As the weather warms up, it is a wonderful time to encourage outside play. The natural world offers both physical and emotional benefits for our kids, helping them feel happier, healthier and calmer. Yet, it can sometimes be a challenge to compete with screen time. Plus, kids are busy with schoolwork, extracurricular activities and other commitments. With kids’ outdoor play time declining sharply in recent decades, it is more important than ever to incorporate nature time into family routines. Fortunately, many of us have the perfect place to do just that: our own backyard.
So, how can we make our backyard more attractive to kids so they will want to head outside? There are many fun, easy ways, including water play, arts and crafts, animal connection and gardening.
Spending time in and around water has a tremendous soothing effect, helping kids feel more relaxed and refreshed. Both swimming and floating have been shown to reduce stress and boost mood. These activities also provide hours of enjoyment and exercise for kids of all ages, whether they are swimming laps, doing cannonballs, playing Marco Polo, or engaging in water sports like basketball, water gymnastics and volleyball.
You can be sure the kids enjoy water time out back by providing a few key items. You might decide to invest in a pool for your family, but you do not need to build an expensive in-ground pool. A large inflatable one will do the job. Make sure to have all the toys and equipment that make pool time a blast, such as goggles, rafts, tubes, sports games, snorkels, water squirters, and of course, sunscreen.
You can also add water fun by setting up a water table for the kids to splash around in. Be sure to include some floating toys like boats and marine animals for them to play with. Sprinklers are also an enjoyable way for kids to cool off and get some exercise as they run around in the backyard. Finally, every child will love playing out back on a Slip ‘n Slide or similar water play product.
Arts and Crafts
Another way to get the kids interested in heading outdoors is to set up creative activities for them. Children love arts and crafts, and it is a wonderful way to keep them busy and calmly focused on a project. Try setting up an outdoor easel or craft station filled with art supplies. They can paint a picture of a favorite tree or draw a bird they see.
You can also encourage them to collect nature items they find in the yard – such as sticks, flower petals, rocks and grass – to create a collage, nature mandala or even musical instruments to play. Some kids also enjoy making fairies and fairy houses, which leads to hours of imagination time. Another fun activity is to create your own inks, paints and brushes out of natural materials. The brushes, for example, can be made by wrapping yarn around sticks and making a brush head from straw, grass or leaves.
The options for nature art in your backyard are endless. Some other ideas include nature photography, keeping a nature journal, sculpting animals out of clay, doing leaf prints and making your own paper. The trick is to have the supplies on hand and ideas ready to go to inspire kids.
Children tend to love animals, so what better place to connect them to both pets and wildlife than in your own yard? If you have a dog, for example, be sure to encourage your kids to play outside with your furry friend. There is also so much wildlife if we just pay attention.
Here are some ways for your kids to enjoy animals out back:
* Make your own birdhouses to attract more birds to your backyard. Your kids will love looking out for new visitors and listening to their cheerful birdsong.
* Create a wildlife bingo game or scavenger hunt to find animals in your yard, such as lady bugs, squirrels, types of birds, bees, spiders or ducks.
* Have science kits or outdoor exploration backpacks on hand. Locally, Keep Austin Beautiful offers in-home learning activities and kits filled with lesson plans and materials. Topics include composting, recycling and more.
* Sign up for a citizen science project, which involves volunteering to collect scientific data for government offices and other organizations. Many of the projects ask people to count or take backyard pictures of nature, such as butterflies, flowers or birds. Your kids will not only help the scientific community, but also discover how incredible their own backyard is!
Getting kids involved in the family garden is a wonderful way to make outside time enjoyable. They can help by planting, watering and weeding. Gardening offers so many benefits, such as teaching kids about healthy eating, providing some exercise, and offering a time to unwind and be mindful. The best part about this activity is that your children will want to visit over and over again to water the plants and check on their progress.
You can engage your children in gardening by buying them their own gardening tools, asking them to pick out the seeds they want to plant and using the vegetables you grow to cook meals together. Setting aside a section of your backyard to grow fruits and vegetables creates a special place for kids to gather outside. If digging an entire garden in your backyard sounds intimidating, start small and grow a few herbs in containers or one vegetable at a time in large flowerpots.
You can also encourage more outdoor time by hosting a backyard barbeque or picnic featuring the produce from your garden. Any time you can take a meal or family gathering outdoors, you are helping to build a nature connection for your children that they will then end up seeking on their own.
Make Your Backyard More Playful
Some ideas to include in your backyard:
- Digging pit
- Dirt pile
- Rocks and boulders
- Rain barrel
- Somewhere to sit
(swing, hammock, bench, Adirondack chair)
- A play log that can be used as a table, bench,
balance beam and more.
It is also handy to have some essential nature play tools around like shovels, rakes, hoes, buckets, collection boxes, binoculars, a compass, a magnifying glass, flashlight, tweezers, bug cages and nets.
Sandi Schwartz is a journalist, mother of two and author of “Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer” and “Sky’s Search for Ecohappiness.” Learn more at ecohappinessproject.com.