If you were following along with the blog last summer, you may remember that I shared a post filled with ideas for outdoor process-based creativity. This was to support my main recommendation for the summer: go play outside! Now it’s a new summer, a whole “pandemic year” later. And I feel like spending time outside is more important than ever!
Whether we wanted to or not, we have spent so much of this past year inside on screens. It can be challenging to shift away from this, but warm weather and easing restrictions offer great motivation to try!
Why is it important to get outside and play?
- 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 process the impacts of the past year.
- 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.
- Outdoor activities almost inevitably involve moving our bodies, and physical activity is one of the main ways that children regulate their feelings.
- 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 over the past year and a half.
- 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.
If it feels overwhelming to peel kiddos away from their iPads, I thought it might be helpful to (re) share a few ideas for fun outdoor activities in this month’s blog post. Some are the same as last summer, but some are completely new!
My hope is that these activities are super easy to set up and facilitate, but intriguing enough to spark your child’s interest.
5 Ideas for Outdoor Summer Play:
#1: Make a Vacation Home for a Plastic Animal
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.
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: Make “Magic Binoculars” For an Imagination Walk
You know what helps to inspire imagination on a nature walk? Some homemade binoculars! (Also known as dinosaur-spotters 🦕, unicorn-goggles 🦄, or fairy-finders 🧚!)
These are SO easy to make. Just tape together two toilet paper rolls (or one paper towel roll cut in half), and then attach some string! I decorated mine with stickers and washi tape to make them feel extra magical.
Then head outside and see what you can find, letting 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 kinds of questions. Encourage them to add their own ideas, and together you can make up a narrative. Use your binoculars 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.
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 this feelings chart activity.)
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.
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.
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: Practice Deep Breathing with Bubbles
It doesn’t get any simpler than bubbles in the forest, at the park, or on the beach. Just grab a bottle from the dollar store, and bring it along with you on any summer outing!
Most kiddos are mesmerized by the simple magic of bubbles. But there are added benefits beyond floating rainbow colours. Bringing out the bubbles can be a great way to reengage kiddos complaining that they are feeling bored. It can be a distraction from anxious thoughts, or a playful way to redirect squabbling siblings.
In addition, when we blow bubbles, we learn how to use a long, slow, controlled exhale. This is exactly the kind of exhale that helps our nervous system to reset and calm down when we are feeling overstimulated, dysregulated, or overwhelmed. So by teaching our kids how to blow bubbles, we are also teaching them a calming breathing technique that can be supportive in other contexts.
If you have practiced blowing bubbles together, then the next time you notice your kiddo becoming overwhelmed at the grocery store, you can pause together and imagine that you are blowing bubbles. This will help your kiddo to take that deep inhale, followed by a long slow exhale, that will help them to regulate and come back to calm.
(Thank you to my mom who shared the magic of bubbles with me in my childhood, and continues to surprise me with their magic when we go for nature walks!)
#5: Set Up a Backyard Scavenger Hunt
Grab a piece of printer paper and some markers. Come up with a list of 10 nature objects that your child will probably be able to find in your backyard, or on a quick walk around your neighbourhood. Make a checklist for the items, maybe including a simple drawing of the item so that the list is accessible for kiddos who don’t read yet. Then head out together with a box or a basket, and see if you can collect everything on the list.
To extend the activity after the scavenger hunt, challenge your kiddos to create a three-dimensional collage using the items that they have collected. Glue the items down onto cardstock or a piece of cardboard using hot glue, or take a photo instead and then return the items to the natural environment.
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT