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19 Outdoor Family Fun Activities Close To Home

  19 Outdoor Family Fun Activities Close To Home
by Mark LaBarbera - Cover
04/01/20 Driftless Area Magazine

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19 Outdoor Family Fun Activities Close To Home


If you are an optimist who sees a toilet paper roll as half-full instead of half-empty, then you may see these no school days as a great opportunity to go wild with your children.
   
There are hundreds of close-to-home outdoor activities that can bring your family closer together while maintaining proper social distancing.

The benefits of spending time together outdoors are not just physical; they also help the mental and emotional health of you and your family. Young and old can learn new skills and strengthen family bonds.

Whether you live in a tiny apartment or a home with acreage, here are 19 fun things you can do outdoors with teenagers, middle-schoolers, elementary-age kids or preschoolers. Simply change the words you use to fit their age. You decide if you want to tell them that these healthy, fresh-air activities are also educational.


1. Go on a Sensory Safari
The minute you and your family step outside, your adventure begins. Let the kids decide how they want to begin this sensory safari. Do they simply want to talk about what they experience, describing what they see, hear, smell, feel, and taste? Or do they want to play the “I Spy” game, with one of you secretly observing something and giving clues to help the others guess what you chose. Give clues based on any of your senses, not just sight, like “I hear something chirping in the tree.”

For your teenage son or daughter, your sensory safari can challenge them to journal, using as many descriptive adjectives as possible while you walk together in the neighborhood.

If you don’t mind investing time in a little more preparation, you could gather items from the outdoors and hide them in your pocket or individual bags. With eyes closed, your child tries to guess one object at a time as you first let them smell and then taste or touch it, before finally seeing it.

Besides having fun, you are building their vocabulary, communication skills, as well as dexterity and fine motor skills used in writing, drawing and coloring.


2. Hunt Bugs
While you are outdoors, ask the kids if they want to search for bugs. Think of the movie, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Think micro. Crouch or lay down. Focus on the grass, leaves, stones or ground. What do you see? Ants, flies, worms, beetles? Fresh green shoots of new growth? Seeds or berries? Droppings from birds or bunnies?

This activity can help everyone remember to look at everything in life from different angles and from the perspective of others. Remind them to use this when someone or something is “bugging” them.


3. Chalk One Up for Creativity
Indoor classrooms might have switched to LED projector screens, iPads and SMART Boards, but your temporary homeschooling adventures can still include good old-fashioned chalk. Forget the chalkboard, use the closest sidewalk, driveway or playground.

Daughters and sons of any age need very little prompting to unleash their creativity. Put the chalk in their hands and set them free. You’ll soon see what’s on their mind.

For the younger kids, you’re helping them with numbers, letters and colors.


4. Go with the Flow
As you wash off the chalk, talk about where your water comes from and where it goes.

Depending on the age range, you can decide if you want to discuss groundwater issues, pollution and conservation. Ask them to name ways that we use water. It doesn’t take much to get them thinking about, and hopefully appreciating, how much we rely on water.

Since nearly everyone lives upstream from someone else, it would be good to go beyond your child’s first answer that water comes from the spigot or faucet and goes down the drain.

Use a stick or other floating object to help younger kids follow the flow to the storm drain, gutter or ditch. Explain the rest of the journey: “From there it goes into the creek that flows into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.”

Your science experiment added a geography lesson.


5. Be Free-Wheelin'
During these work-from-home days, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin’s David Clutter of Spring Green reminded us that bicycles are a good way to exercise and enjoy the outdoors. He and his wife take their two kids riding in the Driftless Area. Not much needs to be said about this healthy activity that strengthens coordination and fine motor skills for parents and children.


6. Try Photo Scavenging
Create a list of people, places or things that you want your family to photograph. The list can be as long or short as you want. We prefer items found in nature, but you can include things that are easy to find wherever you choose to do this activity.

Have them use the camera on your phone to capture creative images of objects on your list. Like with the Hunt Bugs activity, encourage them to try different angles, like a bug’s eye view. Challenge them to get as close as possible to the object while maintaining sharp focus.  Share and discuss everyone’s photos.

This is a great exercise in creativity while also involving fresh air, physical activity and observation skills.


7. Pick Up the Place
You can instill a sense of responsibility and pride in children of all ages by completing simple tasks outdoors, like picking up litter. Your family does not need to adopt a highway, but they can get fresh air and exercise by donning gloves and filling a garbage back with trash that accumulated throughout the winter. This activity gives everyone a sense of accomplishment, community spirit, and personal satisfaction while sharing a common experience.


8. Get Dirty
Forget the gloves, plant seeds and get dirt under everyone’s fingernails. If you don’t have a sunny spot in your yard, or you don’t have a yard, you can plant seeds in pots or pails on your porch, balcony or windowsill. Let the kids decide if they want to plant flowers or vegetables. It will add to their cognitive abilities and motor skills, but you’ll find that gardening is peaceful and calming for children and for you.


9. Go Fish
I forgot to mention with that previous Get Dirty activity that you should keep any worms you find. They make great bait, but artificial bait and lures also work. In fact, you can try canned corn kernels, dough balls and other bait readily available at home. If you don’t have a rod and reel, and you don’t want to spend money, state natural resources departments offer loaner equipment, usually near fishable waters. For example, check out dnr.wi.gov and search “fishing tackle loaner” or “angler education” to learn more.


10. LISTen
Teach critical listening skills by creating a list of what each of you hears on your next trip outdoors. Bring along a piece of paper or even a paper plate and pen or pencil. Near the center, put a dot or symbol or the word “me.”  Each person creates a list of what they heard by writing what it is. The key is to write each one on the paper in the direction the sound came from relative to the “me” spot on the paper, not only the direction but also the relative distance compared to other sounds.

This is especially fun in pre-dawn hours as the world comes to life around you. Good luck getting the kids up early! Actually, any time of day works well, so let the youngest pick the time and the spot to sit. Back inside, let the oldest be first to count how many sounds are on her list.

As Julian Treasure said in his TED Talk, we all need to work on our listening skills.


11. Paint Rocks
Everyone starts with a search for their perfect rock. Each person creates their own masterpiece, choosing the colors and designs they want. You may be surprised by the conversation that flows with their creative artistry. This is great for fine motor skills development.


12. Park It
Visit a city, county, state or national park. Some of them are still open. Wisconsin State Parks and Trails have waived all fees. Health officials recommend that we stay home. If you need to get outdoors, live near a park that is open, and you practice social distancing and proper handwashing, you can get updates on closures at DNR properties at dnr.wi.gov.


13. Search for Sheds
Most bucks in the Driftless Area have shed their antlers by mid-April. You can find these natural treasures wherever you see deer, even in neighborhoods. My wife Coni and I spotted one (and left it) last month in a Dubuque neighborhood overlooking the Mississippi River. Where you have permission, simply hike along deer trails and watch for them.


14. Find and Feed
Look for a pine cone and spread peanut butter on it, then cover it with bird seed and hang it with long grass or strong sewing thread where birds can feed on it. Pick a spot where you can watch and count the different species that visit, including squirrels.


15. Find Tracks
Somewhere in your neighborhood, there are tracks from birds, mice or other wildlife. Half the fun is searching among the sand, dirt or mud. When you find tracks, ask what your child thinks made them and help them follow the trail like a detective trying to figure out what that critter was doing.


16. Look Up
Step outside and lay on your back, looking skyward at clouds. Have your children describe what they see. If you need to help fuel their imagination, tell them what you think that cloud looks like and ask if they can see the same image.


17. Eggs-plore Nests
Search trees, bushes, and long grass for bird nests. Sometimes you’ll see birds carrying nest material into a spot, giving away its location. If a bird is sitting on the nest, back away. But if you can look inside, check for eggs. What color are they? In the weeks ahead, watch for eggs to hatch and then see what birds bring to feed their young.


18. Count Birds
This is a great time of year to catch the spring migration. Whether you stay near home or go to a local wild area, ask your kids to count how many different species they observe. Talk about the different sizes, shapes and calls of the birds.
Try to mimic their sounds.


19. Enjoy a Family Picnic
Let the kids help plan the menu, make the meal and pack it for a family picnic anywhere they choose outdoors. Talk about where the food comes from and what it needs to grow, like, air, water and soil. Include a mix of animal protein, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Discuss nutrition, but mostly just listen to what the kids want to say.


Whether you live in the Driftless Area or only visit this special place, your family can enjoy these activities wherever you call home.