When we were kids and our parents would say “Go outside and play,” those were words to live by. My brother and I took those words to heart and spent many long hours puttering and playing outdoors.

We gathered leaves of every shape and color. We hammered rocks apart just to see what was inside. We looked for animal tracks, watched bugs, gathered seeds and performed experiment after experiment to test things like the heat of the sun and the power of water. We also made artwork out of sticks, stones and sand, leaving our masterpieces to the elements.

In short, my brother and I explored, discovered, experimented and created, while learning a lot about the world. We also gained an appreciation of nature, along with insight on where we fit in the bigger picture of the natural world.

Nowadays, we don’t have enough of that unstructured outdoor time set aside for our children. We’re scheduled up the wazoo, and because we’re such an increasingly urbanized society, sending kids to play outside on their own maybe isn’t even a possibility. Aside from attending summer programs and camps, many contemporary kids have little to no time to play, learn and grow in the great outdoors. So what’s a parent to do during the school year?

Consider the amazingly rich and valuable experiences that simply being outdoors can offer children. It’s not enough to talk about how the wind rustles through the leaves or how the snow sounds when you crunch through it. That needs to be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated. How big is a bear footprint, anyway? How does a cricket orchestra sound as the sun begins to set? What does darkness really look like? What is the smell of rain? And, how did our ancestors live off of the land?

The thing is, outdoor experiences don’t have to be a thing of the past— or confined to enriching summer experiences like day and sleepaway camps. We can give our kids this valuable discovery time now! Spending time in nature doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as easy as pitching a tent in your backyard or as involved as planning a backpacking trip. Just get your children outdoors. Let them feel the sand between their toes. Let them see how things interact in nature. And help make the great outdoors fun for kids.

Five Fun Things To Do When You Get Outside

Check out the seedy side of things

Find a field or a meadow, put a pair of socks on over your hiking boots and wander. Give all children on the imaginary trail a bag to collect loose plant life and such. At the end of the walk, take a peek at what kind of seeds and plant parts you have accumulated. This is a good springboard activity that can get kids looking for different kinds of seeds and questioning how plants travel and compete in a crowded world. After the kids explore to their hearts’ content, track down and observe the seeds in action. To take it one step further, sprout those socks! Put the socks in a plastic zippered bag, spritz them with some water and put them in the sun. See what happens after a few days.

Craft a pond peeper

If you find yourself by a pond or tide pool, make a “pond peeper” by taking out both ends of a big coffee can and placing a large sheet of plastic wrap over one end. Take about five rubber bands and secure the plastic wrap around the can. Now you can place this tool in the water to observe things up close and personal without getting your face wet. This is a fun way to get kids thinking about tools, making something useful out of around-the-house stuff and observing a whole new world. It’s another springboard activity. Are your kids into drawing? Encourage them to start a field journal to record all the plants and animals they see in a particular environment. Talk about ecosystems, food webs and life cycles.

Make a fern smash T-shirt

This was such an amazing discovery for my family and me. We gathered fresh fern leaves because we wanted to make some chlorophyll paintings, which are basically grass stains. We knew grass stains would dye fabric, and we wanted to use that knowledge creatively. We laid ferns down on a T-shirt, covered the ferns with paper towels to keep the leaves from moving around and then started hammering. This was the best part! We hammered away and saw the green juice coming through the paper towel. When we removed the towel, we were delighted by what we saw— a perfect grass-stain print of the fern, spores and all! We had discovered a gorgeous and natural way of printing a leaf shape, thanks to the fern’s pigment in its own cells. And, popping your creation in the dryer for ten minutes makes your green art permanent.

Use the sun to tell time

You can make a sundial out of something as simple as a stick in the ground. Or make a portable one out of a paper cup with a lid and a straw. Poke a hole in your cup, about an inch below the rim. Thread the straw through that hole and through the center of the lid so the straw sits at a 45-degree angle. Now find north, either by using a compass or calculating from the position of the sun at sunrise (east) or sunset (west). Then line the straw up so it points north. Make marks on the lid every hour and write the time. The next day, take your sundial anywhere in the open, align the straw to the north and voila— you have a portable camp clock. This is a great way to incite discussions about sunlight, planet rotation, length of shadows and time.

Create campsite pictographs

A box of chalk is excellent to have on hand for budding storytellers. Like ancient tribe members, kids can draw symbols and pictures on rocks found around your campsite— or backyard— to create stories. The chalk shows up nicely and washes off with rain. It’s an eco-friendly way to connect with our ancestors.

No matter what kind of camping activities and outdoor play your family engages in, it’s all about connecting— connecting with relatives, nature, curiosity, exploration and discovery. It’s about giving kids the time and space to learn how to create their own adventures and find and hone new skills. And, it’s about rediscovering that this world can be endlessly beautiful, fascinating and awe-inspiring.

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