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As a mom of two little ones, I try to look for new ways to spend time with my kids. I often feel like my mind is tapped out from juggling the duties of parenthood, co-running a household with my husband and teaching. So, the whole notion that I need to “entertain” them (which I don’t want to believe in) seems daunting, even ridiculous at times, as a parent. Which is why I want to share some ideas on how to engage your kids outside and why messy play is important for creative thinking.

A sensory bin or sand table makes nature even more accessible.

After working in tech, I became an educator for a play-based program that meets in the best classroom of all, the outdoors. My reasoning stemmed from wanting new ways to have fun with my own children and the desire to pursue a career in early childhood education. I didn’t want more toys in my house; I didn’t want to rely on the latest gizmos…so what could be the next best thing to engage them? Going outside.

Have you ever noticed how nerves calm when you and your child go into nature? Picture getting beyond a local playground…outside can be an open grassy field, with no play structure; it can be sitting under an expansive shady tree. There are ways to engage children without it involving you packing up much from home, having to buy a fancy playset or doing a lot of prep.

At the heart of it, you don’t need a lot to create and explore. There is so much to occupy a child with and even more for them to activate and create.

Here are 10 D.I.Y. activities that take 15 minutes to do and encourage your little one to get outdoors:

Exploring a guava bush reveals some amazing treasures!
  1. “Yonder” — I made up that game title. A friend of mine reminded me that sometimes the best games are the ones that involve no equipment, some observation, running and recall, all while being outside. Go out into a large space, enclosed if they aren’t quite old enough, and encourage them run to the opposite side of the field, within eyesight. Before they run, ask them to notice anything that is “interesting” in their discovery spot and then come back to you to describe what they see or want to show you. This is a great activity for activating memory, storytelling, narration and providing the opportunity to notice what is in their environment. We have a big guava and passion fruit bush in our yard and my daughter, three years old, always notices something new to share with me. Sometimes she finds a use for the item she selects, be it in an art project, for her nature treasure pot or her mud kitchen.
A makeshift mud kitchen made from old tree stumps and kitchen supplies.

2. Some of my favorite activities stem from trying out prompts and DIY activities by Tinkergarten (you can find a fun and nature-based activity by filtering it by age or skill). I love the simplicity of these lessons and the diversity of the activities: making flags, colorful lanterns, soups and curating nature treasures.

3. Even 15 minutes of time playing outside or taking a walk can inspire new play invitations. On one of these adventures, “wonder” about something that you want to know or your child observes and asks a question about. Write this question on a piece of paper and add it to a “Wonder Bowl”. You can compile a list of “wonders” and then research together to find the answer when you have a spare moment.

Make “binoculars” to focus your little one’s views, have a “feast” with your mud pies, create a nature bracelet or decorate a tree.

4. Take a walk around your block or up and down your street.

5. One of my favorite Tinkergarten activities is making a nature bracelet. Get a thick piece of tape (Duct tape is great) and roll it around your child’s wrist, sticky side out, to add nature treasures they find. I keep Duct tape on my water bottle when I’m desperate for activities to think of with my kids. Kids love collecting nature treasures (anything that feels, looks or smells interesting) and putting it on a piece of tape. Encourage a child to put a flat nature treasure on top of it. Or, take a long, thin piece of paper, add double stick tape to it and put it around the child’s head with the nature treasures she collects — an instant crown!

6. Go into a park or yard and have your child collect items that are “rough” and “smooth,” then talk about those objects. If they can’t walk yet, you can collect them and talk about them with your child.

7. Do a color-matching activity with items you find in nature and colors you are wearing.

8. Wrap yarn around a tree and your little one can “weave” nature treasures inside of it.

9. Do you spend one day a week outside? Try getting outdoors two days a week! If you’re outside four days a week, try going out five days a week.

10. Apply to become a Tinkergarten Leader in a your neighborhood park. You are trained in child development and how to teach outdoor play-based classes. Deadline to become a leader for the Spring Cohort is Dec. 10. It is one of the greatest jobs you’ll ever love!

Messy play is actually critical for creative thinking; it helps children to make sense of the world!

As Meghan Fitzgerald, founder of Tinkergarten says, “Children will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems. Although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today’s political and business leaders worldwide are already pointing to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.”

Kids will need this to grow their creative capacity and this can be done through messy play (play that is unhindered and not overly dictated by adults).

Going outdoors shifts moods and unlike an indoor classroom, the environment changes with each month, revealing new additions and subtractions to the classroom. I encourage you to find a team of families or a group of parents who share a similar desire to get outside and into nature. Or, find local groups like Tinkergarten which bring together families and caregivers. I really do believe that parents are the best educators for their children and that nature is one of the most ideal classrooms to learn from.

A Tinkergarten class engaging in a feast and making nature headwear.