Although we’re in the so-called “dog days” of summer, there is still plenty of time to bring your kids outside to get a healthy dose of sunshine. And autumn, just around the corner, is also a perfect season to explore the outdoors with your kids.
Studies reveal many benefits of making nature a central part of your child’s world. Among them: an increase in self-esteem and resilience against stress, depression and adversity; improved concentration, learning, creativity, cooperation and self-awareness; and a decrease in childhood obesity.
At the Guidance Center’s Marks Family Right From the Start 0-3+ Center (RFTS), we integrate outdoor activities in the therapeutic process. In addition to an organic garden, RFTS has a Nature Nursery that is primarily designed for our early childhood population of children under 6 years old. The Nature Nursery features a variety of “tools,” including a rock and water garden, shells, pine cones, wind chimes and more, all designed to help children explore the sights, sounds, smells and touch of nature.
Bruce Kaufstein, Director of Clinical Services at the Guidance Center, describes how the children and their therapists have a variety of ways to experience all their senses as they play in a sandbox, touch the leaves and pine cones, produce musical sounds on percussive instruments, draw on a chalkboard or paint on an outdoor “canvas.”
“They are able to smell the aroma of an herb garden,” says Kaufstein. “They can explore and play music on a music board that contains pots and pans and shake maracas, castanets and other wooden instruments. A chalkboard and painting pallet provides the backdrop for recreating images and color of the nature they see around them.”
Vanessa McMullen, Supervisor at RFTS, says that many children are so connected to tech gadgets that they’ve lost touch with the natural world. “The various texture, sounds, smells and sights in the Nature Nursery help children explore their creative sides, and we also use it with the older children, to give them a natural, soothing space to experience positive visualization and deep breathing.”
According to Alicia Rabinowitz, LMSW at the Guidance Center, her young clients love going to the Nature Nursery and the adjacent organic garden. “My clients love to pick from the garden, wash and prepare in the kitchen, and then go out to picnic table in the Nature Nursery to have what we call our ‘Chat and Chew.’ I also use the walking tree stump trail created to assist clients with balance and to bring up topic of support and support systems.”
Of course, the benefits of our Nature Nursery can be found in natural settings all across our Island and beyond. Following are some of ideas of great outdoor activities you can do with your kids, from the Child Mind Institute:
- Set up treasure hunts. Make a short, simple list of things for your kids to look for outside—such as “a shiny object,” or “something you can hold liquid in.” The satisfaction of finding the objects turns it into a reinforcing activity, and it will keep them outside in search of the next list item.
- Identify things. Get a book—with pictures—about birds, bugs, leaves, trees, or flowers in your local area, and go outside looking for specific creatures in the book to identify.
- Give them the tools to discover. Gifts like a bug box, a magnifying glass, or a shovel will promote ways to explore the outdoors with a fun new tool that feels professional and empowering.
- Go to an outdoor performance. If your child can’t take her eyes off Nickelodeon, take her to a puppet show in the park. For older kids who like movies, take them to outdoor plays and musicals.
- Start a collection. You can find small parts of nature like rocks or shells almost everywhere, and starting a collection gives a kid motivation to search and therefore spend time outdoors.
- Use technology to your advantage. If your kid is hooked on electronic devices, have him bring along a camera or phone and create video or photo journals of various nature trips.
- Plant a garden. Tracking the progress and seeing the eventual product of a seed your child planted provides a different, deeper sense of achievement than beating a difficult level in a video game or getting a lot of likes on your last Instagram.
- Take a hike. Walking on a trail to a waterfall or breathtaking view also gives kids a sense of accomplishment, rewarding them for their physical efforts during the hike. This goes for bike rides, too.
- Make art projects. For kids who would rather sit inside with some arts and crafts, get them to use objects from nature for their art. Picking flowers to press onto paper, using berry juice as paint, or collecting pinecones and rocks to decorate are ways to infuse nature into activities they already enjoy.
- Build something. You can also reverse the process and make art with your kids that will support and nurture the natural world—things like bird feeders or flower boxes. Kids will keep coming back to watch an object they created provide for other living things.