If you’re like millions of other parents, you’ve been social distancing for months, haven’t traveled, and, most of the time, your kids are stuck at home––often on the computer, their iPads, or playing on a game console. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a child who enjoys quietly reading a book or playing indoors, you probably wish they’d get out of the house for some fresh air. Unfortunately, many kids have little idea what they can do with themselves when they’re outside.
Getting your kids outside, though, can help lift them, and you, out of the blues that come from being in lockdown during this Covid-19 pandemic. Research shows that people of all ages are happier, healthier, both mentally and physically, if they spend time playing in nature. Being out in nature can help your kid be more aware of their body movement in space and helps them be in tune with inner sensations that regulate their sleep, appetite and moods. Playing in nature helps a child feel calmer and more focused, and it can undo the stress of being isolated from friends and missing school, summer camp, or family. Time spent in a natural environment has been shown to decrease a person’s depression and anxiety.
All you need to do is pack up a thermos of water and snacks for you and your child, get on your bug repellent and hat, and invite your kid on a “nature adventure.” You don’t need a big park for these mini-adventures. Explore the nooks and crannies of your neighborhood and you’ll surely find bits of nature––a tree, some bushes, a home garden, or any outdoor area with plants or grass.
Here are five ideas (adapted from Joseph Cornell’s book, Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages) of how you and your child can cultivate quiet attention and an ability to focus on and observe nature while you both have fun. These activities are geared mainly for the younger, 3 to 7 or so year-old, child.
1. The Sound Game:
You and your child sit on the ground. Tell them to hold their closed fists up and then lift a finger when they hear a new sound. This could be a bird call, a squirrel’s scampering, branches rustling, or any natural sound. They might be able to pick out sounds better when their eyes are closed. Ask them if they can hear ten sounds. See if you can do this, too.
2. A Sound Map:
Bring some markers or crayons, a notepad or a piece of paper with a board to keep it steady. Mark an “x” in the middle of the paper. Have your kid choose a place to sit. Tell them to make a mark on the paper to show where the sound came from: to the right or left of the “x” or in front of them (top of page) or behind. It can be a simple mark that stands for what they saw (i.e. a musical note for a bird, wavy lines for wind). They might want to close their eyes and cup their hands in front of or behind their ears (“fox ears”) to hear better. This game can be played anywhere, but works best where there’s a variety of habitats. Let your child’s age and attention span be the guide for how long you give them to play. When they’re done, you can talk about what they heard. Were any of the sounds familiar? Did they know what made it? What sound did they like the best?
3. The Color Game:
Pick out a color that you might see in the natural surroundings you are exploring. Ask your child to find 2, 3, or more things that are that color. Or, see if they can find different variations of a color, such as different shades of green. Look at the sky, or at a pond, lake, or fountain, and see how many different colors your child can see in it.
4. Close Up Hike
You can do this with a cell phone or with a magnifying glass. Give your kid a piece of yarn or a string and have them find a place to lay it out on the ground. Have them use the cell phone camera or the magnifying glass to examine the tiniest things: insects, seeds, grasses, miniature pebbles. Encourage the child to look closely and see the details of what’s going on below them. Let your child’s level of interest be the guide to how long you give them to do this exploration. Maybe a few minutes, perhaps longer.
When you’re done doing an activity, you might talk with your child about what they liked best about this nature adventure. You can take out the markers or crayons and each draw a picture about something you saw, heard, or did. Make sure to take the time to let your child tell their story. Let them know you value what they have to say, their observations, their feelings, and their beliefs. If your child is curious about your picture, you can share something about your experience, too. Just be sure to keep it simple and authentic. This isn’t about teaching your kid about science, although, that too, can be a side topic. Try to think about this as a magical moment of storytelling where you get to bond with your child and share a connection with nature through each other’s eyes and ears.