A number of international studies have shown that children in developed nations spend an average of 55 hours a week indoors using electronics. Even though this means that the youth in these countries are techno-savvy, it often results in them spending less and less time outdoors. How do we change this, and get our kids to experience the wonders of nature, develop creativity and learn to appreciate the virtues of exploring?
It's one thing getting the kids outdoors, but keeping them interested is a whole other game. Follow some of these tried and tested activities, and watch them learn some valuable life skills and nature facts.
Pitch a tent
Many of us have fond memories of pitching a tent out back, toasting marshmallows on the open fire and watching shooting stars blaze across the sky. So why not get your little ones outdoors again, by taking them on a camping trip? If your family's not quite ready for wilderness camping, organise a campout in your own backyard! It's cheap, fun and easier than you think.
Point and shoot
Turn your wildlife expedition into a 'photo safari', by finding and photographing some of the species in your area. You could create a nature notebook with all of the pictures you collect, and get your kids to write something about each of the animals.
A number of academic institutions are looking for everyday people to help them collect invaluable data about nature. A range of options are available, from counting monarch butterflies or frogs, to planting sunflowers to count how many bees come to feed. Your children's observation skills can help scientists learn more about the natural world. All the data that you and your child submit helps scientists draw conclusions about changes in the environment.
Top tip: Contact your local university, college or museum to see if they have similar projects that your family can be a part of.
Try a modern day treasure hunt, by searching for objects or landmarks in the outdoors using maps. Look for places of special natural interest, like a stream, cave or forest. These activities require some problem-solving skills and encourage participants to explore new areas. They are also a great way to have fun together outdoors, get some exercise and work on skills such as problem solving, map reading and math. You can get maps of your area from the local library, or contact your geological society, who will be happy to provide you with these resources for a small fee. Another great idea is to have your kids make a nature map of the neighbourhood, so that they learn to define their own special natural places.
Sometimes the simplest outdoor activities leave the best memories Remember how to skip a stone, make a daisy chain, or blow a grass whistle? These easy games could be making your child happier, too, as environmental psychology research suggests that children with more exposure to nature have reduced stress levels and longer attention spans. These kids also show a much higher respect for nature too.
Smooth pebbles, jagged limestone, shimmering quartz crystals - every child knows the perfect rock when he or she sees it. Turn loose your rock hounds to find specimens of every size, shape, colour, texture, and sheen imaginable. Then, do a little backyard science by comparing their relative hardness or simply have fun by turning them into pet rocks.
You could also take your little ones down to a pond and teach them how to skim stones across the surface. This way they learn all about geology, surface tension and gravity.
Feeding our feathered friends
We see birds everyday, whether we live in downtown New York, or in the English countryside. Invite them in to your own green space by making or buying feeders or nesting boxes. Or, simply enjoy their songs and calls, and see if you and your child can identify the local species by sound.
Dazzling displays and crafty collections
Kids are natural collectors of everything fanciful and odd. Why not use the seeds, pine cones, feathers and rocks they gather after a day outside as part of a craft project? Or, set aside a space on a windowsill or table to display your child's collection.
Walking and wheeling
Make walking a part of your family's daily routine! This way you can explore nature, spend time with the family and get some exercise. You can play a nature scavenger hunt to keep it fun! Make a list of things you're bound to see along the way, like rocks, trees and toads. Give your kids an interesting fact about each of the items they spot on the list. Things like, 'do you know frogs lay their eggs in water, yet they live on land?'. Biking is another great way to explore the outdoors with your family. Pack a picnic, do some bird watching and explore a new 'neck of the woods.'
Top tip: Many local libraries have some information on walks and cycle paths in your area, or head down to a park if you live in the city.
Gardening is a great family activity that can help teach children about so many things - life cycles, pollination, biodiversity and nutrition, just to name a few. Whether it's in your own yard or at an allotment, why not plant a garden with your child, as this will benefit both the environment and your family. Research shows that children who plant vegetable gardens tend to make healthier nutritional choices as adults. Stop to smell the roses and appreciate the wildflowers your family can find growing nearby. If you're allowed to pick some of these, press your flowers or make leaf prints. To press flowers, simply put them between pieces of wax paper and close them in a big book. To make leaf prints, ink a leaf with a sponge and press it into paper for an instant artistic creation.
Digging up the dirt
Kids love getting down and dirty! Put a spoon or a small shovel in their hand and they will dig a hole to China. A growing number of researchers believe that good old-fashioned dirt play exposes children to a myriad of bacteria, viruses and microbes that strengthen their immune systems. So, dedicate a small part of your yard as a digging station. No yard? No problem. Set aside a large container or flower box just for digging in the dirt.
Exploring nature doesn't have to stop when the sun goes down. Spend some time with the moon, the stars and all of the animals that are active at night. Go for a walk in the moonlight, trace the constellations of stars, learn to identify nocturnal animals and have your child keep a moon journal that will help your child understand the its phases. The darkness outside makes it more of an adventure!
Grab a couple of magnifying glasses, nets and jars and set out on an alien hunting expedition. Sure, there will always be the occasional stinger or biter to watch out for, but the vast majority of insects and other creepy crawlies are harmless. Even better, they're plentiful, accessible, and fascinating for kids to study up close. Turn over almost any rock, log, brick, or patio stone to reveal the hidden world of insects, worms, snails, and bugs just waiting to be discovered.
Bushes, trees, cardboard boxes, rope and old blankets are all you and your kids need to exercise imaginations and build a fort of your own. Let your child's imagination run wild. If you have a big tree in your garden, consider building a safe and sturdy tree house inside, and watch your kids spend even more time outdoors, away from the television and videogames. Climbing trees is a childhood rite of passage, so when you feel your children are ready for it, teach them about assessing risk and building self-confidence while exercising their bodies. They will also be able to explore environments above the ground, so let them get in touch with their inner squirrels!
You need no supplies or special expertise for this one. Picking out shapes in the clouds is a great way to engage a visual learner. All that's needed is a sky filled with big fluffy clouds and a whole lot of imagination.
Berry-picking is a great way to get outside while showing your kids that food doesn't originate in the supermarket. Find a nearby pick-your-own farm to teach your kids all about how food grows and the processes involved in getting it to the shops.
Making a splash
Going on holiday to a place near the ocean, a lake or a stream is not only a good way to stay cool, but also a chance to explore natural waterways, which will spark your child's imagination and love of nature. Try an organised activity like fishing or canoeing, or just enjoy the simple pleasure of exploring a shoreline.
No batteries, no instructions, no problem! The only things which you and your family need to enjoy nature are a sense of adventure and imagination. So, before you flip on the cartoons, or the next time your kids moan about being bored, consider letting Mother Nature entertain your kids for a few hours. Not only will they learn about how precious the environment is, but also some valuable life lessons as they grow into young adults.
Facts & Figures
- 67% of American homes either own a gaming console, and/or use their PC to run entertainment software.
- Early childhood development (0-8 yrs) is the period of greatest growth and development, when theirs brains develops most rapidly, absorbing the most crucial information.
- The amount of time children and teens spend on the computer has tripled in the last 10 years.
- Researchers and early childhood educators view parents as an integral part of the early childhood education process.
- Not all games have to be structured. Sometimes, you and your children have the most fun when everyone gets a little wild, crazy and spontaneous.
- The major source for Vitamin D in children is sunlight. So let your children play outdoors in the early hours of the morning or evenings. Just be sure to cover them in sunscreen.