virtual field trip.

There are also lots of great nature videos on National Geographic Kids, Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation, and National Geographic on Disney+.

Teaching Kids about Northwest Native Plants


Once a month, our Family Inventors’ Lab meets at Robinswood Park in Bellevue. We go out for a hike in the woods, and we learn about native plants, cycles of nature, insects, habitats and more.

There are plenty of benefits to spending time outdoors, including less vitamin D deficiency, better vision, higher activity. Getting to know local plants helps your child feel more at home in their world, helps them gain a sense of competency (there’s something really fun about being able to identify all the plants they see), teaches vocabulary and science, and teaches observation skills – discerning the difference between a trailing blackberry and a Himalayan blackberry teaches your child how to observe small details, a skill which is helpful in almost all their pursuits!

We have a “plant of the month” curriculum and on this page, I’ll share the materials I’ve developed, so you can use them with your family. All of the plants can be found in most of the wooded areas and parks trails in the King County area.

This free printable Plant Guide combines all the plants listed into one guide. Although it refers to Robinswood Park, you’ll see most of these plants on almost any hiking trail in King County.

  • Big Leaf Maple. (PDF)  This is the second most common tree in the Pacific NW, so it’s a great ones for kids to learn because then they can find it everywhere they go. Help them count the points on the leaves – there’s always 5. (A vine maple has many more points.) It’s great to introduce kids to a big leaf in the spring, so they can watch “their” tree go through the changes from buds in the spring, to green leaves, to fall color, to winter. Also help them find helicopter seeds to drop and let spin to the ground.
  • Blackberries. (PDF)  Get to know all your blackberry types: if it trails along the ground, and has clusters of 3 leaves, it’s Trailing Blackberry, which are native to the Northwest. If there’s a big thicket of blackberries with clusters of 5 leaves, it’s the Himalayan blackberry, an invasive species. (If you have some invading your yard, look here for tips on removal.) The Evergreen Blackberry, another non-native, looks very different from the others – its alternate name “Cut-leaf blackberry” describes its unique leaves. All these plants produce plenty of tasty edible berries from July to September.
    • This handout also includes information on Stinging Nettles, so you know to watch out for them in woods. We’re blessed in this area to have few truly dangerous plants or animals in our woods, but stinging nettles can be an annoyance.
  • Douglas Fir. (PDF) Very common throughout the Pacific Northwest. Tall trees with bare trunks for much of the height of the tree, branches full of needles up higher on the tree. Rough bark.
  • Holly. (PDF) Holly can be found in all 50 states, and is common in Christmas decorations and art, so its distinctive spiny leaves and red berries (visible in winter) are recognizable to most people. Its berries are NOT edible! They can make pets and children quite sick.
  • Indian plum. (PDF) A Northwest native flowering shrub. One of the first plants to leaf out and bloom each spring. Also called osoberry for its edible (but not tasty) berries, or skunk bush for the smell of the male flowers (you have to put your nose right up to them to smell them.
  • Ivy. (PDF) English Ivy is not native – it’s an invasive noxious weed – if you have any on your property, its best to replace it with native plants. If it’s climbing your trees, be sure to remove it. Children can easily identify ivy, and you can show them how it spreads across the ground until it finds anything vertical, then it climbs as high as it can.
  • Oregon Grape. (PDF)  Oregon grape is a native plant. Adults sometimes mistake it for holly, but your child should be able to easily learn to tell them apart. The fruit is edible, but far too tart for most people’s taste – some use it in jelly.
  • Salal. (PDF)  Salal is another native plant, with glossy green leaves, which is very common throughout our woods, and in landscaping everywhere. It also produces an edible berry that some people dry to use in cakes, or use in jelly.
  • Vinca. (PDF) A non-native evergreen. The glossy green leaves and purple flowers that bloom for much of the year make this a lovely, low maintenance ground cover.
  • Western Red Cedar. (PDF) Easily distinguished from the common Douglas fir. Branches start much lower to the ground, flat sail-like needles form spray-like branches. Very small cones. Stringy bark that can be pulled off in long strips.

If you’re working with a young child (3 or 4 years old), you want to focus on only one plant at a time. I’ve created postcards which show pictures of just one plant per card. Hand a card to your child to carry as  you hike through the woods, and encourage them to tell you every time they find a plant that matches that card.

Once your child is familiar with many of these plants, try challenging them with a Scavenger Hunt (PDF) – This includes pictures of 14 plants to find in the woods. (For younger kids, you could also use the postcards as a scavenger hunt challenge.)

For older kids (age 6 and up), here’s a dichotomous key they can use to try to figure out what kind of plant they see. You could also use this key as a basis for a 20 questions style game on a hike. (Learn more about 20 questions and what the game teaches here.)

If you want to check out the woods at Robinswood Park, it’s an easy park to start on with young hikers. There’s over a mile of trails, so enough to explore for a little one, but you’re never far from the parking lot. Here’s a trail map, with one of our favorite trails through the woods marked out on it.

Check out this post for links to lots of other great parks on the Eastside of Seattle. And here’s a guide to recognizing the bird calls you may hear.

Enjoy your hikes!

Why We Walk to School

zozowalk-to-school-posterWe live in a safe, clean, suburban neighborhood, three-quarter’s of a mile from the school where my son attends kindergarten. We walk him to and from school almost every day. I wouldn’t think this would surprise anyone. Yet, I’ve had neighbors stop to offer me rides home, then be surprised when I say we choose to walk. I’ve had people assume we must not own a car, or are not able to drive. But no, we choose to walk.

And in the summer, we walk to swim lessons, the park, the library, and out to lunch.

Here’s why we walk [Note: I’ve also made a handout with summaries of this information, called “The Benefits of Walking Your Child to School.”]

For my son:

  • Walking to school can help my son do better in school.
    • Exercise: Kids who exercise pay better attention in school, are less moody, and have better impulse control. (Source, another source, another and another, and a final one for good measure)
    • Time in nature: Spending time outside and connecting to the natural world improves academic performance, ability to concentrate in the classroom, and improves self control. (Source, source, and more info on the benefits of nature.)
    • My son is a very active, squirrelly kid who struggles with impulse control, so I really think that our daily walk is an essential part of his success at school.
  • On our walk, there’s plenty of learning opportunities that don’t happen at school:
    • Nature: Nature provides an always-changing experience on our walks…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Yesterday, we looked at these pinecone-like seed pods (I don’t know the name of the plant), which over the past few weeks have been falling to the ground, and then slowly, gradually opening up to reveal bright red berries – we talked about how those berries probably appeal to birds who eat them, fly away, and poop them out, propagating that species of plant. Today, we found a bird leg… just the leg, which led to a conversation about what might have eaten the rest of the bird.
    • Science and Engineering: A few months ago, we got to watch the progress of digging a trench and installing drains and irrigation. Recently, we’ve seen them cut down a large tree (and we got to see the rotted out core, which showed why they’d cut it), then break up the stump, and haul it away. A new development of town homes has provided an on-going experience of the construction industry.
    • Traffic rules and navigation: We get lots of practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and knowing what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. He’s learned the names of all the streets, and learned about addresses, alternate routes, bus stops, parking rules, turn signals, and more.
  • Teaching a lifelong habit of walking instead of driving: Amongst children 5 – 15, 15% of their total trips are walking. As they get older, it’s 7 – 9%. Source  The more we turn to driving as our default mode, the more our children will do the same. We choose, instead, to role model deciding to walk whenever possible.
  • Social / Independence Benefits: For now, we get a chance to interact some with the (few) other families that walk back and forth to school along our route. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood have a “walking bus” where a group of them walk home together. This gives them a chance to connect with and socialize with these other kids, and also helps them build skills at independently navigating their world.
  • Exercise: He also gets all the health benefits of walking, as described below, plus a reduced risk of obesity.

For both of us:

  • Walking home from school together is a great chance to re-connect and catch up on all the news of the day. If we drive home, it’s about four minutes, and my mind is mostly focused on driving. Walking is more relaxed, slower paced, and doesn’t take much of my attention, so we can be much more tuned in to each other.
  • We also have a good relationship with his teacher, partially because we see her briefly every day at drop-off time and at pick-up. It often gives us the chance for that ten second check in on his day.

For me:

  • Free Exercise. When he started school this fall, and I suddenly had lots of kid-free time on my schedule, I thought of joining a gym. But, based on my past experience, I’m lousy at going to the gym, and I mostly waste the money I’m paying for a membership. Walking is free, with no expensive equipment or specialty clothing required. The only time I ever managed to go to the gym was when I had a scheduled obligation – a class I was signed up to take, or a friend I was meeting. The walk to school means a scheduled obligation twice every weekday – I gotta get the kid to school, and I gotta pick him up.
  • Regular exercise. Plenty or research shows that more short bouts of exercise is better for our heart and our metabolism than a few long bouts. Walking him to school, dropping him off and coming home is 1.5 miles, and about 35 minutes of exercise to start my day. Then, after a day of sedentary work at my computer, I have another 35 minutes. In an average week, I walk at least 12 miles – about four-and-a-half hours of exercise.
  • Healthy Exercise:
    • Healthy for my heart: Walking improves my blood pressure and my cholesterol (Source), and reduces my risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 34-35% (Source).  It also reduces risk of diabetes. (Source)
      • “Protection [from cardiovascular events] was evident even at distances of just 5½ miles per week and at a pace as casual as about 2 miles per hour.” (Source)
    • Healthy for my brain:
      • “Nine years later, the walkers underwent brain scans, which revealed that those who had walked more had greater brain volume than those who walked less. Four years after that… 116 people showed signs of memory loss or dementia. Those who had walked the most … about 7 miles each week — were half as likely to have cognitive problems as those who walked the least.” (Source)
    • Healthy for my bones and joints:
      • “In just one mile, a typical runner’s legs will have to absorb more than 100 tons of impact force. …walkers have a much lower (1% to 5%) risk of exercise-related injuries than runners (20% to 70%).” (Source)
      • “Healthy postmenopausal women who walk approximately 1 mile each day have higher whole-body bone density than women who walk shorter distances. Walking is also effective in slowing the rate of bone loss from the legs.” (Source)
      • Note: Adding 60 seconds of high impact exercise (running, jumping jacks, jogging up stairs, or sudden backwards steps) to a walk will further strengthen your bones. (Source)
    • Reduces risk of breast and colon cancer (source). I have a family history of both.
  • Efficient use of time: For picking him up at 3:30 in the afternoon, it honestly takes the same amount of time to walk as to drive. Driving there takes about 4 minutes. But… if I want to find a space in the parking lot, I have to leave the house at 3:10. Then I sit in the parking lot for 15 minutes, then pick him up, then drive home… 35 – 40 minutes round trip, just like walking. If I’m too late for a parking space, I have to get in the giant line of cars to pick up. Again, about 35 – 40 minutes round trip. And here, my time is doing double-duty for exercise and kid pick-up.
    • “Because walking is less intensive than running, you have to walk for longer periods, get out more often, or both to match the benefits of running. As a rough guide, the current American Heart Association/American College of Sports Medicine standards call for able-bodied adults to do moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) for at least 30 minutes on five days each week or intense aerobic exercise (such as running) for at least 20 minutes three days each week. That makes running seem much more time-efficient — but if you factor in the extra warm-ups, cool-downs, and changes of clothing and shoes that runners need, the time differences narrow considerably. Add the time it takes to rehab from running injuries, and walking looks pretty good.”  (Source)
  • Time to listen to podcasts! When I’m walking alone, I get a chance to listen to some of my favorites /Filmcast, NPR Politics, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Vinyl Café, the Moth.
  • Walking also improves your mood, and reduces depression. (Source, Source)

For my marriage: My husband and I are often able to walk together in the morning. This gives us connection time with our son on the way to school, and with each other on the way home. Sometimes we use that connection to catch up on family business, sometimes to have deep conversations about how we’re doing emotionally or relationship wise, sometimes it’s catching up on politics and world news, and sometimes it’s picking each other’s brain for help solving a problem one of us is working on. Just having that slow-paced, in synch time together is a lovely way to start the day.

For the environment and my community:

  • 28% of all car trips in America are less than one mile. (Source) When people travel a distance of 1 – 3 miles, 90% use a car. (Source)  Many of these short trips are about driving kids to school or activities. And that’s hard on the environment.
    • “Emissions from cars are greatest when an engine is cold. The first few minutes when you start up and then drive your car produces the highest emissions because the emissions control equipment has not yet reached its optimal operating temperature. On a cold day a petrol car may take up to 10km [6.2 miles] to warm up and operate at maximum efficiency. One of the best ways individuals can contribute to reducing air pollution is to leave the car at home for short trips and walk instead.”  (source)
    • “Transportation accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, and passenger cars are responsible for the majority, more than 60%, of those emissions.” (Source)
    • “If a family walks to school twice a week rather than driving, they can reduce their carbon emissions by 131 pounds each year… If half of the students at an average-sized elementary school choose to walk… [saves] 36 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year…. equal to the carbon removing abilities of 1,000 trees.” (Source)
  • When we walk, we do little things to help the community: pick up litter when we see it (impressively rare on our stretch of road), move away leaves that are clogging the storm drains, fix the lost cat sign that’s falling off the pole, pick up a trash bin that was knocked over in the wind. They’re little things that take a few seconds when you’re just walking by, but would never happen if everyone drove by.

Barriers to walking to school (Source) – and how to overcome them

About 55% of children travel to school in a private car. (Source) Some of these children may live far enough away that they have the option to take a bus but are choosing to drive. But many of them are children who live within what is considered “walking distance” from a school. What stops the families from walking?

Barrier Percentage of parents
Distance to school: 61.5
Traffic-related danger: 30.4
Weather: 18.6
Crime danger: 11.7
Opposing school policy: 6.0
Other reasons (not identified): 15.0

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2005)

Distance to School

In 1969, 48% of elementary school students walked or biked to school. In 2009, it was just 13%. Yes, some of that is because fewer kids live less than a mile from their school (31% now vs. 41% in 1969). But, even amongst those who live less than a mile away, only 35% usually walk or bike now vs. 89% in 1969. (Source)

What if you don’t live in walking distance from your school? Consider parking half a mile away (or a few blocks away) and walking in! Many schools (at least in the Seattle suburbs) have walking paths through nearby neighborhoods that keep you off busy streets. (And then you won’t have to deal with the crowds in the school parking lot / the long line up of cars.)

Traffic Danger

First, it’s worth noting that a big part of the traffic load is people driving their kids to school…. “Parents driving their students to school comprise 10 to 14 percent of morning rush hour traffic (McDonald, Brown, Marchetti, & Pedroso, 2011).” If more people were walking their kids to school, there would be less traffic – especially in school zones.

Second, driving is not necessarily safer than walking. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death.

As more and more people drive, and fewer and fewer people walk, city budgets focus more on roads than on sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Be an advocate in your community for making your neighborhood pedestrian friendly!

We used to live in Bellevue, the city right next door to Kirkland. Hardly anyone walks in most parts of Bellevue. Lots of people walk in our part of Kirkland. That means that drivers in Kirkland remember to watch out for pedestrians vs. people in Bellevue don’t bother. The more people who walk, the safer it is to walk.

You can also increase safety while walking by choosing high visibility clothing for your child – like a red coat with reflective stripes instead of a black coat.

Weather. I’ll confess – Of the few times we’ve driven to or from school this year, half were for weather. I don’t mind walking in drizzle to mild rain. (I live in the Seattle area – that’s our normal everyday weather.) But this year, we’ve had some times (weird for Seattle) of POURING DOWN RAIN. One happened when we were walking back from school… by the time we got home, we had to hang the coats to dry, change our pants, shoes, and socks. I was glad that hasn’t happened on my son’s way TO school, where he wouldn’t have spare clothes to change in to. So, there are days when the weather seems too bad to walk.

But, most days, it’s just a matter of choosing appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather. My son attended outdoor preschool for two years, where he would be outside for 2.5 to 3 hours straight, so we’re used to dressing appropriately. And yes, it’s possible even if you live in a colder climate than Seattle. There’s plenty of outdoor preschools in Scandinavian countries with much colder winters. Getting good outdoor clothes can be pricey, but just think how much money you save on gas, wear and tear on your vehicle, and on a gym membership by walking!

Crime Danger: Clearly, there are neighborhoods where it is risky to walk through. (Unfortunately, those are often also the same neighborhoods where parents have no other option than having their child to walk to school.)

For the majority of American neighborhoods, the risk of crime is not that high, especially in the hours when you would walk a child to and from school. Although many people believe that the world is a “more dangerous place than it used to be”, statistics actually show that the rate of child abduction by strangers has stayed stable over the past 20+ years.

One way to increase safety is to travel in a group. Some neighborhoods organize a walking train, where there’s an adult “engine” leading the way, and an adult “caboose” at the end, making sure all the kids in the middle stay safe.

School Policies: Some schools place limits on children walking to school, or on children arriving at school unaccompanied. If this is true of your school, talk to the administration to learn more, learn what the options are, and advocate for any change you believe would be beneficial to the families at your school.

Physical condition: Although this wasn’t in the top 5 issues in the survey, I imagine this is a barrier for many. My husband’s foot was injured for the past few weeks by too many dance performances in a short period, so he had to take a few weeks off from our walk. But, if you have physical limitations, walking may actually be one of your best ways to get active. I have one leg and use crutches to walk, and walking on the sidewalk works great for me, but treadmills, ellipticals, and lots of other specialized exercise equipment is completely unusable for me. For my parents, who are 80-something, walking and going up and down stairs are the main exercises they are still able to do. If your physical condition prohibits long walks, can you fit in a few short walks outdoors each week with your child?

Schedule: Sometimes a parent’s work schedule means that walking is not feasible. For example, a few mornings each month, I need to be at work across town 20 minutes after I drop off my child at school. I have to drive on those days, because I don’t have time to walk back home and pick up my car, and then drive. If this is your situation, ask your manager whether there’s any possibility of making a slight adjustment to your work schedule, or consider talking to neighbors about a walk-pool / walking bus, where you take turns being the grown-up walking the kids to or from school.

What do YOU do? What could you do?

I’d like to hear from others… do you walk your child to school and other activities? If so, why – what are your favorite benefits? If not, why not – what are your barriers?

Carillon Woods Park – Kirkland


Carillon Woods, at 5429 106th Ave NE is a lovely wooded park with nice play equipment and plenty of trails through the woods. It’s tucked away in a neighborhood about a quarter mile east of Carillon Point, and just west of Northwest College.

The sign shown above is in the midst of the butterfly garden which had lots of bees gathering pollen and some butterflies on the day we were there. It also has an interpretive sign about the butterfly life cycle.

The play structure is a nice one for ages 3 – 9. It’s got lots of ways to climb up: regular stairs, two ladders up the centers of each tower, a climbing rock, tricky stairs (the fourth picture below), and loop ladders up the sides. For ways down, it has a pair of toddler size slides, and a mid-size slide. There’s a long “bridge” connecting the two towers.


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The playground was partially in the sun partially in the shade at 11 am. It was a fairly hot day, but all the dense greenery of the park helped the shady areas feel quite cool.

Around the corner, you’ll find a nice climbing rock with some comfy benches to sit on and watch your child climb. It’s an artificial rock, and you can definitely tell by the hollow sounds it makes when you climb on it, but with several years of moss and dirt on it, it looks surprisingly realistic. The wood chips around it are deep and soft – as my husband walked on it, you could see the chips sink down an inch or so, and slowly raise back up as he moved on.


Around the corner from there are swings. They’re both kid style swings – no toddler bucket. The climbing rock and swings are very shady, so good for a hot day.


Then there are the trails – there’s a short paved loop (plenty long enough for a tricycle outing) that takes you around the play equipment and back to this interpretive sign about water, and a bench.


Then there’s lots of other trails through the woods. We wandered along some of them, but didn’t fully investigate. The park is almost 9 acres, and the developed area with the play equipment is maybe an acre of that, so there’s lots more to explore. (2 acres is off limits to the public as it’s an unstable slope, and contains a pump house and active wells.)

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There are no bathrooms at the park.

We were there from about 10:30 – 12:30 on a sunny Tuesday, and saw one man walking his dogs, one grandma with a toddler, and one other family arrived just as we were leaving. I don’t know if that’s typical usage or not. If you’re looking for a busy park packed with kids, this may not be it.

But, if you’re looking for a quiet and really lovely park, where you’re surrounded by lush green foliage, this is a great park for you!


Note: this park is not as well maintained as we’re used to in Kirkland. The playground could really use a pressure washing (especially where the moss is growing on the roof) and there’s lots of weeding to be done. But there’s no trash or anything – so the users keep it tidy.

More info at: Kirkland Views (a great write-up), Active Rain, and My Parks

Outdoor Preschools


Outdoor preschools are rapidly gaining in popularity. In the Seattle area, just a few years ago, there were only a handful. This Parent Map article now lists over 25 in the Puget Sound region.  They are typically a play-based preschool, where students spend 50 – 100% of the class day outside, year round, regardless of weather. Many are based on the forest kindergarten model, developed  in Sweden, Finland, and Germany.

Some key characteristics of an outdoor preschool:

…takes place in the same setting on a regular basis over an extended period of time.

…while there are some structured elements, [it’s]largely emergent, child-directed, and play-based… young people have freedom to explore, play, build, create, imagine, and use their senses to experience the outdoor environment and engage with one another.

… strong emphasis on educators observing, learning with, and teaching students in the context of the environment… allows children the space and opportunity to delve into various activities and experiences guided by their imagination, rather than explicit, external direction… educators’ primary role is to ask a multitude of questions based on what is emerging from a student’s questions, experiences, and imagination. The guiding principle at Forest School is that children are competent and engaged learners, and with guidance and support, are able to lead their own learning process in directions far beyond what an educator can initiate on their own. Source

What happens at an outdoor preschool?

While some outdoor preschools are just a traditional teacher-led program that happens to be held outdoors, most outdoor preschools (especially those that follow the forest kindergarten model) focus on child-led learning, which may also be called emergent learning or inquiry-based learning.

“Inquiry-based Learning is a dynamic and emergent process that builds on students’ natural curiosity about the world in which they live… Inquiry places students’ questions and ideas, rather than solely those of the teacher, at the centre of the learning experience. Students’ questions drive the learning process forward. Teachers using an inquiry-based approach encourage students to ask and genuinely investigate their own questions about the world. Teachers further facilitate students’ learning by providing a variety of tools, resources, and experiences that enable learners to investigate, reflect, and rigorously discuss potential solutions to their own questions about a topic the class is studying. Source

Instead of having a completely pre-planned curriculum, they are more likely to follow the children’s lead and respond in the moment. The teachers may have a goal for what they want to teach that day, but exactly how that plays out can be spontaneous. For example, the teaching concept of the day might be comparative words or adjectives. The activity might be a hike in the woods. While hiking, the teacher could ask: which is the tallest tree? where’s the biggest rock? which are there more of – sword ferns or skunk cabbages? Can you find a dark green leaf and a light green leaf? Or if the concept was the five senses, they would practice listening for birds, smelling cedar bark, tasting huckleberries or salmonberries, touching lichen, and looking for spider webs.

Nature provides a huge array of learning opportunities. Here are some components of a “typical preschool” and what that looks like in an outdoor preschool setting:

  • themes: almost every preschool has a series of “themes” during the year. In the fall, it might be pumpkins, fall leaves, or spiders. Then comes winter, ice, polar bears and penguins. Then springtime, flowers, ducks and so on. The teachers spend lots of time cutting out pictures and decorating bulletin boards. At an outdoor preschool, nature provides an ever-changing seasonal view.
  • block play: there’s plenty of building happening, but instead of using Duplos or Lincoln logs, the kids may be stacking rocks, building a lean-to with branches, or constructing fairy houses with moss and bark
  • imaginary play: there’s not a toy kitchen with plastic food, but there is an endless supply of bark, rocks and mud which easily fill in for mud pies, pretend cookies, ice cream cones and more. There’s not a treasure box full of dress-up clothes, but there are sticks, which become magic wands, swords, light sabers, hobby horses, and more. Instead of playsets and puppet theatres, a favorite climbing tree may be a spaceship one week and a train the next.
  • arts & crafts and writing: mud fills in for play-dough, sticks and sand provide a surface for practicing writing, kids paint on a tree with squashed berries, kids use sticks to form the letters of the alphabet
  • math manipulables: there’s an endless supply of things to count and add and subtract: rocks, berries, bugs…
  • sensory table and water table: instead of filling tubs with rice or beans or other sensory materials, the teachers just let the children explore pebbles on the path, moss on the log, slimy slugs, puddles, rough bark on a Douglas fir and smooth bark on a birch tree, glossy salal and sharp pointy holly leaves
  • playground time: time playing on standardized equipment is replaced with balancing on logs, climbing trees, wading across creeks, and building a seesaw with a downed branch balanced over a log fulcrum
  • fine motor practice – there may not be puzzles and shape sorters, but there are plenty of possible challenges, picking delicate blackberries while avoiding prickly thorns, weaving daisy chains, and handling insects
  • snack time: might be picking fresh veggies in the garden or it could involve building a fire, cooking a snack over the coals, and eating it as they gather around the open fire
  • music: kids may sing call and response songs while hiking through the woods, learn to whistle or hum, and drum with sticks on stones
  • circle time: it’s easy to do songs, stories, group games, and concept activities in the outdoors under the trees
  • science: there’s a never-ending opportunity to teach about science!

Outdoor teachers need to be flexible thinkers, since nature can be unpredictable. A teacher might have planned to talk about mud in April, because generally mud is guaranteed to be available in Seattle in April. But two years ago, we had a very dry spring, and there was no mud to be found! New “teachable moments” also appear outdoors – a dead bird or a hornets’ nest or bear scat may liven up a planned walk. This leads into discussions of a wide range of topics never found in a traditional preschool. (Learn more here about the role of the educator at an outdoor preschool.)

What are the benefits of outdoor preschool?

Children get the benefits of a play-based preschool, including: increased skill at self-direction and problem-solving, lots of practice with social skills and conflict resolution, a sense that learning is meaningful, and reduced stress (which leads to increased learning – we know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel happy and safe.) Learn more about play-based learning here.

Children also get the benefits of time spent outdoors in nature, including: better eyesight, stronger large motor skills and coordination, lower rates of asthma, allergies, and obesity, lower stress, and better concentration / attention when they return indoors. Outdoor play also encourages safe risk-taking and plenty of problem-solving. [Learn more by clicking here on Benefits of Outdoor Play or click on “nature activities” on the right sidebar (on desktops) or the bottom of the screen (mobile devices) to see all my posts on nature.] As an added bonus – anecdotally, kids who go to outdoor preschool seem to pick up a lot fewer colds and other illnesses from their classmates.

The outdoor environment also offers unique learning opportunities. Here’s just one example related to language arts: Language is not just about reading. It’s also about listening and communicating. When children and teachers go for a hike in the woods, they talk to each other as they walk, about almost anything that comes to mind. In this context an adult tends to use much more diverse and sophisticated vocabulary than they would have used in a pre-scripted classroom teaching moment. For example, if a teacher wanted to teach about colors in a classroom, they might use a book that showed 12 colors with labels. When walking through the woods, the same teacher could point out lavender vinca, fuschia rhododendrons, rusty red rotting wood, dark purplish-black berries on an Oregon grape, and discover how many shades of green there are in their woods.

“hands-on experiential learning is the best educational approach for children. Being outdoors provides them with not only fresh air, it encourages imaginative play, creativity, hand-eye coordination, balance, physical strength and mental clarity. When children’s natural curiosity is encouraged, learning flows organically from stimuli encountered in the outdoors.” Source

What are the downsides to outdoor preschool?

It’s dirty. Your kids may come home muddy. Really muddy.

The weather. Can be too cold, too hot, too wet… Most of this can be managed with the right clothing. Expect to spend a fair amount of money buying the appropriate clothes for your child. You may be able to find them at thrift stores or consignment stores if you’re lucky, but good clothes and good boots are essential!

Here’s how I manage: at home, I dress my child in regular clothes (pants and a t-shirt, plus good Smartwool socks. We keep the outer layers in the car and add them when we get to preschool. (It’s not safe to buckle a kid into a car seat with all those layers on.) If it’s a dry day in the fall or spring, we just add a fleece top for warmth. If it’s a wet day, it’s waterproof pants and rain jacket from Oakiwear. If it’s really cold, then we add long underwear and a squall parka from Lands End, plus hat and gloves. And always… every day… good boots. Bogs boots are great, but Oakiwear boots are also great and much cheaper than Bogs. They’re pricier than rain boots from Target, but warmer, sturdier, and fit better (so fewer falls caused by loose boots.) When we get back to the car, I just strip off all the muddy outer layers and leave them in the back of the car for the next preschool day. (If we’re going somewhere other than home after class, I bring along regular shoes and an everyday jacket.)

Not an emphasis on academics: Some outdoor preschools do almost no academics. Some incorporate story-time and crafts to teach some basic pre-academic skills. Some have a fair amount of group time where they learn standard pre-school topics like: days of the week, colors, alphabet and counting. But, none are focused on teaching academic skills like reading and math. I believe this to be developmentally appropriate – read why at my post on academic preschools – that post also incudes tips on how some parents have worked academic preparation into their home-life when their children attend non-academic preschools.

Learning about your options

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where you have multiple outdoor preschools to choose from, here are key questions to ask to allow you to compare them:

  • What is a typical day’s schedule?
    • A completely child-led school, like Cedarsong, may answer this just by saying: ““There’s no structure or schedule. We ask, ‘What do you kids feel like doing today?’ We follow them… At the end of each month, we write a newsletter from these notes, so the children write the curriculum.” Source
    • A hybrid model that combines teacher-led and child-led activities, like Polliwog, might say “9-9:15 Transition: Free play; 9:15-9:30 Morning Circle: Introduce the day’s theme, weather, calendar, sharing time; 9:30-11: Outdoor exploration, themed activities and nature study, then a snack; 11-11:45: Indoor extension activities: sensory, art, math and literacy stations. 11:45 – noon. Closing Circle: Reflections, songs, stories
    • There’s not a “right” schedule – just look for the schedule that suits your child and your goals for enrolling them in the preschool.
  • How much time do kids spend outside on a nice day? How much time do they spend outside when the weather is bad? (One “natural preschool” that I looked at spend at most 1/3 of their time outdoors and the rest in a traditional teacher-led classroom when the weather was nice out. There was even less time outdoors if the weather was bad. I do not consider them a true outdoor preschool, just a traditional preschool with a larger outdoor / nature component than most.)
  • What is the teacher to child ratio? For safety reasons, you may need more adults in a spread out, outdoor location than in an enclosed classroom. Also, in an inquiry-based classroom, it helps to have extra adults to answer all the questions children can come up with during a walk in the woods.
  • What indoor facilities do they have, and how do they use them? One preschool in the area has only some port-a-potties, but says children can also opt to pee in the woods instead of using the port-a-potty. Other schools have a full inside classroom with all the typical facilities.
  • For more questions to ask at any preschool, look here: Questions to Ask

My experience

I offer my experience here not as “here’s how YOU should do things” advice, but more to illustrate one parent’s decision-making process for one particular child.

With my older children, we did coop preschool, which I think is one of the best possible options for parents who are looking for a part-time enrichment preschool. My oldest child also did a theater-based preschool two days a week, because she had a passion for theatre, stories, and dramatic play. With our third child, coop was not a good match due to my work commitments.

When we started to look at other options, I started by thinking about my goals and needs and what would be the best match for his temperament. He had learned how to read very young, before starting preschool, so we weren’t worried about him learning that or other pre-academics at preschool. When I look at the list of essential skills for preschoolers to learn, I knew that he needed to work on impulse control, waiting for his turn to talk, and social skills, especially conflict resolution. I know these are best learned in free play with other children (with an adult nearby to mediate when needed.) They are not skills that are learned sitting in a desk. He is very high energy – if I need him to concentrate on something, I first need to give him an outlet for that energy – when he was two, we went to library story-time every week and he loved it and learned a lot. But BEFORE story-time, we went to the playground and he ran for an hour – letting out that energy first allowed him to concentrate later. (FYI, there’s plenty of good research showing that active play, especially active play outdoors, helps kids to concentrate better when they come back indoors. Check out this article on one school district’s experience with adding recess back into the day’s schedule.)

We considered a neighborhood preschool that’s a very short walk from our house – lots of our neighbors have used it and had only good things to say about it. We looked and it was a great traditional preschool, with lots of play time and plenty of activity. There was nothing wrong with it and a lot of good stuff. But, it didn’t feel like the best fit.

Like many preschools, it had lots going on visually – alphabet posters on the wall, calendars and weather charts. There were lots of brightly colored toys on every shelf. It’s what preschools are “supposed” to look like but it was also a little too much for me. (Read here about why kids actually may learn more in environments that have LESS “educational material” decorating the walls.) It was also a “loud” room acoustically – even with just the adults in it for an open house, it was a little loud for me. My son tends to get over-stimulated in busy, indoor environments and can get a little wild and hard to manage. I could see this room setting him off.

I thought more about that, and realized that he almost never gets over-stimulated outside. Outdoors, the noise and stimulation just comes at you differently. There’s plenty to observe, but not as much that demands your attention.

So, we realized we were looking for an outdoors, active, play-based preschool with plenty of opportunity for social-emotional development.

When he was three, we chose Tiny Treks preschool at Keep It Simple farm. It’s an all outdoor preschool – they have a non-insulated greenhouse for doing crafts in – since Seattle rain makes it challenging to use most art supplies outdoors. It is VERY play-based and child-led, with some structured teaching in circle time and a lot of free exploration. Here’s how they describe a typical day:

“We will spend the days outside in the forest, trails and garden.  Our day consists of a nature theme, craft and play.  Circle time with songs and finger plays, puppets and some light yoga stretches.  Then we might go to visit the baby chicks, count the chicken eggs and look for the bunnies.  There is a fire pit to roast marshmallows by, hammocks to swing in and the forest to play hide and seek in.”

It was a fabulous experience in every way. He loved it. We loved it. And at the end of the year, he had come a long way in his self-control, ability to listen to a teacher, and ability to manage frustration, all of which were skills we knew he needed to gain from preschool.

When he was four, we chose Polliwog Preschool, run by Pacific Science Center at Bellevue’s Mercer Slough. They have an indoor classroom, which has all the things you would expect to find in an indoor classroom. They also do many typical preschool activities, like story-time, job charts, and weather charts. They spend about 50% of their time outdoors in the child-led / emergent learning mode. It is a nice hybrid of forest kindergarten and a traditional preschool experience, and we felt it would make the perfect bridge between Tiny Treks and a kindergarten classroom.

Here’s how they describe their activities.

Polliwog Preschool is play-based and student-driven… Activities are designed to [encourage] curiosity, fostering love of the natural world, and developing the whole child. Polliwog Preschool uses nature as the guiding theme to frame our core curriculum areas of science, art, music, math, language and literacy. For example, when studying insects, children act out the life cycle of a dragonfly and fly through the forest for creative movement. Investigative, quantitative and analytical skills are developed as we compare, count and study terrestrial and aquatic insects. … back in the classroom, we extend our learning and creativity in various ways, such as painting an insect at the art station or creating an insect story as a language art activity.

This has also been a fabulous experience for him and for us. He has come a long ways in kindergarten readiness. The change in him from this summer till now has been huge in terms of his ability to engage in group activities, take turns, and follow instruction. And although his preschools have been “play-based” not “academic” he is making plenty of progress on the academic skills and will be well-prepared for kindergarten next fall.

Resources to Learn More

Best summaries

More resources:

photo credit: Friends Forever. via photopin (license)