Although children should have outdoor time every day, research suggests that on average, American children are only spending 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week. Spending time outdoors is said to lower stress levels, reduce ADHD/ADD symptoms, encourage the opportunity for physical exercise, increase academic performance and levels of concentration, reduce myopia, help children get enough Vitamin D and builds strong immune systems (not to mention a develop a sense of wonder). A good way to plan outdoor space is to identify permanent spaces and temporary spaces.
Exploring Nature in Permanent Spaces
- What permanent outdoor structures exist in your yard? Do you have a variety of natural elements such as: grass, trees, shrubs, and plants?
- Offer areas where children can build with nature’s treasures, such as sticks, rocks, leaves, pinecones, and snow.
- A quiet sitting area such as grass, stumps, large rocks, or a bench is a good place to slow down, relax, read a story, or have a heart-to-heart talk.
- Don’t forget to create areas for nature and weather observation with a good view of the sky for weather watching.
- Offer tools such as magnifying glasses, binoculars, paper towel rolls for telescopes, hand shovels, various containers for collections, and bird feeders.
- For observing the weather, offer materials such as a rain gauge, measuring cups, wind chimes, or streamers (to see which way the wind is blowing), homemade sun dials, and thermometers.
- Consider having journals, paper, and pencils for kids to record ideas and possibly stumps, decks, or climbers to allow for higher views of observing.
Exploring Nature in Temporary Spaces
- Create a garden area. Add planter pots with easy-to-grow seeds, plants, shrubs, and vegetables that are safe for young children. If you have the space and time, creating a vegetable garden with children is a great opportunity for them to learn about plants.
- Provide children with opportunities to care for nature, such as watering plants, feeding animals, picking up trash, and treating “creatures” gently, supports a sense of respecting nature and developing empathy. Experiences such as these help build lifelong skills and give children a connection that may in the future support caring for their environment.
- For water play, use plastic bins, buckets, funnels, plastic piping, hoses, plastic gutters, spray bottles, paint brushes, sponges, etc. Store all of the water play items in a large plastic bin with a lid. Instead of using wading pools which can spread germs, try sprinklers and individual water play containers. Remember, whenever infants and toddlers are in or around water, an adult should be no more than an arm’s length away so they are close enough to provide touch supervision.
- Children love interesting nooks. You can create fun spaces from tarps or blankets draped over areas, large cardboard boxes, or the undergrowth of a pine tree.
- Playing in the mud is a great outdoor activity kids love. Set up an area where children, with supervision, can dig in the dirt and add water to make mud. This space should be close to clean-up supplies and away from busy play. Give children clear rules before mud play, such as where the mud may be taken and what toys may be used.
- Don’t forget to offer an art area! Bring an easel and paints outdoors or set up water colors on a table or sidewalk. Providing a box of art materials give kids an opportunity to express themselves and use nature for collages and sketches.
You can also make outdoor chores fun! Have your children join you in washing the car, cleaning out the garage, feeding the pets, getting the mail, hanging clothes on the line, working in the garden, or any task that calls for them to be involved in the great outdoors.
If you would like to learn more about children and nature, visit the Environmental Education section of UNL Extension’s Learning Child website.
Author: Leanne Manning, Extension Educator | The Learning Child
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