Your Kids Can Have Epic Outdoor Adventures in Your Neighborhood
Whether you’re stuck in the city or counting down the days to a summer road trip, we have a few expert-approved tips for exploring nearby nature
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Ask your kids whether they’d like to go to the local park or the Grand Canyon, and they may be hard-pressed to choose. While adults are often drawn to the awe-inspiring vistas of big-name natural attractions, kids are usually less concerned with the size of the space than with the fun opportunities that await.
That’s especially convenient this summer, as newly vaccinated nature seekers are hitting the road and well-known destinations are seeing longer lines for everything from parking spots to picnic tables.
The opportunity to avoid the crowds—and the disappointment that comes from not being able to secure a reservation at a long-dreamed-of site—is enticing families to explore outdoor spaces close to home, says Jessica Carrillo-Alatorre, executive director of the nonprofit Hike It Baby. With more than 300 branches throughout North America, the group helps families get together for local outdoor activities. Events include “toddler waddles” (following the lead and speed of your two-year-old), play sessions in city parks, urban stroller walks that might start or end at a neighborhood coffee shop, and more traditional kid-led hikes on trails through wooded spaces. Anyone can start or join a Hike It Baby branch, using an online calendar to post the outings they’re proposing and invite others to join.
After a year spent in isolation, the benefits of small outdoor excursions like these are great. A recent study in Japan found that access to green space and spending time in nature during the pandemic were “associated with increased levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness, and decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.”
That doesn’t surprise Carrillo-Alatorre, who says families simply need help finding their way out the door. “Just 15 minutes outside improves mood, boosts creativity, and provides physical benefits,” she says. “I think every family deserves to know that Mother Nature is right there, willing to lend her support.”
These tips will help your whole family find fun new ways to explore natural spaces close to home.
Bring Your Own Adventure
Sometimes just getting outside with a new baby is an adventure in itself, but if you have older kids, having an adventure in your back pocket will help when their energy starts to wane. Use a visit to a local park or trail as an opportunity to gather sticks for a fort, or research geocaching spots before you head out. On the Hike It Baby site, you can find scavenger-hunt ideas and other activities to start at home (like building a bird feeder) and then enjoy outdoors.
Carrillo-Alatorre notes that adding music and storytelling can make a regular walk more entertaining. For example, she suggests going on a “bear hunt”: hide some stuffed bears along the trail, teach your kids the “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” song from the popular Kiboomers YouTube channel, then take them out to find bears on a hike.
Take the Inside Out
Many activities that keep your kids’ attention indoors can be done outside, says Carrillo-Alatorre: “It’s just about thinking outside the box a little bit.”
Consider dinner alfresco: turning a weeknight meal into a picnic makes it fun. “My kids love being in charge of packing family snacks, and we let them choose things from the pantry, counting out portions and items to ensure each family member gets a share,” she says. “They are so proud to offer and help distribute them on the trail.”
Cutting foods into fun shapes or selecting a theme like “bugs” add to the enjoyment, she says. (Make ants on a log, using raisins and peanut butter on a celery stick, or caterpillars, with grapes on a bamboo skewer.) Ditto for nature-based craft projects on park picnic tables.
And if your kids are glued to screens, Carrillo-Alatorre suggests a compromise: the app Seek helps users identify plants and animals they see on their outings by using the camera on a smartphone or tablet. Your kids can take pictures of bugs, leaves, and rocks in the neighborhood, then use the app’s database, run in partnership with the California Academy of Science and National Geographic, to help them put names to their finds. They’ll earn badges, and the information they add to the database will inform other kids (or grown-ups) who may be wondering how many snails, ash trees, or other natural finds are in the neighborhood as well. Common Sense Media also offers a host of vetted apps to choose from that will enhance playing outside, depending on the age and interest of your child.
Turn Community Spaces into Playgrounds
Now that stay-at-home restrictions are easing, connecting with neighbors can be a great way to raise kids’ spirits. Hike It Baby created a program called Wander Walks with those kinds of interactions in mind. Hike It Baby ambassadors can ask to borrow a collection of signs with playful instructions (“Hop like a grasshopper” or “Pretend you’re an owl”) and invite the neighborhood out to enjoy them. All signs have instructions in both English and Spanish and suggest a mix of physical activities (which include modifications for those who might not be able to hop or jump as easily) and I-Spy-like visual prompts for taking in your surroundings.
If there’s no Wander Walk in the neighborhood, your kids can create something similar. Get out the sidewalk chalk, or cardboard and poster paints, and create fitness circuits on your block. Use an animal theme (crawl like a bear, hop like a frog) or make a yoga-themed hopscotch to give kids an opportunity to test out their tree pose and sun salutation.
But don’t feel like you have to plan every minute, Carrillo-Alatorre cautions. “Unstructured and risky play in nature are undervalued,” she says. “We live with so many planned activities and rules that having time to just be and explore outside is so beneficial for our young children. Kids who have time to have free-imagination play also have learning and cognitive developmental benefits.”