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In the national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv mentions several consequences of “nature deficit.” Childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression are all on the rise. When you consider the strong body of research concerning the importance of outdoor play for our children’s emotional being as well as physical, cognitive, and social development, it has never been more important to get our children outdoors. At a time when computer games rule and we as parents are worried about “stranger danger,” here are five great ways to encourage safe and active outdoor exploration:
Go for a hike
Schedule regular family hikes. For extra fun, you can turn them into scavenger hunts. Give each child a list of items and creatures to check off as they spot them: squirrel, robin, snail, moss, etc. It could be as basic as a “color” hunt (“Let’s see how many red things you can spot on this hike!”) to a leaf identification hunt, depending upon the developmental and interest level of your child. Also consider giving your child a field bag -- something to carry all his wilderness supplies in, from snacks to a magnifying glass. Plus, he can use it to bring home any treasures he finds along the way.
Get in the garden
Introduce your child to gardening. There are so many life lessons to learn from the simple act of putting something in the ground and watching it grow. It’s a powerful thing when children see with their own eyes the results of their tender loving care -- or neglect. It’s hard not to have a greater respect for all living things when you are responsible for growing one yourself, even if it’s a single tomato plant. When it comes to planting fruits and vegetables, it provides your child with a closer connection to the food he eats, and it may even encourage him to diversify his taste buds! Creating fairy gardens also makes for hours of imaginative exploration and play.
Turn to the birds
Take up bird watching. This is a great opportunity for your child to learn more about the different birds that live in your neighborhood. You could even set up your own little bird sanctuary in your backyard. Identify the birds in your area and research the types of food they like. From setting up nesting boxes to growing plants that attract the insects that birds love, the Audubon Society has some great tips on making your backyard a safe haven for birds.
Make the backyard welcoming
In addition to gardening and birding, look for other ways to make your backyard an enticing spot for your kiddos. Try setting up a sandbox and fill it with outdoor-friendly toys and supplies, like pails, shovels and molds. If you want to go big, consider adding a playscape or a swing set to promote hours of engaging outdoor play. You could even set up an age-appropriate obstacle course that you change up regularly.
Hit the park
Make a point to visit your local parks and find out about any upcoming children’s events. Many parks have special activities for children of all ages. Stay informed by signing up for their mailing lists or check them out via social media.
Mothering advises that as an outdoor-active family you should always prepare for your outings. Know your limitations, and remember that timing is everything. You’ll want to invest in appropriate clothing and footwear, always check the weather, bring snacks, bug spray, sunscreen, water, and a small first aid kit. And start small in your own backyard before you graduate to camping in the wilderness!
Instilling an appreciation for nature in your child is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. As they explore the outdoors, make new discoveries, encounter challenges, and overcome any fears from spiders to worms, you’ll be encouraging a love of the outdoors that’s invaluable for their development. Whether you’re out digging in your garden together, splashing through mud puddles, or taking in the wonders of a hummingbird, you’ll be creating lifelong memories with your child, and what is better than that?