How Do We Get Kids Outside?

by: EJ on 06/15/2016

School is just about done and summer is right around the corner.  Parents and kids alike are excited by the long warm summer days.  Parents, you might have fond memories of having the whole summer off: trips to the park; playing in the yard with friends; beach days; swimming in the lake; living mostly outside, nothing terribly organized. 


Photo Credit: Dmitry Kechenko

Unfortunately, unless parents take action, it may be that your children will not have the same memories to look back on.  The British laundry company Persil recently commissioned a survey of 12 000 parents in 10 countries and the results show an alarming lack of outdoor time for children.  It revealed that one third of British children spend 30 minutes or less outside every day — and that one in five does not play outside at all on an average day. Children it seems, spend less time outside than the average prisoner.

Photo credit: Second Nature

There are several reasons for this - competition for children's attention from technology (read more about about how i-tech works on young brains making the pull of screens almost irresistible in i-Minds); parents’ and children’s perception that the outdoors is dangerous; liability concerns limiting what organized programs can offer; and simply that nature is an unknown quantity to many people.  Eighty percent of American kids say nature is hot, scratchy and full of bugs

Authors Drew Monkman and Jacob Rodenburg are concerned about the huge price we are paying as a society for being so disconnected from nature.  In their new book, The Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning , they have compiled over 300 pages of nature activities for all seasons to help get children back outside.  "As parents, educators, grandparents, and community leaders, we all need to help kids -- and increasingly ourselves -- to see the value of connecting to nature, not just to screens".

So how do we get kids outdoors?  Here are some tips from the introduction to The Big Book of Nature Activities.


Photo credit: DC Gardens

1. Take your kids outdoors yourself but be a “hummingbird parent”: If we want our children or grandchildren to experience nature, we’ll need to be more proactive than parents of past generations. Just try to stay out of your kids’ way much of the time, so they can explore and play in na­ture on their own. You can always “zoom in” like a hummingbird, when safety may be an issue (which thankfully, isn’t very often). Slowly increase this distance and their autonomy as time goes by. Kids crave and thrive on autonomy, so don’t be afraid to “let them loose” sometimes — with a minimum of rules!

2. Organize family nature clubs: An increas­ingly popular way to get kids engaged with nature is for families to get together and create their own informal nature clubs. The benefits are many: family ties are strengthened, a sense of community is enhanced and kids often become passion­ate about nature by experiencing it with their peers. To get started, all you need is group of people with an interest in con­necting children with the natural world. Start by inviting your friends and their families to gather once or twice a month in a nearby park, preferably with trails. Later, you may wish to advertise at your school or community organization, should you want to expand the group. And don’t worry if you lack na­ture skills. All that really matters is being enthusiastic about getting your family outdoors.

Characteristics of Kids and Nature: Ages and Stages

We’ve found that children of different ages respond to nature in different ways. Use the hints below to help you approach nature with preschoolers, teens and in-betweens.

Younger children


1. Nature playscapes: Kids aged three to eight love to pretend, imagine and, especially, play. Never underestimate the power of creative play in natural landscapes. The space under the fra­grant branches of a spruce can magically transform into a castle or a spaceship. A fallen log might morph into a canoe or pirate ship.


2. Micro-environments: I remember taking my two young children to a wonderful overlook. We hiked the better part of two hours to get there. The view was breath­taking, with lakes and hills glistening in the afternoon sun. And there were my children hunched at their feet — staring at a caterpillar crawling along the ground. Young children have a contracted view of the environment; they respond to what is immediately in front of them. Spend time with your younger children soaking in the details of your surroundings.

3. Tending: Young children yearn to belong and crave connections to other living things. They want to nurture and care. Provide your children with the chance to tend a garden, raise monarchs, look after a lizard. Even growing herbs in planter boxes and harvesting the fragrant leaves connect children to the natural world and to local food. Don’t forget that children learn by imitating. When I was shoveling in the garden, so was my three-year-old daughter, right alongside me — with her own tiny shovel. After we went for a nature walk, she would set up her own nature walk, right there in the backyard. Children are more likely to love nature when they see you making a genuine effort to love it yourself.


Photo credit: Russ, Tree Kid

Middle childhood (In betweens)

Eight to 12 is an evocative age — an age ripe for discovery and immersion in natural landscapes. Flipping over logs, climbing trees, wading in wetlands, jump­ing in puddles, catching bugs in ponds and staring upward into the deep beyond of the night sky are all activities that children of this age love to engage in.


1. Exploration and discovery: Our chil­dren are born explorers, full of unbridled enthusiasm and energy for the world around them. Sadly, this is also the time that many children are holed up inside, trapped behind a glowing screen. If we don’t connect them to the wonder and mystery that resides in nearby green spaces now, they may grow into teens that experience the outdoors as a place that is uncomfortable, foreign and, at worst, irrelevant to their daily lives.

2. Action projects: Kids need to feel a sense of agency, need to believe that they can and will make a difference. Encourage kids to participate in activities that enhance nature in their own neighbor­hood, perhaps by naturalizing a backyard or a school ground — building nesting boxes, planting trees, creating butterfly gardens — or by helping to protect local green spaces.

Older children

As kids get older (ages 12 to 17), they crave adventure! They want to prove that they are tough, strong and resilient (which of course, they are!). They often yearn for activities with an element of competition such as birding.


Photo credit: Freezelight

1. Recreational exploration: Ah, the pendu­lum teenager: one moment sitting sullen, arms folded on the couch, angry at the world; the next moment, jumping around the living room, coursing with energy — enough to power a small town. One way to deal with these mood swings is to intro­duce your teenagers to the outdoor skills that help them connect to nature. Take them on an overnight camping trip. Make sure that your itinerary is robust enough to be challenging but that they have the food, clothing and equipment to be comfortable, even in inclement weather. Competitive activities such as geo-caching are also popular with teenagers and still have a modicum of nature appreciation.

2. Traditional skills: Have your children experiment with bow-drill fire-making, shelter-building, basic tool-making or cordage. There is something immensely satisfying about creating your own fire — by rubbing wood against wood. Some of

our most popular children’s programming has involved teaching traditional skills. We’ve included traditional games and activities in this book.

Build Nature Skills: For teenagers who really show an interest in nature, encour­age them to:


3. Contact a local naturalist club: They may know of teenagers in your community who are active birders. Your son or daughter may be able to join them in their outings.

4. High schools often have environmental or outdoor clubs: Many schools also take part in “envirothons,” environmentally themed academic competitions. Contact the science department at your high school.

5. Find a local cause and encourage your kids to get involved: There is always a wetland to save, a park to protect or habitats to enhance. Kids need to feel like they can make a difference. Participating in local action empowers children and helps them recognize what it means to be part of a larger community.


And to this list, I add one of my own: arm yourself with a an authentic, contagious enthusiasm for the outdoors, or, if you find that impossible, link up with a mentor who can.  And don't be deterred by some grumbling -- reconnecting with nature takes time and effort, as is true for all good things in life. 


On Sale Now - The Big Book of Nature Activities - Over 160 fun activities to help get you back into the great outdoors.


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