Editor’s note: This article was updated on May 11, 2022.
Fresh air and time in nature offer myriad superpower benefits: improving sleep quality, strengthening our immune systems (dirt is good!), lowering stress levels, and even improving eyesight. In fact, time outdoors in nature is so vital for our well-being that the forestry service in Iceland has even encouraged people to hug a tree for five minutes to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.
If you’re looking for some new ways to help your child connect with nature close to home, try these creative and explorative nature play activities with your family. Hopefully, you’ll all have fun, relax, and maybe even learn something new as you stay connected to the wild.
In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
-Margaret Atwood, Bluebeard’s Egg
Explore nature through art
1. Hapa zome art
Using natural materials from your yard or found on a walk, create hapa zome art (beating up leaves with hammers), using the pigments in berries, leaves, and flowers to create print, cards, or colourful sheets to use for outdoor forts!
2. Sun catchers
I want these beautiful sun catchers in every window of my house. This simple craft is such a fun way to use recyclables and preserve flowers and natural items using little more than plastic wrap, recycled containers, and string.
3. Stone art and learning games
4. Get messy
Kids will love this sensory-stimulating play that gets them outdoors. Hang up a clear shower curtain or plain sheet outside, and let the kids at it with their creativity and paint!
Wander the neighbourhood
5. Go on a scavenger hunt
I love the ideas in this nature scavenger hunt [PDF]. A wand for a fairy? Too cute. Using a colour wheel to search out all the different shades and hues of the natural world is a great way to discover the colours of nature. You can also try adding an active twist!
6. Sensory play opportunities
As you walk around the neighbourhood, peek around under pine trees for cones to use in pine cone palaces or as part of a nature sensory bin. Little ones will love running their hands through rice (I’ve also used dried beans), and feeling the texture of their various treasures.
7. Go for a listening walk
Take a listening walk and notice everything you hear. With fewer cars on the road, it’s a great time to start a conversation with local birds using this sound identifier, or to listen to chirping crickets and the sound of geese’s wings as they fly low overhead.
Get your hands dirty
This is a great activity to teach kids about the biology of plants, learn about the life cycle of our food, help develop fine motor skills, and explore different senses.
Little Sprouts Learning has tons of ideas for urban and container gardening, and even tips for making tasty goodies like your own dried herbs. My kids love getting their hands dirty and taste-testing everything when it’s ready.
If you don’t have a lot of ground space, this DIY shower caddy planter is a brilliant (and inexpensive!) alternative.
In the backyard
9. Set up a tent
Spend the night outside in your backyard—with storytelling, stargazing, and s’mores of course!
10. Backyard bingo
My kids love having a mission. Print out this active bingo sheet [PDF] for a ton of nature exploration in your own yard.
11. Make a mud kitchen
One of my favourite and most vivid childhood memories is of the outdoor “candy shop” and kitchen I regularly set up along our backyard fence. My mom would come along and buy a pine needle and mud confection for the low price of one popsicle. Thanks, Mom! Here are some tips for making your own mud kitchen.
12. Practice math skills
Use a hands-on, creative approach to learning math skills by using items from the natural world to play with math concepts in the backyard. You can find more outdoor learning opportunities at Outdoor Learning Made Easy.
13. Build a fairy garden
Using simple items from the house and yard, kids can make this adorable fairy garden to take care of and play with throughout the summer.
14. Observe the teeny tiny world of insects
Week-long Junior Naturalist lesson plans invite kids to explore the world around them and create a deeper connection to nature. Week one: Bugs!
15. Telling time
We’re at the stage where my littlest is trying to learn how to tell time on an analog clock. This project using stones and twigs makes it SO much easier, and way more fun, than paper and a pencil. I painted some stones with addition and subtraction symbols so we can also practice math!
Connect screens with green
These programs and digital resources can help inspire your kids to get outside.
16. Outdoor Family Fun with Plum from PBS Kids offers daily activities that will get your family outside, exploring your neighborhood and learning about nature.
17. Visit the Parks Canada Facebook page for weekly challenges and activities that kids can do at home or in the backyard.
18. The Ecologist School Program has ideas to get out into nature, to encourage siblings to play and learn together at home, and to support or supplement science education. There are 16 lessons on topics like climatology and paleontology, which can be done in a backyard or even inside your home using minimal materials.
19. Audubon for Kids! brings together activities including the classroom curriculum Audubon Adventures, DIY activities, and content that can be done at home.
20. Sur le balcon offers (in French) fun and free tools to discover nature that hides around your house. With downloadable sheets, you can learn about neighbourhood animals and plants.
Even more ideas!
For more nature-based activities, read 10 Nature Activities to Help Get Your Family Through the Pandemic from Children & Nature Network co-founder Richard Louv. The article includes a sampling of activities from his books (Vitamin N, Our Wild Calling, Last Child in the Woods) and other sources to help families cope during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photos of the pinecone palace, backyard camping, and rock clock courtesy of Christine Latreille.