A day in nature is a cheap, easy and enjoyable way to spark kids’ imaginations, and can do wonders for parents’ wellbeing too! Gretchen Carroll sends us outside to explore.
Getting into the outdoors doesn’t have to mean going far afield, it can be as simple as playing in the garden or local green space.
Being in nature has many positives for children. It promotes healthy growth of their mind, body and spirit, stimulating all their senses, and instils a love of the outdoors.
Just remember the essentials for our country’s changeable weather with warm and waterproof clothing, and the all-important snacks if heading outside the garden gate.
WHERE TO GO
New Zealand has many beautiful environments, regardless of whether you live in the city or the countryside. Even the cities have native bush to explore, beaches, and local playgrounds with trees for shade and climbing. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to go on a day trip, visit one of the wildlife sanctuaries or national parks, or find a bush walk or beach somewhere you wouldn’t usually go. For ideas, visit doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation.
Of course, your backyard or a family member’s garden are great places for children to explore, and going there usually needs no planning other than giving your little adventurers some containers for collecting any interesting treasures.
WHAT TO DO
The most important thing is to slow down as much as possible
and to take your time. It’s great to have some ideas about what your child might like to do in the outdoors, but it’s just as important to let them have unstructured play and some adventures of their own creation.
Here are some activity ideas which will no doubt spark many more plans for adventures.
☙ Talk about the different names of the plants, birds and insects you discover. To help with this, borrow a book or two from the library to take with you, or look at the books afterwards at home and talk about what everyone saw.
☙ Hunt out various textures and colours in nature. Have a scavenger hunt, for example, where the children find five green (or smooth or nice-smelling...) things.
☙ Talk about the sounds that can be heard and what each sound might be.
☙ Collect materials for art or simply for the child to treasure, such as shells, leaves, stones and sticks. Fallen leaves are perfect for art projects. Take them home, then put them underneath a piece of blank paper and rub a crayon over them to create a picture. Experiment with other materials too.
☙ Create ‘land art’ while you’re out. Help children collect some materials to then make a picture, for example, a smiley face on the sand.
☙ Most children love birds, so try bird watching. Binoculars are not essential, but try to borrow a pair if you don’t have any, as they can make bird watching much more fun. Even in city parks and gardens, you can see native species such as kereru (wood pigeons), tui, piwakawaka (fantails) and kingfishers close by.
☙ In your own garden, go on a bug hunt and see what the kids can find. You can make your garden more insect- and lizard-friendly by leaving piles of wood, stones or bricks and leaf litter around. These make good hiding spots for creepy crawlies and kids will have a great time hunting around to find them.
☙ You might have enough garden space for your child to build a hut out of sticks or branches (possibly with help), and then let their imagination run wild as they play in it.
☙ Kids love to be involved in composting or looking after a worm farm, which has the added benefits of providing nutrients for the garden and is a good way to get rid of food scraps. When planting in the garden, let your children help, and talk through what you’re doing and why.
☙ If you don’t have a garden, kids can still be involved in setting up some pot plants or microgreens. Microgreens are easy and grow quickly. Microgreen seeds and small plastic ‘greenhouse’ containers are available at garden centres. Fill some smaller containers with soil and sprinkle seeds in these, water, then place in the larger container. It won’t take long to see the results, which is handy for young children.
CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES
While in the outdoors, it’s worth emphasising how important it is to show the environment respect. Remind children to only take things that have fallen to the forest floor, such as leaves and sticks; to not disturb birds or bird nests in use; to replace rocks after looking underneath them for insects; and to take home any rubbish they have.
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
It’s really as simple as getting into the outdoors in a way that suits your family, as often as possible. But if you’re keen to ensure regularity, some areas host nature playgroups that meet outdoors for a weekly session.
For more resources, visit your local library for books on New Zealand plants, birds and insects, and on children and the outdoors. You can also check out these helpful websites:
☙ Department of Conservation, doc.govt.nz
☙ Kiwi Conservation Club is the kids’ section of Forest and Bird, kcc.org.nz
☙ UK-based organisation Woodland Trust has some great activity ideas categorised by age group on their website woodlandtrust.org.uk/naturedetectives/
Gretchen Carroll lives in Auckland with her husband and young son. She works as a freelance writer, which gives her more time for family adventures in the great outdoors.