In this world of ever-present technology, children are spending more of their time in front of screens and less time outdoors. Children today play outside much less than their parents did growing up, and as a result, they’re missing out on vitamin D and numerous other health benefits.
Outdoor play goes hand in hand with exercise and helps children practice motor skills, build strong bones and burn off energy. Exploring outside also gives children the freedom to exercise their curiosity and develop problem-solving skills. Hands-on activities such as gardening give young minds the opportunity to explore concepts about science, responsibility, conservation and nutrition.
These benefits can help reduce stress and make for happier, calmer kids. All you have to do is be willing to get a little dirty — kids usually are!
Playing in nature can benefit children’s sensory development, creative thinking and even their immune system. Here are some fun ideas from Megan Hettig, preschool art expert, for how you and your little one can play in the dirt.
- Make mud pies (Ages 3+)– Children can exercise their imaginations and get their hands dirty by making mud pies. First, mix dirt in a bucket with a little bit of water until the consistency is similar to that of bread dough. Let your child knead, shape and flatten the mud, then decorate the pies with stones, flowers and leaves. You can even host an outdoor tea party together, enjoying “tea and pie” in your yard. “Along with pies, my kids love making ‘muddy soup,’” says Angela, a mom of four. “They pour cups of water into a big bowl or container with a small amount of dirt or mud and stir in ‘veggies’ — different rocks and plants. We like to see which bowl has the most creative ingredients.”
- Construct yard castles (Ages 3+)– If the idea of getting muddy does not appeal to you or your child, building sandcastles in your yard is a great alternative. Add equal parts nontoxic play sand and water to make your own at-home beach. Then, using recycled containers, cups or beach toys, work with your child to build sandcastles. Have him use natural items like rocks, shells, sticks and leaves to decorate his creation.
- Tend to your garden (Ages 3+)– Primrose introduces children to gardening through the Primrose Patch. Students help with the responsibilities of tending to plants, learn about healthy choices and nature, and often eat the vegetables they grow and harvest in school meals. Extend the gardening activities to your home by having your little one help plant and water your garden, measure the growth of plants and harvest produce (if you’re growing fruits or vegetables). Don’t be afraid to involve even your youngest ones. “Our 2-year-old daughter loves to garden,” says Stephen, dad of two. “She loves to experience different textures and materials as she helps pack soil, touch leaves and water the plants. She also likes to discuss the different colors of the flowers we grow.”
- Build a dirt racetrack– Turn the outdoors into an arena by building a racetrack for toy vehicles. Using sticks, rocks and pine straw, form a track in the dirt, then race vehicles around the track. For added excitement, add a little water to make the track muddy. After the race is finished, make clean-up fun by setting up a car wash for the dirty trucks and cars.
Safety tip: It’s important to note that not all mud is the same. Be sure to select an area for you and your child to play in that has not been treated with chemicals or used by animals as a bathroom. You can also purchase organic, chemical- and manure-free soil. From there, making mud is easy: simply add water.
For more on learning and playing outdoors, check out:
- 9 Activities to Make the Most Out of Summer with Your Child
- Scavenger Hunt Ideas: Encourage Exploration
- Plan a Backyard Campout with This Printable Checklist
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