Now that we can get outside and enjoy nicer weather, our spirits rise. But, what do we do outside? There are many benefits to outdoor play, but what if your kids are older? What can they be learning outside? Farmers and gardeners might not have this problem because there’s always something that needs to be done. However, most of us need some ideas other than grilling or playing catch. My younger son complains a lot about this. “But, what do we DO? There’s nothing to DO,” he laments.
Well, I know that learning outside inspires new interests because I’ve been doing this homeschooling thing for awhile now. The problem for him is that he has very few people with whom to do anything. His siblings are grown and work outside the home. His few friends aren’t always available. But, there are still many outdoor activities he and I can do together. And, after the long quarantine period this spring, you can bet I’m definitely getting outside.
Learning outside inspires new interests
Over the years, we have done many educational outdoor activities. Some of them were inspired by Charlotte Mason, some were taken from Anne Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, and some I discovered. The ones I discovered by chance were often nature center or forest preserve programs offered to homeschoolers. I encourage you to check this out in your area. Even if yours don’t offer anything specifically for homeschoolers, they usually offer many other interesting programs. If we didn’t attend their programs, I jotted down the idea anyway and we explored on our own.
Learning outside often led to unexpected adventures, too. And, contrary to what environmentalists might think, allowing and encouraging children to explore the wild woods freely makes kids more compassionate about nature. Not allowing them to climb, jump, collect, touch, and run around in nature harms the child’s development. And, it insures that they won’t have any emotional connection to it, making them not care about it. So, if we want kids to care about God’s Creation, help them have vivid, happy memories of playing there. That’s what led me to become an herbalist.
So, what new interests does learning outside inspire? Let’s dig in.
Orienteering (also known as letterboxing or geocaching)
What is orienteering? It is the sport of navigating using a detailed map and compass. My son would say, What’s the point of that? And, that’s why I included letterboxing and geocaching under this heading. Both of these are basically modern day treasure hunting using either a compass and set of instructions or a GPS device. Combining orienteering with letterboxing means there is a point to the activity. The point is to find the box or “treasure.”
With letterboxing, the treasure is a unique stamp that you use to record your visit. With geocaching, there often is an actual treasure, but it may be quite small. You still record your visit, though. This activity encourages children to develop observation skills, problem-solving skills, and navigational skills. It’s great exercise and encourages a sense of adventure, especially when kids decide they want to hide their own letterbox.
Bird watching is another way for kids to be learning outside. My kids could never sit still long enough to really do bird watching. We did put up some bird houses, though. We ended up having to take them down because wasps decided to nest there instead! Kids can learn a lot about birds by taking photographs, tracking migration patterns, observing mating and nesting behaviors, building bird houses and feeders, and learning bird calls.
Even though we didn’t do traditional bird watching, the kids did have an interest in them. They twice brought me baby birds that fell out of the nest. When we brought them to the naturalist at the forest preserve, he taught us a lesson about nature they never forgot. The naturalist basically told them to let the birds die because they were an invasive species. You can imagine the discussions we had after that visit!
I loved the Charlotte Mason idea of a nature journal. So, I pretty much bought each kid a new journal every year. The problem was that when we went out to the woods, they didn’t want to carry a notebook and pencils around. I ended up carrying everything. When they did settle down, they made some beautiful art. I recommend getting them quality watercolor colored pencils to use. They will be happier with the results and more excited to draw.
Learning outside survival skills and foraging
Does your child know how to identify poison ivy and poison oak? What about which berries are safe to eat? Do they know how to find water or build a temporary shelter? There are more than 25 survival skills that kids should know. Kids can get separated from us, even if we are careful. From the time he was 2 years old, my older son had a habit of disappearing. Museums, department stores, and outdoor events filled me with dread. No matter how closely I watched him, he very often ran off. Thankfully, he was also pretty self-reliant.
This one doesn’t need explaining. But, a fishing trip can lead to curiosity about a lot of other water-related things. For example, Why do we use that bait? What are leeches? And, how does one fillet a fish? I never expected that I would need to be the one to remove the fish from the hook and throw it back. Be prepared! That might be you, too.
I got this idea from a forest preserve program. It’s basically the historical patterns of nature. Sometimes, it also includes how people used nature, such as aspects of Native American history. So, learning about the role that rivers played in the fur trade of North America could be included. Or, how the beachfront of Lake Michigan changed over time as cities and towns grew. It can be as simple as keeping a seasons book in which kids track seasonal dates, such as when the trees budded. It can be as complex as studying the relationship between coyote sightings and deer hunting. This type of activity usually follows some sort of observation that prompts a child to want to know why. For example, why aren’t there as many cardinals this year? Why do we keeping finding bird carcasses in our yard?
You don’t necessarily need a telescope to watch the night sky. Check out your local nature center or forest preserve and see if they host star-gazing nights. There are a few in the Chicago area that do. If not, then maybe you can pool resources with other homeschoolers and host a support group star-gazing party. You can add to the fun with ancient constellation myths or with discussion about how God made the stars to mark the passing of time. Don’t forget how sailors have used the skies to navigate, too.
Everyone has heard about Ben Franklin and his experiments with kites and electricity. But, kite flying doesn’t have to be a hazard to your health! Building and flying kites can be a safe, fun, family activity. Be sure that you fly it in an open field away from power lines and trees. Experiment with different kite designs to see which ones fly the best.
Learning outside can inspire career interests in Botany, Entomology, and Geology
You know those kids who love plants or bugs or rocks? They wouldn’t have developed those interests if not for getting outdoors and exploring. It usually starts with playing with and collecting them. Try making fairy gardens or starting a bug or rock collection. What about raising butterflies or ladybugs? Using pressed flowers in homemade notecards? Growing a pizza garden? Who knows where an early interest in these fields of study might lead? Your child could become the next scientist who makes an important breakthrough in agriculture, medicine, pest control, energy, or building design.
And don’t forget all those outdoor sports!
While we are learning outside, we aren’t just sitting around. We’re active! Kids who spend time outdoors get to use their bodies in ways that develop flexibility, endurance, and stamina. Usually this involves, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking, or canoeing. But, kids can also try paddle boarding or a ropes course just to have fun outdoors. After all, everything doesn’t need to be educational. It’s great just to get outside in the sun and enjoy the beautiful weather while we can!