It is so hard to keep kids active and get them outdoors enough right now when their friends, recess and organized sports have all been taken away. Yet, the research on the importance of nature and the outdoors is clear — it provides big benefits for mental, emotional and physical health for kids and adults.
As a parent of three elementary-school-age kids, I am trying to be creative and persistent to make sure they get the exercise and fresh air they need every day during this pandemic. Although more parks and public lands are opening up to recreation, it’s still best to avoid crowds and long drives. So, here are some of the tricks I have been using that might be helpful for encouraging outdoor time close to home:
Explore parks safely: Stick near home and see how many parks you can walk to. Visit a favorite one in your neighborhood and explore a new part of it — this is the time to seek out less-traveled side trails. Even though playground equipment is off-limits, kids can climb trees or build forts out of branches.
Create a family habit: At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, our family started a habit of taking a morning walk before we begin our day of work and school. Despite plenty of grumbling, it has gotten us out of the house together every day while the streets are still quiet, and it’s now part of our daily routine. You could try a family bike ride after dinner as a way to wind up the day.
Learn a new skill: This is a great time for kids to gain confidence by learning a new outdoor-related skill. You can help them learn to tie basic knots with pieces of rope or string. For older kids who understand knife safety, let them whittle a tree branch with a pocketknife under your supervision.
Look for nearby nature: Take an evening “owl prowl” and listen for the sounds of these magnificent birds heading out to hunt prey. Look for ant colonies in the sidewalk cracks. Go outside with a mesh net and magnifying glass and see how many insects you can “catch.” Release them after you have examined their fascinating bodies.
Use treats: To make the outdoors fun for kids, you need to think like a kid. I use candy regularly as a little bribe for enduring a hike or bike ride. You can make a s’more in the microwave and take it on an evening neighborhood stroll. Try a popcorn picnic in the backyard or a hot-cocoa hike.
Get creative: On a neighborhood walk, let your child pick the direction you go. Or bring a coin and flip it at each intersection — heads turn right, tails turn left — and see where you end up. Little kids love “painting” with water on a fence or sidewalk. You can also take just about any indoor activity outside — bring a deck of cards, a board game or a Lego set outside for some fun in the fresh air.
Try technology in a pinch: My kids will walk for a long time without complaining if they are playing Pokémon Go. You can also try apps like Seek by iNaturalist, which is great for identifying plants and animals, or Sky Map for finding constellations. Use NASA’s “Spot the Station” website to look up when the International Space Station will cross overhead and then try to spot its quick transit on a clear night.
Make family memories: This is an incredibly stressful time for parents, but we have the opportunity to sculpt this period of life into something special for our kids, and it doesn’t take much to create a special outdoor moment. Watch the sunset from the tallest hill you can find in your neighborhood. Lie on your backs in the grass and look at the clouds. Have dinner barefoot in the yard or on a blanket in the living room. Step outside to look at the stars. Read a book together on a blanket in your yard or front stoop.
Soak up the little outdoor moments and small victories. This will not last forever.