Go play with them!- Your number one tool is that the youth in your care want to spend time with you. If you tell kids to go outside to play until dinner you will likely experience some resistance. If you tell them that you are going outside to play you shouldn’t have to ask them to go with you. They will most likely be very curious about how grownups play outdoors and should eagerly follow you outside. If you make it fun the first time, following outings will be motivated by excitement rather than curiosity. After giving your kids some ideas of things to do outside they will occasionally take the initiative themselves or at the very least give in to the suggestion much more willingly.
Model enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the activities.- Happiness is contagious. If you are having fun, the youth you are with will have fun too.
Give kids a voice in deciding on activities.- Everyone has something that they would like to do outdoors and with some gentle guidance will offer tons of suggestions. Camp fires, cooking outdoors and camping always seems to come up when I ask youth this question. Games are also a frequent request. Most youth enjoy playing games during school recesses or elsewhere and are eager to share the games they know with others.
Suggest something unexpected or seemingly out of character.- Try something like the following statements. “ I Think I’m going to go find a good tree to climb.”, “ I wonder how big of a puddle I can find to jump in?”, “ How many times do you think we can run around the house in the rain before we’re completely wet?”, Say “ Tag! You’re it!” and then run out of the house. Even if you have no intention of earnestly climbing a tree or getting wet and muddy you only have to take the lead. Once you fail at tree climbing before making it to the first branch, kids will want to one up you. After you jump in a pathetically small puddle, believe me, they will find the biggest one. Once you tire from running in the rain or away from the kids they will keep going while you take a much deserved rest.
Start small and in your comfort zone.– If you aren’t ready for cooking on a camp fire you could start with everyone cooking their own hotdogs/marshmallows over a grill. Don’t want to sleep outside? After your cookout, sheet forts in the living room with flashlights will pass with younger kids as a great “camping” experience.
Think back to your childhood.– What things do you remember enjoying doing outside? Not every activity needs to be wholesome, teambuilding and/or educational to have impact. Sometimes simply having fun outdoors is what matters the most. According to research conducted by Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies of Cornell University, unstructured outdoor play is the single greatest predictor of a child’s future environmental values. To access the full study click here. If it is fun, causes no harm and is outside it is probably a worthwhile activity that will benefit the youth involved.
Simply put youth who play outdoors tend to care more about the environment than those who do not.
The following are some suggestions of unstructured outdoor play activities that I fondly remember from my childhood. Setting things up only to knock them down can be great fun. Poke some sticks in the ground and see who can knock the most over by throwing rocks at them. Don’t have sticks and rocks? Some items from your recycling container and/or toy bin could probably work too. Have you skipped rocks recently? Looked at the stars? Named constellations? Caught something just to get a closer look? Built a fort or anything else? How about flashlight tag? Kids are intrinsically drawn to these fun outdoors activities and often only need a light push to get involved. This list barely scratches the surface of the activities possible. My hope is that this list inspires you to try something new or something that you haven’t done in a long time. If you need some assistance with structured activities like how to name constellations, make a star gazer, how to build a bird house, how to identify animal tracks you see in your backyard or to identify the birds that you see and hear, contact the CCE Office.
When I think of my childhood most of my fondest memories involve doing something special outdoors with the people I cared about the most. If for no other reason these experiences stuck with me because of their novelty. There is an expression that the memories of a vacation will last for a lifetime. This is because of how vastly these experiences differ from our everyday routines. As an adult honestly ask yourself how many family movie nights you can vividly recall from your childhood. Now ask yourself how many vacations. Finally ask yourself how you can provide lasting memories for youth with little to no out of pocket expense and a limited time commitment. I feel that doing something special outside will create these meaningful and lasting memories. In the case of my own family I know it has. I think of these outings as mini vacations. My hope is that if you are not already doing so you will try out a few of these suggestions or something else you thought might be fun and hopefully find yourselves creating memories that will last a lifetime. You just might find yourself on a vacation in your own backyard!