It’s actually very simple to explore nature with a young child. Most of these activities can be done easily at home or in the neighborhood. Some take a little online research, phone calls, or planning, but they are well worth the effort for the memories they create and the love of the outdoors they can inspire.
1: Play in the mud
Give your children blank journals or notebooks and have them personalize the cover. Set aside fifteen minutes each day as journaling time and have them write about their day. Encourage them to collect tickets, trinkets, and other memorabilia from their summer outings and paste them in their journal. Your children and you will love looking back at your summer activities from the child’s perspective.
2: Build a fairy house
Find an out-of-the-way place to build a fairy house, such as at the base of a tree or in a corner of the yard. Then let your child’s imagination run wild as he searches for sticks, pine cones, leaves, seed pods, acorns, shells, and rocks that can be turned into household items for elusive “woodland fairies.”
3: Grow a garden
Tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, and sunflowers are good plants for you and your child to start with. You’ll learn in your first year and can expand upon your knowledge the next year. Keep a garden notebook to record your successes and challenges, as well as pictures of your farmers and crop.
4: Visit a nature center
A nature center is often a community’s best-kept secret. These outdoor education centers typically offer helpful programs about local plants and animals, and nature center naturalists are great resources for information about interesting activities in your area. Look online for your closest nature center.
5: Make a tree your friend
Have your child pick a favorite tree in your yard or neighborhood to make his own. Put a ribbon around it or something simple that declares it “his” tree. Name the tree and watch how it changes throughout the year. You can also have your child draw and photograph the tree to create a special tree book.
6: Find a secret hideaway
Help your child find his own secret hideaway in the yard, woods, or at a park. This can be a hidden place for him to read a book, play, and imagine. It can even become a spiritual place of sorts, such as a prayer rock or quiet spot under a tree for quieting the mind.
7: Go berry picking
There is nothing like picking your own berries on a warm, sunny day. Look for local farms with pick-your-own opportunities. Or look for wild areas with berries ripe for the picking — for free. Be sure all berry pickers are wearing hats and shoes (not flip-flops). Or if you have space in your yard — it doesn’t take much — plant and grow your own berry bushes.
8: Rock hop in a creek
Creeks are great for wading, water fights, crawdad-hunting, rock-hopping, and exploring. Find a favorite spot and allow your child time to play and explore. Check water quality through local municipalities and utilities to make sure the creeks you visit are safe.
9: Learn about songbirds
Place a bird feeder near a window or in the yard and watch who comes to visit. Purchase a bird guide such as The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America to help identify the birds. Check online for local birdwatching groups; they often host educational outings that are interesting for children and adults.
10: Start a nature journal
Buy a blank notebook and some colored pencils and voila, you have a nature notebook. Pack the journal in a backpack for walks, hikes, and canoe trips and encourage your child to draw whatever he sees. Be sure to set aside 15 to 30 minutes to sit, draw, and talk with your child about what he is drawing. (And don’t critique!)
11: Feed the squirrels
Gather acorns or other nuts in a basket, put them out for the squirrels, and watch to see if you have any takers. If you set up a squirrel feeder (dried corn-on-the-cob will work), create a fun maze for the squirrels using ropes, water guards, or other deterrents — squirrels are smart, and you’ll enjoy watching them navigate the maze.
12: Explore in a canoe
Canoeing is a fun way to explore local waterways, as well as to quietly observe the plants and animals that live around water. If you have never canoed and are starting from scratch, call a local nature center, aquarium, or outdoor recreation retail store for information about canoe outfitters in your area.
13: Play outside
American children spend an average of 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week, according to recent studies. Give your child the gift of unstructured play time to discover, create, and imagine while outside in nature.
14: Paint rocks
This may seem simple, but rock painting is a great way to excite children about exploring outdoors. The most important part is the rock hunt, which can be done in the woods, the park, or the backyard. Have your child search for “special” rocks. Then sit outside — armed with paintbrushes and non-toxic paints — to create rock art. If you live near or plan to visit the beach this summer, you can do this with shells, too.
15: Visit a state park
Look online for state parks in your area and plan a weekend getaway. Many state parks offer camping or cabin rentals, as well as outdoor fun, such as fishing, hiking, canoeing, and swimming. To get the inside scoop on activities and events, call the park and speak to a ranger — most are happy to share their recommendations.
16: Enjoy a campfire
Campfires represent everything wonderful about being outside: camping, friends and family, hot dogs, and s’mores. Check with your local fire department about campfire regulations. If you can have a safe campfire in your backyard, invite the neighbors over to enjoy it with you. If not, plan a weekend getaway at a park or campground that allows for campfires.
17: Build a fort
Forts, tree houses, and playhouses can be rustic or extravagant. There are many books today that offer wonderful and practical ideas for creating childhood getaways. Or use your imagination — and your child’s — to create your own space.
18: Follow the phases of the moon
The moon affects nature and all living things, but it is so easy to overlook its changing beauty. Take a month to watch the moon phases. Each night at the same time, step outside and look up. Have your child draw each night’s moon phase. Or just look and listen to night sounds.
19: Pack up some books and read outside
Find a special place outdoors to read: under a tree, in a hammock, on a porch, or at the park. Pack your backpack with books and snacks and head out to read with your child. This takes away all the distractions of home, such as phones, all things electronic, and the constant need to clean.
20: Take a hike
Hiking is great exercise and a fun way to spend family time. Look online or ask around for local trails. Fill a backpack with snacks and water and set off for an easy outdoor adventure.
21: Start a nature basket
Find an old basket to keep anything beautiful that your kids find while exploring the outdoors, like rocks, sticks, shells, fossils, or pine cones. Be sure not to disturb anything growing or take anything that should remain outdoors (such as bird nests). Keep the nature basket in an accessible place for your child to empty and look through whenever he wants.
22: Inspire the imagination
Children come alive when they believe they have discovered something, whether it’s a hidden treasure in the bottom of a creek or a flint rock that could have belonged to an American Indian. Help your child think like an archaeologist, anthropologist, or historian by opening your mind to what you could be looking at in nature. Even the mere suggestion that a rock could be a dinosaur bone can stir a child’s imagination and joy.
23: Host a water day
Invite friends over for water fun in the yard or a park to cool off on hot summer days. A small pool isn’t necessary, but if you have space, use it. Make bubble buckets with water and soap. Play with water balloons. Bring ice cubes outdoors to watch them melt. Put out a sprinkler. Water toys can include bottles, sponges, spoons, cups, and pitchers.
24: Play in the rain
Turn off the parent voice in your head that says, “Get out of the rain!” and let your child stomp in puddles and get muddy and soaking wet. (Rain boots and an umbrella are optional.)
25: Take a family camp vacation
Put away the Mickey Mouse ears and take the whole family to camp for vacation this year. Many summer camps offer weekend or week-long sessions for families to “rough it” together. Call the traditional summer camps in your area to see if they offer family camp sessions or look online for family camps around the country.