Published September 16, 2020
Encouraging children to get outside in nature has always been a priority of mine, both as a parent and as a staff writer here at Treehugger. But this year it feels more urgent than ever. COVID-19 has kept us cooped up indoors, and as lockdown restrictions ease and we do all we can to prevent the pandemic from resurging, spending more time outdoors can be a straightforward and affordable fix for our problems. Also, with so many kids suddenly being homeschooled, the outdoors can become a limitless classroom.
I'd like to share several resources for optimizing time spent outdoors with children. These are three newly published books, and each offers excellent activities and lessons for learning about the seasons, foods and materials found in nature (including in urban settings), wildlife, astronomy, and more. These are the perfect answer to parents who aren't sure what to do with their kids outside, or for educators wanting to broaden their students' perception of the world.
1. "Nature Play Workshop for Families: A Guide to 40+ Outdoor Learning Experiences in All Seasons"
Written by Monica Wiedel-Lubinski and Karen Madigan, both experts in outdoor education, this is a beautifully photographed book that opens with an impassioned call to parents to embrace risky play (a favorite Treehugger topic):
"We should question if we want a culture of protection or resilience when it comes to raising our children. We must decide if the relative danger of climbing a tree is worth the mastery and confidence of perching atop."
The book is laid out according to the seasons, with ideas for interacting with the sky, soil, animals, plants, weather, and more. Activities range from foraging for seasonal foods like sorrel, mint, maple sap, and violets, to sensory play like building walnut boats, freezing ice in differently-shaped natural containers, building nest helpers and seed-based feeders for birds, and making a recycled paper kite.
A helpful final chapter offers advice from experienced nature-based educators on various aspects of outdoor play that may stump parents, e.g. how to start spending time outdoors if families aren't used to it, how to enjoy oneself when the weather's cold, how to find nature in urban settings, etc.
"Nature Play Workshop for Families: A Guide to 40+ Outdoor Learning Experiences in All Seasons" (Quarry Books, 2020), $22.99
2. "The Unplugged Family Activity Book: 60+ Simple Crafts & Recipes for Year-Round Fun" by Rachel Jepson Wolf
Another activity book divided by the seasons, this one stands out for its goal of getting kids off screens and into nature. There's an extensive introduction that includes strategies for unplugging, such as setting a timer for an hour and stretching that time each day, coming up with reference lists of alternative activities, ditching screens at mealtimes, designating one day per week to non-screen play, and giving children a weekly media allowance.
Jepson Wolf goes on to talk about the benefits of unscheduled time, of embracing boredom, and of providing children with materials and resources to transform that boredom into creative games.
The activities have a strong emphasis on plants and flowers, from foraging lilacs to make soda syrup and wild greens to make tea sandwiches, to weaving flower crowns, building teacup fairy gardens, planting bulbs, making felted acorn necklaces, and cooking bonfire bread.
I like Jepson Wolf's interest in celebrating holidays and solstices in nature. These were, traditionally, a way to mark the passing of time and seasons, but are not usually viewed that way anymore; she would like those traditions to be reclaimed, and offers great suggestions, such as building a gratitude tree at Thanksgiving, taking a lantern walk in the late autumn or moonlit walk in water, hosting an "autumn abundance exchange," hosting a summer potluck, and leaving little cans of spring flower on neighbors' doorsteps.
"The Unplugged Family Activity Book" (Fair Winds Press, June 2020), $23
3. "Urban Forest School: Outdoor Adventures and Skills for City Kids" by Naomi Walmsley and Dan Westall
Just because you live in a city and see more concrete than countryside doesn't mean you can't find nature outdoors; it just takes a different eye to find it, and this book can help. Written by a husband-and-wife team of bushcraft experts, it offers a range of activities for exploring urban neighborhoods and discovering all they have to offer. The authors write,
"When I hear the word nature it conjures up images of mountains, wildlife, meadows, forests, waterfalls and lush green trees. Maybe it does for you too. But nature isn't all about the grand picture. Nature play can be any activity that gets children active or thinking actively outdoors."
This book is full of great ideas for exploring nature in cities. Learn how to tie a range of knots, make a tree easel, do shadow paintings, and build biodegradable bird feeders. Organize a snail race, make giant bubbles and fizzy mud pies, and set up a sheet den for hiding out. Identify trees, clouds, birds, bugs, and animal tracks. Participate in neighborhood scavenger hunts, forage for edible plants, and learn all the things you can do with fallen leaves. There's a section on crafts you can do at home using materials collected outside.
There's even a short chapter on climate change – how to explain it to kids and what they can do to take action, such as walking to school, buying second-hand toys instead of new, reducing plastic usage, and more. The entire book is a rich resource that anyone with curious children could benefit from using.
"Urban Forest School: Outdoor Adventures and Skills for City Kids" (GMC Publications Ltd, 2020) $24.95