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 https://thewildnetwork.com/wild-time-ideas/ and more inspiration – https://thewildnetwork.com/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: https://www.thegreenhour.org/.
Nature Mentoring has 22 ideas for Sharing Nature with Beginners: https://nature-mentor.com/nature-connection-activities/
Lots of zoos have webcams that let you observe animals in action. Check out: https://zoocamerasaroundtheworld.com/. 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.