Finding the time or access to going outside can be difficult for many people. Barriers exist even for those who are excited and eager to get into nature – accessibility, safety, transportation, and culture are just a few examples. My husband is a wildland firefighter and I’m a former Park Ranger. We love the outdoors, but even we have barriers.
Our youngest son, Jack, has a rare spinal disorder for which he wears a plaster cast around his body. It cannot come off – it’s permanent. It can’t get wet, and we can’t get dirt or sand down the cast either. Plaster also gets hot easily. And we live in a state where temperatures above 100 degrees are common.
Slowly, we’ve found nature activities and outside games that Jack can do (and loves), though we take precautions. Here are a few things we’ve done to provide Jack (and his big brother) time with nature.
Indoor Nature Fun
First of all, not all nature activities have to occur in nature. Just go to Pinterest for a few minutes and you’ll see millions of nature-themed activities kids can do indoors. I get easily overwhelmed with Pinterest, however, so here are a few of our go-to inside games to get you started.
Jack can’t take baths or showers, or go swimming. But we do have sinks! Jack loves to sit on the kitchen counter and splash his feet in the sink. He also loves filling it with water and playing with toys. It’s also a great way to cool down after being outside. We throw cups, scoops, plastic animals, and toys in there and he happily plays like he’s in the tub. We try to incorporate nature-themed toys, and sometimes we talk about how those animals might get themselves clean in the wild. Then he’ll spend time “cleaning” them.
Boy, I don’t know about you, but we love PBS Kids. They have tons of great nature-based shows that kids can re-enact for indoor play. Our favorites are Wild Kratts, Dinosaur Train, Nature Cat and Curious George. Our kids have Wild Kratts costumes, and they love to create all sorts of wild adventures in the house. But costumes aren’t necessary. It’s super easy for any kid to pretend to be any adventurer, girl or boy. Kids can easily create their own explorer characters and set off on adventures. Throw an old sheet over some chairs to create a cave, grab some boxes and put them in a row on the floor to simulate burrows, or use some pillows for them to hop across a body of water. Regular household items can create tons of opportunities. Don’t throw those paper towel rolls away – they make great telescopes!
Things From Nature
We challenge our older son to find things around the house made from wood. He delights in pointing out every item he can, from pencils to doors. But sometimes he’s surprised by what is made from wood, no matter how often we play the game. Toilet paper, window frames, kitchen cabinets and even coat hangers are a few. This creates a great opportunity to talk about sustainability, recycling, and natural resources.
Arts and crafts
One of our favorite things to do inside is paint things made from nature (either found or purchased). When we were in Florida, that meant shells. Now, we paint branches, leaves, rocks and acorns! Set the kids up with an old tablecloth and some water-based paint, and let them have fun! Bonus: we often send these to family members, who love getting hand-made items from the kids.
Simple Outdoor Adventures
During much of the year, Jack can’t spend more than an hour outside, even with all the provisions we use to keep him cool. So we break our time into small activities. These are some of our favorites.
Yup, the oldies are still great. With a few simple modifications, you can take this number/balance game to the next level. Instead of numbers, have the kids draw simple nature diagrams in each box (a leaf, acorn, the sun, etc.) and tell them to jump only on “the plants” or “things that aren’t alive”.
This can be done in several ways, depending on where you live. If you have plenty of outdoor spaces, you can start a nature collection (check local laws – many national wildlife refuges and parks prohibit collecting). If you don’t have that type of access, create a nature hunt that relies on colors, sounds, or experiences rather than actual objects. For example, kids can find items like rocks, something that is rough, or something that sounds pretty. Live in the city? Search for items that look like things in nature – “an object the same color as grass”, or “something rough like tree bark.”
Bear Sees Colors
Some of our favorite books inspire a lot of exploration. “Bear Sees Colors” by Karma Wilson is one of them. Most libraries carry it (including school libraries). This book teaches kids how to find colors in nature. Whether it’s on your balcony or on a hike in the woods, you can do a “color hunt” by challenging your kids to find everything they can that’s green, blue, brown, pink, etc. Which color did you find the most of? The least? Why do you think that is?
Hearing Not Seeing
This is a classic game at parks and refuges, and there’s a good reason for it. Head outside, and tell your kids to close their eyes and listen. Ask them to name every sound they hear and then write them down on a piece of paper as they say them (or in your smartphone). Over time, you can challenge them to come up with a sound for every letter in the alphabet! Examples might include: the wind blowing, birds singing, rustling in the leaves, an airplane flying overhead, a barking dog, car doors closing, or a frog croaking. This activity does not have to be nature-based either. It’s a wonderful way to open the senses and realize how sound dominates our experiences. It’s also a wonderful way to spend your lunch break 🙂