“Go outside, you need the fresh air!” I can’t count the number of times one or both of my parents would yell that phrase to me and my older brother while growing up. It was the norm for us to explore near the creek or trails behind our house, play flashlight tag with the neighborhood kids or just generally be outside whenever possible. At the time, this was fairly common for families in our area, and playing outside was the norm. Even the schools promoted the idea with an average of two 30-minute outdoor recess periods throughout the day.
As the years passed, with the explosion of hi-tech devices and the plethora of seemingly “educational” television programs available, more and more children are spending the vast majority of their free time indoors in front of a screen. However, recent studies have shown that this can have detrimental effects on our children, including contributing to obesity, attention difficulties, higher rates of illness, etc. Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” as a way to describe this phenomenon. A recent review of the current research suggests that “experiences with nature do promote children’s academic learning and seem to promote children’s development as persons and as environmental stewards.” So what can we do to help our children learn and grow in nature?
In part one of the “Learning in Nature” series, we discussed the benefits of forest schools and how they differ from traditional schools. But what if your area doesn’t have a forest preschool or it doesn’t fit into your schedule? Or maybe your children aren’t quite old enough yet or it just doesn’t fit into your budget right now? Whatever the situation, there are other options for children to explore, learn and grow in nature, including free or low-cost options and resources to help make time in nature a fun learning experience for everyone.
Free or low-cost programs
Organizations that offer low- or no-cost volunteer-led events are a great way to meet people while also enjoying and learning in nature. Our Hike it Baby community falls into this category, with weekly outdoor events based on hike host availability. At just $10 a year per family, this option is a wonderful way to discover new trails and watch children discover all nature has to offer in a judgement-free community that leaves no hiker behind.
Free Forest School is another community option in which families meet for around two hours to explore nature together. Each event consists of sharing a snack, taking a hike, free play time in the woods, and then circle time which involves songs and stories about nature.
Local nature programs
A large portion of the state parks across the country offer some sort of family-friendly events in nature throughout the year. For example, they may list a ranger-led hike to view the native bird species or put on a “nature craft” event for all ages to enjoy. Nature centers and wildlife refuges may also offer outdoor learning opportunities. Many of these events require registration and may require event and entrance fees, so be sure to check on their website before attending.
Camps and weekly nature programs
Some organizations offer nature camps or weekly nature classes that require participants to register in advance. These programs can be a good starting point when trying to decide whether a forest school is right for your child; and they are ideal if you are looking for a short-term program.
TimberNook is a nature-based developmental program designed to foster creativity, imagination and independent play in the outdoors. They offer both stand-alone camps as well as programs that schools can incorporate into their curriculum. Another option is Tinkergarten where providers host weekly outdoor, play-based classes designed to help kids develop mental, physical and social-emotional skills. Each program is tailored to the season along with the region.
Looking for a free weekly program option? L.L.Bean now offers a weekly program for families called “Toddler Tuesdays” at participating stores. Recommended for children ages birth-6 years, participants can expect activities such as nature-themed stories, crafts, games, walks, etc., each week. Contact your local L.L.Bean store to learn more and register for these events.
Create your own learning experience
Life can get crazy and schedules fill up fast when kiddos are involved. Check out these other options when your schedule doesn’t allow for participation in an organized program.
Many state and national park lands offer brochures that allow you to learn about an area at your own pace. Whether you’re wandering through the many natural springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park or the natural rock formations of Garden of the Gods in Colorado, you can make these adventures fit your needs. Another option is to seek out trails that participate in letterboxing or geocaching where you can follow clues or GPS coordinates to find a waterproof container that houses a logbook and other goodies. This can teach kids how to read a map, follow instructions, use a compass and gain other important life skills.
More and more natural playgrounds, also called natural playscapes, are popping up around the country. These play environments consist of textures and elements from the earth, such as tree stumps, logs, boulders and water features (like creeks). These playgrounds allow children to use their imagination to play and connect with nature. Below are natural playgrounds around the United States that are recommended by our very own Hike it Baby community.
- Gateway Natural Area in Fort Collins, CO
- Mordecai Children’s Garden (part of Denver Botanic Gardens) in Denver, CO
- Orenco Woods Nature Park in Hillsboro, OR
- Westmoreland Park in Portland, OR
- Champoeg State Park Nature Playground in Aurora, OR
- Silver Falls State Park in Sublimity, OR
- Jester Park in Granger, IA
- Heckrodt in Menasha, WI
- Penitentiary Glen Reservation in Kirtland, OH
- Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, MI
- Outdoor Discovery Center in Holland, MI
- Sugarcreek MetroPark in Dayton, OH
- Burr Oak Woods CA in Blue Springs, MO
- Pod Park in Newton, KS
- Ithaca Children’s Garden in Ithaca, NY
- Ollie Owl’s Nature Playground at the Ches-Len Preserve in Coatesville, PA
- Highland Park in Rochester, NY
- Charles R. Wood Park near the Village of Lake George, NY
- The Nature Scape at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, NH
- Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale District Park, VA
- Discovery Place Nature in Charlotte, NC
- Prairie Ridge Ecostation in Raleigh, NC
- Oregon Ridge/Baltimore County Park in Baltimore, MD
- Robinson Nature Center in Columbia, MD
Need some help coming up with ways to get outside and learn in nature with your family? Check out these books for a plethora of activities and ideas for all ages.
- Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv – This book contains 500 smart, fun and effective ways to engage with the natural world at all stages of life along with informational websites to help along the way.
- Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom – A pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook offers tons of fun, engaging ways to help ensure that kids grow into healthy, balanced and resilient adults. The book shares how outdoor play and unstructured freedom of movement are vital for children’s cognitive development and growth.
- Rainy Day Kids Adventure Book by Steph Scott and Katie Akers – This book offers tons of ideas to help families enjoy outdoor activities and adventures even when it is snowy, rainy or windy.
How does your family grow and learn in nature? Let us know in the comments below!
- Learning in nature: the benefits of forest school
- Nature babies: why having young kids in nature is so important for their health
- Taking learning outdoors: preschool gets a makeover
Photos by Amy Diebold and Amanda Belcher.