Photo of river in forest with graphic of unicorn and tiger superimposed on top

Ideas for Outdoor Process-Based Creativity

If I can make one recommendation for the rest of the summer, it’s this: Go play outside! 

For the past several months we’ve been staying home, staying inside, and staying apart. This was really important for us to do, as we worked together to slow the spread of COVID-19. And it’s crucial that we continue to follow public health guidelines and interact in ways that prioritize our individual and collective safety. 

But I do want to acknowledge the impact of isolation. Staying home, inside, and apart affects our physical, social, and mental well-being.

We are designed for connection with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. When we are unable to interact with other people and explore the world around us, we may notice that we feel more anxious, stressed, irritable, overwhelmed, lonely, and/ or sad. 

While we still need to be cautious about how, when, and where we interact with others, we are currently in the height of our beautiful Canadian summer, and the outdoors are open and available to us.

child wearing a sweatshirt that says "adventure" pointing down a hill
Photo by Allie Aj

Here’s why I’m recommending some creative play time outside:

  1. Safe exposure to the sun is a great way to get some vitamin D. This vitamin is very important for early brain development, and supports the parts of our brains that are responsible for healthy moods, learning, and making memories (https://brainmd.com/blog/ease-anxiety-with-vitamin-d/). Vitamin D also helps to strengthen our immune system, and helps to regulate our circadian rhythm supporting healthy sleep patterns (https://www.vitamindsociety.org/press_release.php?id=39). All of these benefits are helpful right now as we navigate the pandemic together. (Thanks to my colleague Dr Nicole for helping me to learn more about vitamin D!) 
  2. Playing outside provides a variety of sensory experiences and stimulation that support learning and development, while at the same time offering a break from screens.
  3. Outdoor activities almost inevitably involve moving our bodies, and physical activity is one of the main ways that children regulate their feelings. 
  4. When we are outside in the natural world, we are not constantly surrounded by visual cues and reminders of the pandemic. It’s important to give ourselves and our children breaks from stressful stimuli, and to find safe spaces where we can engage and explore freely. This safe space allows our nervous system to relax, so that our brains can actually integrate and incorporate all that we’ve experienced in the past few months. 
  5. Outdoor play is a whole body experience. If we can bring our attention to the present moment, outdoor play becomes a great way to practice mindfulness. It helps us to take a break from the worries in our minds, and instead focus on what it feels like to be doing something with our bodies. 
Boy with dark hair smiling and running through a puddle
Photo by Kazuend Ek

Okay so it sounds great, but what will we DO outside? What if my kiddo declares that they are bored after 5 minutes? 

When I was a kid, I spent my entire summer outside inventing imaginary games, climbing trees, and exploring in the woods. I didn’t know anything else, so spontaneous free play came naturally to me. 

This is 9-year-old me hanging out in a big cedar tree.

Today’s children have grown up in a different environment. They are used to being provided structure, adult-led direction, and constant stimulation. They truly might not know how to “just play outside.”

However, it’s crucially important for their development. According to neuroscience and parenting experts Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson, children develop emotion regulation skills through hands-on, spontaneous free play where they have opportunities for imagination and curiosity. In addition, kids who spend time playing and building things with their hands grow up to be the best problem solvers as adults (Siegel & Payne-Bryson, 2018, The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in your Child). 

two children climbing up a tree
Photo by Jeremiah Lawrence

So, let’s teach our children how to play outside!

To make it a little easier, I’ve put together a list of 5 simple activities that encourage outdoor process-based creativity. I’m focusing on the process, because learning and growth happens while we are building and making things. And I’m sharing activities that encourage creativity, because creativity is an essential component of play. This type of process-based creativity is exactly what I invite from my clients during art therapy, because it’s where the magic happens (more about that here if you’re interested).

Another cool thing about these activities is that I’ve shared slightly different versions of them before. It doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult to set up a creative outdoor invitation for your child. You can use what you have, and modify what you already know! It doesn’t take much to make it fresh and exciting for your kiddos. 

Ready for some ideas? Here we go! 

5 Ideas for Outdoor Process-Based Creativity:

#1: Make a Vacation Home for a Plastic Animal 

This is my vacation version of the activity I shared a few months ago, “let’s make a home for a plastic animal.” If you’d like to check out the original blog post, it  includes step-by-step instructions, a rationale for why I love this activity, and some conversation starters to talk with your kiddo about what they’ve made. ⁣

The idea is to choose a plastic animal, and then use natural materials to create their ideal vacation home. When you’re finished, share your creation with someone. Offer them a tour of your plastic animal’s summer getaway, explaining each feature and why you included it. 

For my dinosaur beach house, I found all of the materials (including the dinosaur actually!) while walking along the beach. It felt nice to focus my attention on the treasures by my feet. 

A sand, rock and stick house made on the beach with a plastic dinosaur inside.

I gathered building materials as I thought about the dinosaur’s needs. Fresh aquatic plants to eat, a bottle cap for drinking water, some grass and roots to make a cozy sleeping nest, and some bark to build a roof as shelter from the weather. I added a fence along the back and a rock wall to protect against the waves. ⁣

When I was finished playing in the sand I returned the beach treasures to where I found them (expect for the bottle lid – I recycled it!).⁣

This activity is super simple if you’re planning a beach day or a cottage getaway. All you have to do is toss a plastic animal friend into your beach bag before you leave the house!

#2: Go for an Imagination-Led Forest Walk 

Head out along a nature trail, and let your imagination lead the way! When I’m walking in the woods, I like to imagine that there are giant, friendly dinosaurs hidden just ahead. I like to picture how they would interact with the trees and the creek. Would they have to duck under this leaning tree? Would they snap this branch if they stepped on it? Would they like to bathe in the deep cold pool bubbling up from the underground spring? Ask your kiddo these questions. Encourage them to add their own, and together you can make up a narrative. You could even make some pretend binoculars using paper towel or toilet paper rolls, and stop to scan the woods for dinosaur tails or footprints. 

If your kiddo isn’t into dinosaurs, you could imagine a forest filled with unicorns. Or maybe fairies? Or elves? The possibilities are endless. 

two children walking through a field of flowers wearing dresses and fairy wings
Photo by Allison Archer

By initiating this kind of playful imagining with your kiddo, you’re teaching them to experience their environment in a different way. You’re opening up possibilities. You’re showing them that you’re interested in whatever they’re imagining – it’s not too silly. This places you in a position of playmate rather than parent, and that can be a fun place to hang out for a bit.

#3: Paint a Rainbow of Feelings Rocks

This is a super easy beach activity and a great way to build emotional literacy. (⁣It’s similar to the feelings chart activity I shared back in April.)

First, enjoy the sensory experience of sand between your toes and wind on your face as you collect some smooth rocks from the beach. ⁣

Use acrylic paint to transform your rock collection into a rainbow. Do certain colours remind you of a specific feeling? Some might be distinct and clear, or some feelings (and colours) might be mixed up and blending together. I enjoyed making some of each. ⁣

Take a break to let the sun dry the paint. ⁣

After the paint has dried, add feelings faces with a permanent marker. Give a name to each feeling.⁣

Rocks on the beach painted in rainbow colours with feeling faces drawn onto them

Arrange your rainbow rocks for a photo shoot! ⁣

I like to use the metaphor of a wave when I think and talk about feelings. Our emotions come and go, ebb and flow, just like water. It’s okay to ride the wave of our feelings, to go with the flow, and to know that no feeling lasts forever. I really enjoyed photographing my feelings rocks close to the waves.

a rainbow of painted rocks with feelings faces arranged close to the waters edge

Bring your feelings rainbow home with you! You can use these little stones as an emotional check in at the end of the day, or as a tool to help kiddos identify how they were feeling during a difficult experience. ⁣

#4: Make a Foraged Flower Picture 

One of my favourite parts of Canadian summer is the abundance of wildflowers everywhere! ⁣This creative activity makes use of those blooms.

Head outside for some creative play time. As you explore, keep your eyes open for wildflowers. Collect a few to use for your art project. I tried to just take a few of each kind (you don’t need many!) and made sure to leave lots for our pollinator friends. ⁣

Find a shady spot to admire your collection. Notice the colours and textures of the wildflowers. Look closely and really explore them. Maybe even gently take them apart! What’s inside? What shapes and textures do you notice? 

Foraged wildflowers on top of a closed black sketchbook.

Now arrange your foraged flowers to create an image. If you use a blank piece of paper as a base, it provides a frame and a sense of containment. It also offers great contrast! You can make a representational picture (I made some snails and butterflies), or you can make an abstract arrangement. Experiment with pattern, symmetry, and composition. ⁣

foraged flowers arranged on a white page to look like a snail.

Snap a photo to capture your creation. If you share on social media, tag @resourcefulmearttherapy – I would LOVE to see what you come up with! ⁣

Gently remove the flower pieces and start again! What else can you come up with? Think of it as process-based play rather than product-focused creation. ⁣⁣

foraged flowers arranged to look like a sun and a butterfly.

 When you’re finished, return the flowers to the natural environment. They can still provide some food for the bees, and still contain seeds for future plants! ⁣

Reflect on your experience. What was this like for you? I noticed that since I knew my artwork would be temporary, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of pressure to perform and I felt free to play and change my mind.⁣ What did you notice?

#5: Complete a Creative Photo Challenge 

Choose a theme, and then take photos outside that match your theme until you’ve created a unique photo collection. I’ve shared several versions of this activity in the past. Here are instructions for a Mindfulness Photo Walk, and here’s a post about going for a Rainbow Photo Walk

While I was on vacation this summer, I created a photo collection of rain drops on plants!

 

To take this activity to the next level, you can do something creative with your photo collection! Print the photos and make a collage, add them into a special book or photo album, share them on social media with family and friends, or make a digital creation using Canva or Google Photos. These photo collections can become really unique keepsakes from family vacations or special time spent together. 

Which activity will you try first? I would love to hear about your outdoor adventures. Send me an email at hello@resourcefulmearttherapy, or connect any time on Facebook or Instagram! 

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT

Pinterest graphic with feature image and title of the blog post