Now that school’s back in session, making time for nature can be a challenging task. Working around sports, homework, pick-ups and drop-offs to try to find time to be outside can be difficult, but not impossible. In this article, you’ll find ideas for activities to engage with nature for all ages and with options for all schedules. I truly hope these ideas inspire you to experience the wonder and fun that can be found by connecting with nature.
Activities for Kids
Did you know that the average American child can identify up to 1,000 corporate logos, but only a handful of native plants and animals? In a world that is becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, educating children about their environment has never been more important. However, as I’ve learned from working many summers at Audubon summer camp, getting kids interested and excited about nature can be a difficult task. Here’s some ideas to get your kids outside, excited about, and engaging with nature.
Spotting sharks: If the success of the baby shark song is anything to go off of, then there’s one thing I know: kids love sharks. One of the campers’ favorite activities at summer camp is always looking for leopard sharks in the bay. Leopard sharks are abundant in Richardson Bay, and if you look closely, you can see their fins popping up above the water. Taking your kids on an expedition to find sharks is a sure way to get them excited about going outside. Having kids learn about shark species, behaviors, and habitats is another great way to get kids thinking about the incredible marine life around them.
Count tree rings: Learning to read tree rings from a fallen or cut-down tree is an incredible way to tap into your child’s curiosity and get them thinking about the world around them. You can determine the age of the tree by counting the rings on its stump, but this isn’t the only thing you can learn. Shorter spaces between the rings may mean a period of drought or disturbance from pests, whereas large spaces between tree rings mean a year in which rainfall, sunlight, and nutrients are plentiful. Scars may be an indicator of a healed lightning strike or forest fire, and uneven rings mean that an object pushed against it, causing it to grow crooked. Looking at tree stumps is an incredible way to learn about the life of a tree and the history of the surrounding landscape.
Build a shelter: Building a fort out of sticks is something we’ve all done when we were young. Encouraging your child to build a fort or shelter out of fallen branches is a great way to get them to unleash their inner creativity.
Engage their senses: Another way to get kids to learn about the natural world is to engage their senses of smell, touch, and taste. Find smooth rocks or rough tree trunks for them to engage their sense of touch. One of my favorite native plants for engaging the sense of touch is the madrone tree, sometimes called the refrigerator tree, which has a crackly bark and a trunk that is cool to the touch. Some plants even have leaves that are fuzzy. For smell, look to the many fragrant native plants, such as bay leaves and sages. For taste, try edible plants like fennel, which has a taste reminiscent of licorice.
Raise butterflies: There are many companies that specialize in allowing you to raise caterpillars into butterflies within your own home. Watching caterpillars grow into chrysalises and emerge as fully formed butterflies is an incredible experience that is sure to get your child excited about nature. This is also a great way to teach kids about insect biology and incredible animal adaptations.
Look for sea glass: Finding sea glass is like finding treasure, and is a great way to get kids digging in the sand. Since sea glass is littered glass that has been worn down by the ocean, feel free to bring it home with you: in doing so, you’ll clean the environment. You never know where the sea glass came from — it could be from a broken bottle half a world away or a long-forgotten shipwreck, which is part of the magic of it.
Pick up crabs and insects: Encouraging your kids to (gently) pick up small critters is a great way to get them excited about our native fauna. Teach your children how to pick up insects and crabs safely by holding them close to the ground so that if they crawl away they won’t get hurt when they fall. Try not to be squeamish about the creatures your child wants to hold: all creatures, even weird-looking ones, are crucial parts of the ecosystem.
Play in the mud: One of the things I learned from working at camp is that kids love mud. While it may be messy, there’s something about that squishy, slimy texture that kids can’t get enough of. Encouraging your children to play in the mud (and accepting the cleanup that will come after) is an incredible way to get them outside and engage with their surroundings. You can even use mud as an all-natural face paint.
Look under rocks and logs: You’ll be surprised at the number of critters you can find hiding underneath rocks and logs. Pick up rocks and logs and encourage kids to look underneath. Whether it’s crabs at the beach or bugs in the forest, you never know what you’ll find.
Learn about animal adaptations: There are so many incredible animals with outlandish, crazy, and amazing strategies for staying alive. From rattlesnakes using their rattling tail to scare predators to jackrabbits using their enormous ears to cool down, learning about animal adaptations is a great way to get kids interested in nature. Another great activity is learning as much as you can about your child’s favorite animal and discussing what makes it special and its role in the ecosystem.
Imitate bird calls: Teaching your child how to imitate bird calls is a great way to get them interested in the birds around them. Whether it’s imitating the deep hoots of a Great Horned Owl or the squeaking of an Acorn Woodpecker, learning to imitate bird calls is an amazing way to teach them to identify local birds.
Go on a nature expedition: Go on a nature scavenger hunt with your kids. Go on a hike with the intention of finding certain animals and plants or hearing certain birds. Some ideas for things to search for are fungi, salamanders, ferns, wildflowers, centipedes, crabs, butterflies, bugs, redwoods, acorns, moss, lichen, sticks, snakes, logs, birds, animal droppings, owl pellets, paw prints, squirrels, and so on.
Read nature-inspired stories: There are thousands of nature-inspired picture books available to buy or find at your local library. Stories involving the natural world are a sure way to get kids excited about going outdoors and finding the animals that are characters in their favorite books.
Play pretend: Nature is an incredible place to engage your kid’s imagination. Go outside and pretend to be birds, coyotes, field mice, or any other animal with your child. Not only is this a great way to get your kid outside, but also sparks their imagination and inner creativity.
Activities for Older Kids and Teens
Unlike kids, older kids and teens may already be interested in nature and have more independence when exploring the natural world. Here are some ideas for nature-inspired activities for older kids and teens.
Volunteering: Volunteer projects are a fun way to help the environment. From picking up trash to doing habitat restoration, encourage your teen to get involved in local volunteer projects.
Environmental advocacy: For teens interested in political issues, environmental advocacy is an incredible way to connect with nature. Encourage your teen to speak with local government officials and lawmakers or participate in Audubon California’s annual advocacy day.
Enjoy the scenery: A great way to get teens outdoors is to discover scenic hikes or areas. Not only will they have a chance to connect with nature, but also get the perfect picture for their Instagram out of it.
Memorize native species: While it may be difficult to get children to memorize native species, many older kids and teens will enjoy being able to name the birds, flowers, and trees they encounter. Teaching older kids and teens the names of local flora and fauna species is a great way to get them to notice nature in their everyday lives.
Learn about outdoor survival: Signing up for an outdoor survival class or researching outdoor survival strategies is an incredible way to get outdoors and connect with the natural world all while learning skills that may save your life one day.
Go birding: Encouraging your teen to go birding is a great way to get them outdoors and explore their environment. All you need are your senses to get outside and identify birds. Audubon has a database of thousands of bird species with photographs, recordings of bird calls, and descriptions of behaviors, a very valuable resource for anyone getting started in birding.
Activities for the whole family
As an adult, it can be difficult to make time for nature around busy work schedules and caring for kids. Here are some ideas for outdoor and nature-inspired activities you can do as a family that are easy to integrate into your day-to-day life.
Transform your garden: A great way to engage with nature is to plant native plants in your backyard. This can be done rather easily and inexpensively: a packet of native wildflower seeds can be found for even a few dollars, and native plants tend to be fairly low-maintenance additions to the garden. Planting just a handful of natives in your backyard can turn your yard into a wildlife haven. You can even grow edible and medicinal natives too.
Watch the sunset: This is a great way to get outside that doesn’t require much time. Taking 15 minutes to watch the sunset from your porch can be a great way to connect with nature even on a busy day.
Listen for birds: Taking just five minutes to listen to the birds around your house is another incredible way to ground yourself in your surroundings. There are many apps, like Merlin Bird ID, that can help you identify bird calls, and over time you may begin to recognize the birds you see and hear. You can even listen for owls or coyotes in the evening, or crickets at this time of year.
Take it outside: Doing everyday activities outside is another amazing way to get outdoors even when things are busy. Doing work or homework outside or eating dinner outside is a quick and easy way to connect with nature when you don’t have time to go on a hike. Skipping the gym and exercising outdoors instead is another great way to do this, whether it’s outdoor yoga or running and biking on a trail rather than a treadmill or exercise bike.
Have a beach day: Taking the whole family on a beach day is a wonderful way to get outside. Make sure not to litter or disturb the local wildlife. Try to make it look exactly as it did before you got there, or you can pick up the trash you encounter to make it look even better.
Read nature-inspired books and poetry: Nature-inspired writing can be incredibly beautiful and inspiring. Reading poetry and books about nature can change the way you see and think about the natural world. You can even listen to nature podcasts while driving or doing chores.
Go camping: There’s no better way to connect with the natural world than sleeping outdoors. While we usually think of a family camping trip as a bonding experience, it’s also an incredible opportunity to exist in the natural world, not only spending time outdoors but fully immersing yourself in it. Spot constellations and shooting stars while stargazing and fall asleep to the gentle sounds of owls, crickets, and the wind blowing through the trees.
No matter how you connect with nature this back-to-school season, I truly hope you’re able to experience the joy and wonder of the natural world that exists all around us if you look for it hard enough.