A few months ago, we couldn’t imagine that our children wouldn’t be able to go to parks, playgrounds or nature centers. And yet, here we are. No time like the present to find new ways for them to connect with nature.
The benefits of playing outside have been widely studied, and research has shown that spending time outdoors can increase fitness levels, reduce stress and inspire creativity. For example, in her book, Nature Play at Home, landscape designer and former childhood educator Nancy Striniste explains how playing with “loose parts,” or raw materials such as branches, stones, mud and leaves, cultivates a child’s inventiveness.
“Loose parts that kids can use to build anything from miniature worlds to forts and hideouts to obstacle courses lets them change their space and creates a healthy sense of ownership,” says Striniste, who lives with her family in Arlington, Virginia. Play opportunities that give children a sense of control are important, especially in today’s uncertain world, she says.
And yes, your kids will get messy while they’re building forts out of sticks and mud, but that’s also a good thing. According to a report from the National Wildlife Federation, getting dirty outdoors improves children’s physical and mental health by building a stronger immune system and reducing anxiety.
Need some ideas for outdoor play? Here are five ways to help your child connect with nature:
Practice Balancing and Jumping
Use a log, a two-by-four, a series of rocks or even a purchased slackline to create a balance beam. Encourage kids to walk across it, jump over it, or hop from one piece of the beam to the next.
Carry Heavy Things
Let kids help with chores that require heavy lifting like moving bricks, rocks and branches, or let them play and build with these “loose parts.”
As anyone who’s ever played King of the Mountain knows, differences in height lend to dramatic play. If you don’t have a hill or access to tree stumps, consider bringing step stools or stable benches into the yard to mix things up.
Few things are as satisfying as putting a dry speck of something in dirt and seeing it transform into a living thing that is pretty or edible. If gardening is new to you, start with vegetables like peas, lettuce, green beans or flowers. Use pots if you don’t have ground space or workable soil.
Find a Sit Spot
To help children cope with anxiety and the sense of isolation we are all feeling, give them space to be mindful. Try a few minutes of “forest bathing” every day: letting the sounds of nature wash over them and finding a sense of inward calm. Even a few minutes can change moods.
For a more active variation, have children draw what they see or write about the sights, sounds and smells around them. Or even take photos. Revisit the same place each week and see how it transforms through the seasons.
Life may seem overwhelming right now, but just remember: When it comes to connecting with nature, every little bit counts.