For some kids, just opening the door is inspiration enough for outdoor play. But when you need a little more inspiration, these ideas make green hour — the recommended one hour of outdoor free play for kids — come a little more naturally.
Make the Most of Rainy Days
As long as there’s no thunder in the air, a warm rainy day is an ideal time to get a little closer to your natural world. (The idea that wet weather causes colds is erroneous—most bugs are caused by viruses, which thrive in dry environments.) Kids love squishing through mud and splashing in puddles while they observe the sights and smells of a rainy day.
Play Natural Hide and Seek
One of the best ways to get familiar with your neighborhood nature is to seek it out, and a photo scavenger hunt is a great way to do that. Snap pics around the neighborhood or in your backyard for your child to duplicate with her own camera.
WWOOF IT Up
Some of the farms that participate in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms network allow children with their parents, and this hands-on, farming apprentice program is a wonderful way to introduce kids to everyday farming life.
Mark the Change of Seasons
Now that most of us aren’t waking up in the morning to milk the cows and feed the chickens, it’s easy to lose touch with the rhythms of the natural world. One way to remember the natural cycle: Make note of seasonal milestones — like the upcoming summer solstice—on your calendar, and celebrate them together.
Keep a Cloud Journal
Encourage kids to keep a daily record of the sky outside, sketching the day’s cloud patterns in a special journal and using colored pencils or paint to capture the color of the sky.
Nature Hunt in Unexpected Places
There’s plenty of nature to be found in urban spaces—if you know where to look. Pick up a book like Take a City Nature Walk by Jane Kirkland, and set out on an urban nature walk.
Add a Green Hour to Your Routine
Set aside one hour a day for unstructured outdoor play. (Start with 15 minutes if you feel like an hour might be too much for your younger children.) As you feel comfortable with the prospect, give your kids the reins to explore wild spaces independently.
Stock Up on Maps and Field Guides
Being able to identify trees, wildflowers, wild animal tracks, and birds on your nature hikes definitely makes outdoor time more interesting, so start a collection on your homeschool bookshelf. Topographical maps are also a great way to plot future outdoor adventures. Over time, mark areas on the map you’ve explored or wildlife you’ve identified by its tracks.
Have a Backyard Campout
A backyard campout is a practical way to test the camping waters without commitment. Even if you decide to bring your sleeping bags inside at bedtime, you’ll get to know your backyard in a whole new way when you tune into the sounds and sights of a spring night.
Give Your Child a Piece of Land to Care For
Taking responsibility for a piece of land gives kids the opportunity to build a hands-on relationship with nature. You can keep it simple — stocking a bird feeder or caring for a plant on the back porch — or engage your child in more complex activities, like creating a backyard habitat or planting a vegetable garden.
Put Up a Bird Feeder
It’s an amazingly simple way to lure all kinds of interesting avian friends to your backyard. Scatter a little seed in the yard, too, and you may see an influx of squirrels, rabbits, and other small mammals in addition to birds.
Start a Rock Collection
Even little kids can collect stream-smoothed rocks when they’re wading in the creek, stones from your hike through the forest, and shells from the beach. If your children are interested, consider picking up an inexpensive rock tumbler to polish some of your finds.
Watch your butterflies develop from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. (Shelli recommends Painted Ladies as a good choice for newbie butterfly farmers.)
Make Family Hiking Part of Your Routine
Start with short day hikes, and work your way to more strenuous hike- thrus if they appeal.
Explore a New Place
NatureFind hooks you up with a list of parks, trails, and other nature sites within a chosen distance from your home so that it’s easy to find new nature stomping grounds.
Watch a Creepy Crawly Movie
Set up a lamp or other light source behind a hanging white sheet on your clothesline, and wait for the bugs to gather. Insects, attracted to the light, will land on your sheet, where you can observe them up-close.
Paint a Flower Rainbow
Gather fresh white flowers (carnations, daisies, and Queen Anne’s lace are all good options), and arrange one or two each into small vases or jars of warm water. Snip the submerged stems with a diagonal cut, keeping them under water the whole time. Add 20 to 30 drops of food coloring to each container, and watch as the flowers slowly change color.
Be Nature Detectives
My kids had trouble just hanging out outdoors until we invented the nature detectives game. It’s as simple as games get: The kids grab their investigator notebooks and head outside to look for mysterious objects. When they spot something they can’t identify, they break out the magnifying glasses, snap photos, and jot down identifying details. A few field guides later, and the case is cracked — until the next nature mystery arrives.
This was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of HSL.