Being outside can relieve stress, strengthen immunity, and calm anxiety. Playing outside also helps build children’s physical health, cognitive and social/emotional development, improves sensory skills, increases attention spans, and can lead to happier kids. Outdoor play is also overflowing with opportunity and inspiration for unstructured, free play, which is one of my favorite development opportunities for kids (along with reading). As Maria Montessori says, “Play is the work of the child.” This year we have taken on the 1000 Hours Outside Challenge (you read more about it on their website), which aims to get your children outside for 1000 hours over the course of the year. This amounts to about 3 hours a day outside.
I am often looking for big adventures for my kids. We have visited over twenty national parks together and often go on big hikes. But I am a working mom, so running off to exotic nature locales for 3 hours every day just isn’t feasible. Not only is it not feasible, it’s not necessary. Behind the scenes of my hiking posts and adventurous weekend trips, you’ll find that we mostly just spend every day hanging out in our yard. And out girls are still getting all the amazing benefits of being outside in these everyday adventures.
Here are a dozen easy ways to get your kids outside in your own backyard and neighborhood. Even if you don’t have a yard, I hope you will find a least a handful of these will work for your situation as well. I did want to mention playgrounds are great fun for getting outside with your kids, but since not everyone has access to playground within walking distance, I did not include it on the list.
1. Go for a Walk
Whether its a walk around the neighborhood or a walk in the woods, walking is the easiest way to pass the time outside. I like that walking can be a social endeavour with the whole family tagging along, chatting amongst themselves, and chatting with neighbors. It is also a great way to experience nature even when you are not in a park or the woods. Even in the most urban areas, you are likely to find weeds and wildflowers sprouting up in sidewalk cracks, worms crossing your path after a rain, birds flying overhead, and trees changing with the seasons. Not to mention that walking is an excellent for of exercise. Even a baby in a stroller gets to enjoy fresh air and sights and sounds. With little feet, I prefer to let them go at their pace and really take it slow pointing out all there is to notice.
2. Sidewalk Chalk
Sidewalk chalk is such a fun way to play outside, even if you don’t have a blade of grass to your name. Kids can spend hours drawing to their heart’s delight. Take art time outside and enjoy while soaking up some Vitamin D on a patio, driveway or sidewalk.
3. Ride Bikes, Trikes or Scooters
A favorite childhood past time is riding bikes around the neighborhood with friends. My brother and I were lucky to grow up in a time and place where our bike rides together were miles away to neighboring towns for ice cream. But even if all you have is driveway or sidewalk, riding around can be great fun even for a little kid. The girls have Strider balance bikes, Globber scooters and Radio Flyer tricycles. They even like taking them into the backyard to ride through the grass. Once they’ve mastered riding skills, you can expand to rides around the neighborhood or on local greenways. It’s a great choice for kids who love gross motor activities and gives a sense of independence and adventure.
PS: We got their adorable helmets here (link).
4. Water Play
From a water table on the front stoop, to a sprinkler in the yard to a plastic pool, water is always a fun time for my kids. We like setting out the plastic pool and filling with odds and pits of cups, ladles, sifters and more for hours of endless fun. But even on our less extravagant days, a spray bottle with water has proven to be lots of fun for the girls as they run around and squirt the sidewalk, leaves and stumps.
5. Get Dirty
Sand, dirt and mud are a toddler’s best friend. If you can outfit your yard with a sandbox or a mud kitchen, I highly recommend it. If you can only just let them plop on a dirt patch and let them play, I highly recommend it. And if none of those are options, consider buying an under the bed storage container and collecting dirt or sand (or both) and pulling out on a front stoop. I have also seen recommendations for buying a pop up tent to keep sand in that provides a shaded spot for your little to play and can be zipped up to keep animals out of it when not in use. There are so many benefits to this natural sensory play, and it’s definitely a kid favorite. Pick out a few old, worn clothes to be their play clothes, so you don’t have to feel stressed about them covering themselves head to toe. We really like these muddy suits for muddy and rainy adventures.
6. Play in the Rain
Yes, you all can still have fun outside even on rainy days. After all, as the classic Scandinavian saying goes, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” In addition to our muddy suits (mentioned above) and warm layered clothing, a good pair of galoshes keeps us playing even on the wettest of days. Puddles are a favorite of the girls. We like to sing the following song on rainy days and it inspires excitement over the weather: “If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops, oh what a rain that would be! I’d go outside with my mouth open wide and go ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…” And rainy days are the perfect opportunity for puddle jumping and worm watching.
7. Grow a Garden
“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” — Gertrude Jekyll
“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.” – Alfred Austin
Gardening is a wonderful long term outdoor project to involve your kids as there is nothing to quite compare to watching life grow before your eyes from which was only just a seed before. A single raised bed is a perfect gardening start. Tomatoes and squash are easy plants to start with. If you don’t have the space for a raised bed, a patio planter or even a single pot with a cherry tomato plant will do. It’s a great way for kids to learn skills like pouring, get their hands dirty and watch a science experiment unfold.
It’s also great to let them help in your flower beds if you have them. Weeding, digging, and more hands in the dirt. Remember those play clothes and let the kids have at it.
8. Go on a Nature Hunt
Think nature-based scavenger hunt. There are so many variations to this; the possibilities are endless. You can do a scavenger hunt in your yard or on a walk. Some of our favorites include:- Make a sticky-side out tape bracelet for your little to collect trinkets on during a walk.- Find flowers for a small vase at the dinner table.- Make nature rainbows by collecting nature things in all the colors.- Make a list of different textures or shapes for your little to find.- Go on a hunt for four-leaf clovers.- Count how many birds you can spot on a walk.- Lot for signs of the seasons changing.- Collect and count rocks, sticks and acorns. – Make nature art by arranging findings in a pattern. – Take photos of things you find on a walk, draw and write note, press findings in between the pages and create a nature journal.
9. Eat a Meal Outside
We love a nice grill-out on the back deck with the sun sinking low and the birds chirping overhead. But we also eat PB&Js on the sidewalk with continuing “chalking” (what my girls call drawing with sidewalk chalk). Taking snacks and meals outside is a great way to let outdoor fun continue without interruption. I found that by the time I pack everyone up, head inside, set up a meal, eat the meal and clean up the meal, I have a lost a good hour of outside time and it usually kills my kids motivation to go back outside. So instead, we just take the food outside with us. The best part is you don’t have to wipe and sweep the grass or sidewalk clean! My twins are old enough to just sit on the ground and munch, but for little ones, I highly recommend the Summer Infant Pop and Sit Chairs.
Snacks are also a great motivator to get or stay outside, especially popsicles in the summertime.
10. Read Outside
I alluded to this above, but one of my favorite things to do with my kiddos is read to them. I rank that and free play as the two most important things we focus on in the toddler and preschool years. So how do I balance reading time with outside time? My mom, who is home with the girls while I am at work, brought up this conundrum to me. The girls spent all day reading book after book and she rightfully didn’t want to stop them. Take the books outside! Lay out a cozy blanket, cuddle up and read, read, read. It’s the best of both worlds; getting lost in a storybook while the sun is shining down. I personally love cozying up in my hammock with a good book.
11. Take Nap Time Outside
Now, do you really want to take your exposure to fresh air up a notch? Take nap time outside! Did you know that parents in Scandinavian countries regularly leave their babies outside for naptime? And studies have shown that outside napping has many benefits such as a deeper, more refreshing sleep and a boost to your immune system. I also find that mixing up naptime helps my toddlers with flexibility, which is especially helpful when traveling. Now this is one suggestion that you’ll really have to gauge your surroundings to see if you can pull it off. We have a very private, fenced backyard where I can let my girls snooze. For outside napping, we love our Regalo My Cot Pals. It keeps them off the ground and away from bugs and dampness. Plus the cots are so cute, my girls are always on their best behavior so they get to stay napping on their cots. I set the cots up out on the back deck with their blankets and lovies and keep watch from inside while I am getting work or chores done.
12. Do Nothing
After providing you a long list with ideas of things to do outside, I wanted to also make sure to include the very special act of doing absolutely nothing. We can often spend hours inside doing nothing; just lounging on the couch. You can also enjoy your time outside doing absolutely nothing as well. In fact some of your best outside moments may come from the art of no expectation. Just pull up a chair or a blanket or hammock or swing and relax. Cuddle up with your kiddos and bask in the sun. Let your kids wander and invent their own fun. Look for shapes in the clouds. Take a deep breath and soak it all in, these are the precious moments that will become lifelong memories.
I hope this list inspires you to get outside with your kiddos even in the smallest ways. Have any other ideas to share? Let me know below!
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