[Ed. note: this article is part of our series of weekly family activities called Family Fun, published on Fridays]
Usually, heading out to the woods or creek to mess around with children is plenty of fun without any special planning. Sometimes, though, it’s worth adding a low-key game or activity to help your kids see something new without “lecturing”, or to persuade them they’ll have fun when they’d rather stay in and watch TV. Activities like the ones described here are intended as a nudge to get things going, just a catalyst for joyful, unstructured play in nature. When something else on your expedition becomes more engaging to the children, abandon the activity and go with the flow!
Head for your favorite local nature preserve, or look for one on the Nature Find website if you’re in the mood for someplace new. Remember the snacks and water for a mini picnic! (Often, just suggesting a picnic is sufficient to generate interest). Here are three simple games/activities to try out:
1. Give Me Five:
No supplies needed. A basic categories game to play as you walk, you ask the children for five items in a category, relevant to the setting and their age and abilities. For example, “Give me five tree species” – they have to work together to name five. The items don’t have to be present, it’s just a way of focusing on nature; but if you spot some of them, so much the better. You can make it harder: “Give me five kinds of deciduous trees” or “Give me five kinds of reptiles that live in our state”; or easier: “Give me five animals”. This also helps with understanding classification. Pepper the quiz with suprises like, “Give me five kinds of ice cream”, or let others take turn naming the category. This game also passes the time on car trips. No preparation and endless possibilities!
2. Wildlife Observation:
Supplies: Before you go, print out a copy of the National Wildlife Federation’s wildlife observation hike worksheet. Also take a pen or pencil and clipboard and some extra paper or a notebook. Have your kids fill out the descriptive data at the beginning of the walk, and then see how many items you can list in each category as you go along. If you can’t name things, photograph them (get as close as possible), or draw them, or describe their features on a separate piece of paper. You may want to do this anyway to remember points of interest. At the end, ask what was everyone’s favorite, what they saw the most of, what they saw the least of.
3. Microscope Hike:
Supplies needed: a magnifying glass for each person. Find a fallen tree trunk or a cluster of mossy rocks, or turn over a stone. Everyone gets down on their hands and knees, and focuses on the subject with the magnifying glass. Move very slowly, as if you were a tiny creature making its way through the habitat, or perhaps an astronaut looking out through the window of a spaceship. Do things look different at this scale? What do you notice that you wouldn’t otherwise see? What does it feel like? By the way, if you have binoculars, reverse them and hold the other end very close to the subject for an improvised magnifying glass!
Just as we adults need time in nature, awed by the sweep of a mountain range or the miraculous perfection of veins on a leaf, so do our children. Recent research has shown that time children spend outdoors in natural settings has a powerful positive impact on attention, emotions, cognitive development, self control, and social skills (Richard Louv’s seminal book, “Last Child in the Woods” should be required reading for all parents!) Beyond this though, as children develop a love for creation they are also learning a love for the Creator.
But nurturing that appreciation for God’s created order in the world of asphalt and video screens is a challenge. Our role can be to help children discover what there is in nature to explore and enjoy. It doesn’t behave like a cartoon or a superhero, but there’s plenty of entertainment out there – the sort that kept our parents and grandparents outside all day with no end of things to do. Childhood began to change in this respect 30 – 40 years ago, with fundamental shifts in urban development patterns, technology, recreation, and schedules, so many of us parents lacked those elemental childhood joys too.
The experience of nature that we and our children need is not the “field trip” experience, where you look but don’t touch, skim the surface, glance around, but don’t enter in. To develop a heartfelt love of creation, and reap the benefits of spending time in God’s playground, children must be drawn by their own curiosity, and given time to explore. This looks more like building a stick fort, climbing trees, catching a frog, or laying in a favorite patch of grass watching clouds. Rules of respect and care are essential, but need not hinder engagement. In fact, children (and grown-ups) who truly find joy in what they see are far more likely to care for it.
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