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Tips for Utilizing Outdoor Venues that are Open (gardens, trails, etc) to Help Educate, Enlighten and Entertain kids

by Lori Whalen, ENC Assistant Director

It’s true most outdoor venues seem to be re-opening, so families can go to parks, the beach, hiking, and camping just as they always would have. The ENC is open for Camp (but not to the public), so we’ve developed a list of natural places that are currently open, HERE.

Types of outdoor activities families can participate in during this very unique summer:

I would recommend doing all of the outdoor things that families would normally enjoy, just taking the precautions to be safe and considerate of others. If another family is passing you on the trail, put your mask on while they pass. Always call ahead because bathrooms might be closed and you’ll want to be prepared for that possibility – “go” before you leave and be ready to “leave no trace” with a baggie w/ TP or two for each family member so you can “pack it out”. So hit the beach, visit the tide pools, go for a hike, spend the weekend camping – just do your research and plan ahead. Make reservations when camping so you’re not disappointed.

Tips for how parents can utilize outdoor venues that are open (gardens, trails, etc) to help educate, enlighten and entertain kids:

  1. Be a Mentor. I am a firm believer of being a mentor to your kids while spending time in Nature. Encourage their curiosity, and listen to their questions and comments and stay engaged with them. Answer their questions to the best of your ability, but always admit when you do NOT know something and look it up if you have internet access. If not, jot it down and look it up together later. If your pack isn’t too heavy already it’s fun to bring field guides to try and identify things that your child is interested in – plants, bugs, birds, tracks.
  2. Put your phone away. Take a few pictures, but don’t let your outdoor outing become about what you will post on social media later. Be present with your family. Model the behavior you want to see in your children.
  3. Leave your toys and games at home. All of the best memories of times spent in Nature for me have not included any materials more than a book or a journal. You don’t need to bring along a lot of toys or games. Let Nature be your teacher and entertainment. Get creative and come up with your own games, and everyone knows a stick is the best toy, ever! The exception to this is cards. Be sure to bring a deck of cards camping. Card games are always so much more fun in a tent!
  4. Experience Silence. Remember to spend some time in silence observing the sights, sounds, scents and even the feel of the breeze on your skin. I like to do this with groups I take hiking – “let’s all be absolutely quiet for just ONE minute” and then see how everyone felt, or what they observed. It’s magical. I’ve always had good results with that super easy activity.
  5. Try Journaling. Journaling is super great because it has something for everyone. Everyone can sit somewhere quietly for a few minutes, find something that fascinates them or “speaks to them” and then draw it, or write about it… use words, pictures, and numbers to show observations of things like leaves or flowers. Record similarities and differences. Tell a story about it. Interview a tree or a rock! Get creative. Leaf and bark rubbing in a journal are a good way to take that first step, too. John Muir Laws wrote a great book about Journaling. Here is a video I created about Journaling.
  6. Write a Poem. Once when I was on a long camping trip with my family I made everyone write a poem and then recite it to the group. At first, as you would expect, my suggestion was met with some push back. Poetry? REALLY? … but when they actually did it they found it so enjoyable that they wrote several poems each and we had a poetry reading around the campfire that night! Really a powerful memory. Even little ones can do haiku with some help. 😉 be sure to save sometime for a sing-a-long or silly talent show.
  7. Create a Natural Masterpiece. Show your family the art of Andy Goldworthy, and then challenge them to create a masterpiece next time you go camping, or pause for a long break along the trail. Just be sure they only use materials they find on the ground, not taken from living things. Take a photo of their art and send it to grandparents! A super easy leave no trace activity.
  8. Be a Tracker. Find some animal tracks and try to follow them. Search for other animal signs. I love to keep track (in my journal!) of the animals I see or hear while camping – sometimes the list gets pretty long! And it’s great stuff to refer back to when sending that postcard to the grandparents – boy do they appreciate getting a postcard or letter from the grandkids! And postcards are always fun to write while you’re camping, and they don’t take up much space.
  9. Don’t bring music. Listen to the music that Nature creates. My favorite sound is the wind in the trees.
  10. Bring a book! I love to read and I think it’s important for kids to discover a love for reading. It’s a challenging to get kids to read with the temptations of phones, tablets, and TVs all around, but when you’re camping, be sure to bring YOUR book, and encourage the kids to bring theirs – or bring some you think they might want to read. Model the behavior by reading quietly in the shade of a tree, and express YOUR contentment to them. They might try it too. You can also read aloud to them before bed, or around the campfire.
  11. Buy your kids a real camera… that is not part of a phone. It will help them to become more observant and creative.  Display your children’s photography in an electronic photo frame back at home, so they know that their efforts are appreciated – again, another great gift for the grandparents!

Now that you see the possibilities for entertaining yourselves without technology, try to keep these sorts of activities up when you’re back home.

Joseph Cornell has written several books full of easy activities to share with children in Nature. I love that each activity is just a few pages long, so you can literally open the book to a random activity and just go for it. They’re all great. For parents who want to go that extra step and become more of a mentor to their children, read books by Jon Young. Read about and try doing a “sit spot” – and then encourage your kids to do the same. Sit spots are life changing.

I’d love to hear what you’ve tried. What works? What didn’t? What did I forget to mention? Please feel free to email me at lori@encenter.org. Have fun out there!

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