Pretending to run like a deer. Crafting a door for a cave. Decorating a fort. Making a boat out of skunk cabbage for my Barbie to sail on. Timing how fast I could climb the same tree.
These are just a few of the things I remember doing as a kid after school. After a snack and a check-in with my grandma, I was pretty much outside until dinner time, and in summer, after dinner, too.
That was the 1980s, but today, there's serious competition for kids' attention — and many of them involve screens. So many of today's parents have to be more proactive in getting their kids outside. The "1,000 Hours Challenge" is one way that some parents have set a goal around outside time for their children. The challenge equates to 2.7 hours outside every day, which might seem like a lot if the child isn't spending much time outside at all, but it' a goal to work toward. (And parents say it really does cut down on screen time.)
And what better time to kick off a challenge like this?
If they're not used to spending time outside, kids might think it's boring. They might hear the siren call of apps or social media, or they might not know what to do with themselves outdoors.
Here are seven ways real parents deal with those challenges.
Joktan Rogel, a Wisconsin-based dad of three, says starting kids outside early is key: "We’ve made them part of our outdoor activities from an early age. Both of my daughters went camping and hiking with us as babies and toddlers," said Rogel.
Camping trips while kids were still toddlers was cited by a number of parents I talked to as a way for them to get kids outdoors for an extended period of time — and get themselves away from devices too. If camping isn't your thing, contact your local parks department for ideas and special programs for even very young kids, and consider a long day at a lakeshore or riverside camping spot, even if you don't spend the night. You can still enjoy having your own "spot" and can even enjoy a campfire without staying overnight.
Make outside time special and unique
Invest in super-fun toys that can only be used outside. Trampolines are popular, as are bikes, chalk for drawing on sidewalks, and giant bubble makers. "[My kids] colored on the table on the porch, and ate meals out there. We sat out at night with candles, and caught fireflies," said author Diane MacEachern of some of the ways she made outside time extra-fun.
Travel can fit under this category: Graduate student Sloan Bailey says taking exciting trips to places where nature is the focus — she went to Alaska with her son and daughter — helps keep them excited about learning about the natural world.
Give kids time and space
If you're used to scheduling your kids' activities, you might find unstructured playtime a bit strange at first — and they might too. But studies show it's important for early brain development to play in ways that allow for experimentation.
Rogel says his two older daughters are sensory-driven, and enjoy just spending time playing with sand, sticks and found natural objects. That's probably because when he and his wife spend time outside with them, there's some activity and some passive, relaxing time, too. "Whenever we take them to the park or go hiking, we give them space to collect leaves, nuts, pine cones, tree needles, fallen branches, etc. and tell them as much as possible about [what they've found]." In this simple, straightforward way, Rogel's children can take their own time to explore in their own way and on their own time.
Challenge their creativity
"Nature provides the original playground," said Liz Wagner, who runs environmental education programs for a New York state park. Found materials can be turned into objects similar to those they already play with, but the key is that they have to figure that out for themselves. It's not as obvious as a swing set, but kids can use a fallen tree as a "bouncing balance beam," or use found natural objects to "decorate" a space, or play games they already know in a new setting. Hide-and-go-seek in a wooded area instead of inside a house forces them to consider the nature landscape in new ways, for example.
And sometimes giving the kids a simple place to start is OK, too. NYC-based mother of two Eleni Gage de Baltodano says her kids love scavenger hunts: "You can download seasonal ones with pictures for the littlest kids (find a squirrel, find a red leaf). If you Google 'free printable kids outdoor scavenger hunts' you get lots of options," she suggests. Scavenger hunts are a way to give outdoor time a bit of organization without being too particular, and helps kids refine their ability to discern different types of natural materials — and even learn about taxonomy. For example, as kids get older, the hunt could change from "Find a red leaf, find a purple flower" to "Find a maple leaf, find white birch bark," etc.
Send them out to play
Some parents remember their own parents shooing them out of the house, and this tried-and-true tactic might be one to try depending on where you live and the age of your child. In rural places or those where you have an agreement with neighbors to keep an eye out, telling kids to "go outside and play" is a simple solution. They can figure out themselves what to do either on their own or with other kids. So keep an eye out for a place where it might be easier to do this. "It has really helped moving out to more of a 'family' neighborhood, where you can send the kids out to play," said Bailey.
Basic toys can give kids a way to switch up activities, or combine things into unique and creative games. "I keep toys like scooters and bikes in the garage, as well as tape for making stuff out of sticks, and containers for water and bug catching," said Bailey. I can picture a (potentially very wet) game that involves trying to balance a container of water while scootering, can't you?
Don't give them a hard time about getting dirty
Part of the joy of getting outside is getting muddy, wet, dusty and maybe even a bit scraped up. Most kids spend plenty of time dressed in clothes they know they should be careful to keep relatively clean. The great outdoors can be a nice break from that, so set them free "Sound of Music"-style by providing play clothes — stuff they can mess up or rip and not have to be concerned with.
Just be forewarned, it might take them a minute to get used to being OK with muddy ensembles. "Some kids still complain about getting dirty even though they jumped in the creek with both feet, LOL," wrote Liz Wagner. You can make clean-up part of the fun when kids get back home. Hosing yourself off can be a game in itself.
Just being outside is OK, too
Remember that nature is enjoyed by different kids in different ways: As de Baltodano relates, "A lot is personality-based." She says her daughter likes the sandbox — as a place to read. Growing up, I split my time between running around the woods and just finding a mossy spot to read Nancy Drew mysteries.
Not every kid will engage directly with nature every minute they are outdoors. But just being outside is different than being inside, so consider taking "indoor" activities out. Maybe set up a puzzle table under some shade away from the house, or find a pillow that can get rained on to make a reading spot at the base of a tree a little more comfy.
Even if kids are reading, building Legos, drawing or playing with toy cars, outside they'll be exposed to the sounds of wind in the trees and birdsong, feel the breeze and notice the sun moving across the earth. They'll see insects and maybe animals (they might be surprised how close a deer or birds will come when they're still) and they'll definitely notice when the mosquitoes come out (and when they go away), and how fast it can cool down once the sun begins to set. These micro-observations will happen without much attention but will inform kids' understanding of the natural world and is very different than being inside a climate-controlled home.
You will likely notice a difference in your kids' mood and behavior after a day outside (versus a day at school or a day spend indoors). Studies show that extended time outside positively affects kids in a host of ways, from the physical (they are more agile and get sick less often) to the mental and behavioral (better concentration and focus; less likely to bully).
"Nature always grounds my children," wrote the founder of 1,000 Hours Outside. "The time we give them outside to freely play provides each one with the opportunity to let loose and experience the simple joys of life. I cannot measure how impactful that is but I can plainly see how it changes them and how it changes us as a family."