Escape the Screen! 5 Awesome Activities

Get Your Kids (and You) Outside During Online School

It’s been a challenging year for us parents. Due to a global pandemic, we’ve been isolated in our homes way more than is good for us. Now school is back and it’s online. Our kids are tethered to screens like never before. Hours and hours of sitting in front of a computer is enough to make us go bonkers. We need an antidote.

Research shows that getting out in nature is a great way to improve our health, mood, sleep, even our creativity and relationships. We want that for our kids, too, but who has the time? We are so busy working, it’s hard to find the hours or energy to take a break and go outside with them.

Here are some ideas for fun, easy activities your kids can do outside, with or without you, during school screen time breaks or after classes are over.

#1 Adventure Map

Making adventure maps is a great way to get kids outside exercising their bodies and their brains. Send your kids out with paper and pencil (how much paper is up to them) and this mission: draw a map of your yard (or block or park—whatever outside area they can explore on their own). Include every landmark (tree, deck, garbage can, etc) and label each one with a fun name. The compost bin becomes “Mount Wormfood,” the birdfeeder is “Crow Castle.” Extra bonus points if your kid can make up elaborate stories about each landmark. If you want to add another layer of fun, kids can bury a “treasure” that the map leads to. Siblings, friends, or parents can use the map to search for the treasure.

#2 Bug Hunt

Kids love bugs! They’re easy to find, whether on a hike or in your backyard, and they’re endlessly fascinating to watch. Turn your kids into amateur entomologists with just a few tools. Here’s what they’ll need:

  • Bug Container: Anything clear will do (glass jar, plastic Tupperware), but my personal fave is this inexpensive bug container with a hinged lid (so it never gets lost), permanent air holes (so bugs don’t die), and a clear magnifying lid (so you can see what’s inside). Kids can add dirt, sticks, and leaves to create terrariums in the container and keep their insects for a few days of observation before setting them free (always set them free!).
  • Magnifying Glass: even if you get the container above, a magnifying glass is fun times!
  • Bug Net: these are good for crawling or flying bugs, and also water critters.
  • ID Book: This is a good generic option for kids, but it’s best to get a book that shows the bugs in your area. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I use this one.

Give your kids these bug-hunting pro tips:

  • Bugs love to hide under stuff. Lift up rocks, pots, mulch bags and see what’s there.
  • Look for bug signs too: spider webs, empty cocoons or casings, even teeny, tiny eggs.
  • You’ll find more bugs if you are very quiet and move very slowly.
  • Pick up bugs gently. It’s safer to pick up potential biters, like spiders, with a stick.
  • Look up and identify any bug you find in a guide book. Tell me a cool fact or two you learned about that bug.

Important Always catch and release bugs. Learning about them is great but they don’t belong too long in your terrarium. They have homes to return to!

#3 Nature Photography

Photographing nature is an excellent way to combine technology (which many kids love) and connect with nature. Spend a few minutes showing your kid how to use your camera phone (are there any kids left who don’t know how?) then send them outside. Recommend they get down on the ground or up close to their subject. Give them a shot list like this: 10 plants, 8 leaves, 7 flowers, 6 bugs, 5 rocks, 4 birds, 3 animals, 2 nature patterns (grass, gravel, etc), and 1 butterfly.

Younger kids can play “Stump the Chump” and ask parents to guess the subject of their photo. Or you can race each other to be the first to ID the subject. For older kids, ask for specific species. Older kids can also share their photos on:

  • Meet Your Neighbors: a global program connecting people to wildlife in their yards.
  • iNaturalist: a free app that lets users load their nature photos and observations into a global database, which other naturalists help identify.

#4 Wilderness Treasure Hunt

For this one, you make a list of nature items kids can find in your yard (or block or park—whatever outside area they can explore on their own). The more specific you are, the longer they will be outside exploring. “Orange rock” takes longer than “rock”. No time to think up a list? Use ours! Your kid will need:

  • Container (bucket or bag)
  • Blank notebook (for writing and drawing) & pencil
  • Phone (if you want them to take pics of each find)
  • Guide books to ID plants, animals, and insects. Or download the iNaturalist app and they can use a phone or tablet.

Send your kids out with a Treasure Hunt list to collect, photograph, or draw each one. They can do it alone or with siblings or friends. It can be competitive (the first one to find the most, wins) or cooperative (work together to find them all). Send them out for an hour of searching, and when they come back they can spend another hour comparing what they found.

Check out this awesome treasure hunt guide for inspiration!

#5 Make a Fine Feathered Friend

Are your kids missing their friends? Birds make great companions! To befriend the birds in your yard or park, all your kid needs is a little birdseed and a lot of patience. Make sure to get native seeds, which are better for birds and the environment. Send your kids out with seeds and this mission: see how close you can get to a bird. It will probably take multiple days to gain the bird’s trust—which means more time outside for your kid. Spend an hour a day following these steps:

  1. Lock cats or dogs inside so they don’t scare the birds away.
  2. Set up a feeder so birds will come by. If you don’t have one, put birdseed on the ground or any flat surface.
  3. On Day 1 sit far from the birds’ eating spot. Let them get used to you. You’ll know they’re used to you when they don’t fly off or hide when you arrive.
  4. Play Red Light-Green Light with the birds. Every day, pay attention to the bird’s body language so you can close the gap between you and your new friend. When birds are feeding or singing, they are comfortable. That’s a Green Light and you can move closer. When they stop feeding or singing, or they stiffen their posture, that’s a Red Light and you should freeze–maybe act like a non-threatening deer and pretend to munch on grass.
  5. Don’t look at or walk directly toward a bird. That’s what predators do. Instead, close the gap by wandering in gently, patiently, not barging straight through.
  6. Each day move a little closer until you are standing right next to the bird. Can you almost touch it? What do you notice about its behavior?
  7. Once you’ve earned their trust, some birds may even eat out of your hand. 

With a few minutes of set up from you, these activities should work with or without parents. But don’t forget—it’s good for you to get outside too! When was the last time you went on a bug hunt? Remember, going outside is cheap therapy!

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