Whether it's untrammeled woods or a manicured park, the natural world provides sights, sounds, smells, and textures not found anywhere else. The simplest patch of lawn, stretch of garden, or pile of dirt can spark your child's imagination and creativity. And while you should certainly ensure safety and supervise your youngster, don't hover: Experts say the most beneficial outdoor play is the time a child spends alone or with friends — without adults around to direct and potentially inhibit free play.
That said, outdoor play can, and should, be a fun experience for the whole family. Here are some ideas to get your children up and out:
- Go bird watching. Watching and talking about birds in the environment is an experience even the youngest children love. Hang a bird feeder in your yard or patio to attract all types of birds, and take the opportunity to discuss their different sizes, the colors of their feathers and the interesting sounds that each one makes.
If you don't have a backyard, travel to a nearby park, the beach, or even a nature preserve, where trained naturalists can help answer questions and pique interest.
- Show interest in insects. Bugs stimulate curiosity as well as a wide range of reactions in children. Some are fascinated by their movements and appearances; others have a learned reaction of fear or repulsion. Either way, a child's reaction to bugs allows him to explore his own feelings and fears.
Consider planting a butterfly garden using easy-to-grow plants such as pentas, aster, or a butterfly bush. These plants can be grown in containers or in a small patch of soil (ask for help at your local nursery for planting and growing tips). Catch bugs such as fireflies and ladybugs and observe them in unbreakable insect containers. (Please remember that containers are meant to be temporary shelters for your bugs — let them go after enjoying them for a day!)
- Get digging. Yes, dirt is . . . dirty. But kids love it. If you don't have a safe place in your yard for your child to get his hands in the dirt, create one. Garden-supply stores sell sand — perfect for digging, sifting, piling up and pouring out. Add water and you've got the makings for a million mudpies or a deluxe sandcastle. Give kids washable toy animals, a farmhouse, small figurines, plastic houses, and small sticks with which to build cabins, bridges, or forts.
- Collect found items. Simple, ubiquitous outdoor items like rocks, feathers, and leaves form the basis of a breathtaking collection for a child. Taken home, your child can sort, mount, display (or discard!) his newfound booty. To get a collection started, take a walk around your yard, in the park, along the river or shoreline — just about anywhere. Bring along a shoebox or plastic bag for collecting. Leaves and flowers can be pressed between two sheets of paper and left to flatten and dry beneath heavy books.