Engaging with nature and participating in fun learning activities doesn't have to take you far from home. Whether you are a homebody or just want to relax between big adventures, the backyard offers many opportunities to do some hands on learning and commune with nature. If you are looking for ways to make your outdoor spaces kid friendly and to promote authentic learning find out more about the principles of creating natural playscapes. You only need a few elements to keep kids entertained and curious - dirt, mud and water tend to be kid pleasers. Pair those with some materials for constructing forts and you've got the possibility of unending, enriching fun.
WHEN YOU'RE THERE
Get dirty - While we sometimes hesitate to let our kids make a mess because of the inconvenience, it is important to let their outdoor play be as uninhibited as possible. Dirt, mud, sand and rocks are instant sensory experiences without the trouble of creating a sensory bin.
Become someone else - The backyard is a place for adventure. Encourage kids to play pretend. Whether they are pirates, pilots or princesses stretching the imagination helps to grow creativity, relationship and problem solving skills. Pretend play is enhanced when kids have materials to build forts and furniture to suit their game.
Focus on your kids' interests - We keep mentioning it because it's really that important. Your kids will learn best if their activities match their interests. Engaging in play and learning that is intrinsically motivating build curiosity and joy in the learning experience. If you have a science lover help them set up some experiments in the backyard. Is your child a natural nurturer - build birdhouses and feeders together. Find a way to connect to your child's interests and see where they take you.
Involve your kids in yard care - The outdoors is a great place stress shared responsibility. Have your kids help out with chores. Outside chores connect to the seasons and are novel enough that kids are often eager to get involved. Some of them are downright fun - our kids love raking leaves (as long as there is some jumping involved) and they adore watering the garden.
Let kids take the lead - While the backyard is a perfect place for kids to run and play with a minimum of adult involvement, it can also provide opportunities to connect with the family. Avoid the urge to plan too many organized activities and let your child take the lead. Ask them what they like to do in the backyard and join in - even if its pouring water into dirt and playing in the mud.
Relax - Look for ways to enjoy quiet restful times in the yard as well. If your kids have naps or quite times look for opportunities to move them outside -set up a tent and snooze together or just relax on a blanket and find pictures in the clouds.
Take time from your chores - When you are out in the yard getting work done take time from your tasks to attend to things your kids point out to you, a birds nest in a tree, the sandcastle they built etc. Put your rake away for a few minutes and give your full attention to what they are into.
LISTEN AND LEARN
Brains On! Episode - Mosquitoes: What Are They Good For
The Kids Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things to Do in Nature Before You Grow Up by Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer - This book outlines a variety of outdoor activities to try throughout the year. Many of them can be done near to home while others require you to venture further out.
Little Kids First Big Book of Weather by National Geographic - Get answers to all of your weather inquiries. This will give you insight into how weather forms and changes from your backyard to across your continent. Packed full of pictures, this book is a fun read, like other National Geographic publications.
If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian - A poetic engagement with the different types of rocks that you may find outdoors. This book is a bit dated but lovely all the same.
A Little Bit of Dirt by Asia Citro– Art and science activities for kids to do in the wild or their own backyard.
Audubon Bird Guide North America App - Audubon has a variety of apps that provide high quality information about your natural habitat. This one lets you learn about birds, hear their calls and record your own bird sightings. It also provides guides for new birders on how to identify birds, the rules of birding and how to get quality bird photos with your phone.
Leafsnap App - This might be one of those times when its worth pulling your phone out on the trail. Snap a photo of a leaf and the app will identify the plant for you or browse comprehensive information about different species.
REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCE
Research suggests that one of the most effective strategies for building happiness is practicing gratitude. Martin Seligmen, the founder of positive psychology, suggests reflecting on the good things that happened each day with your kids. As part of your dinner or bedtime routine have each family member name some things that they are thankful for that day. Model gratitude for the simple things in life by naming elements from the backyard or around home, the rich, fertile dirt in the garden, bird song in the mornings, family trampoline time. Soon kids will be reflecting on the little things with gratitude too.
Create a supply of loose movable building parts for your backyard. These may be stumps and logs, old tires and boards, or ropes and canvas. Make sure there are enough materials to create a kid size shelter and some basic furniture. Help kids continue to scavenge other materials to add to their shelter and divert waste from the landfill.