COVID-19 has changed how we do things, and your safety is our priority. Please keep social distancing best practices in mind if you choose to visit parks, trails and green spaces. Thanks, y'all!
Written by Barry Rivera, Volunteer Manager at Austin Parks Foundation
It’s a common misconception that in order to entertain kids you need to buy a lot of fancy contraptions, or have a spectacular space. Neither are true! Now is the perfect time to reassess how we can sustainably use our space and personal effects to help kids learn, grow and, of course, be entertained.
Nature Play was a hot term before COVID-19 rattled our world, but now more than ever it’s a great way to use our natural world as a platform for child development. All it requires is a little ingenuity and the willingness to look at things differently. Here are some of our family’s favorite activities:
1. Nature Treasures
We love to collect treasures and keep them secret and safe like pirate booty. But why do pirates bury their gold when they could be out spending it? Because then they would lose the gold!
Since we rarely find real gold, things like moss balls, sticks, leaves and flowers are wonderful nature treasures. If you have freezer space, it’s fun to freeze your treasures in ice trays, reusable containers, or muffin trays.
Once they’re good and frozen there are lots of fun ways for kids to engage with them!
- Hide or bury them like treasure
- Put salt on top for a fun experiment to see what happens
- Freeze them with food coloring, then let them melt on an old white sheet or white paper to create art
- Smash the ice with a hammer, or let kids find other ingenious ways of freeing the items from the ice
2. Crafts Rock
If you’re able to get to your nearest park, trail or greenspace keep an eye out for cool rocks you can take home and add to your collection. Dry creek beds are a great place to hunt for unique rocks as erosion creates cool shapes like heart rocks, flat rocks, rocks with holes all the way through or even the rare Texas shaped rock.
There are even fossils to be discovered by our young, burgeoning paleontologists. While looking for wooly mammoth tusks, you’ll likely find lots of cool aquatic fossils as Texas was once a shallow sea. I’ve found lots of exogyra ponderosa fossils anywhere there are rocks. These items make great crafts and gifts!
- Our ever-growing heart rock collection is the perfect stash of gifts to share with friends to show our love! They also make great magnets with just a little glue.
- Flat rocks are great for creating artistic masterpieces with paint, or as part of a mosaic
- Rocks with holes are cool to slide string through and make jewelry or hanging rock garlands
- Display your nature treasures on contact paper and stick them on a window for fun home decor
- Make sensory bottles from single-use containers. Because plastic isn’t very recyclable you can fill containers that would normally end up in the trash with natural items for endless imaginary play
3. Interactive Play
One of our favorite take-home Tinkergarten activities is making giant spider webs and all it takes is some string or twine. Simply wrap the string around a tree (or multiple trees for best results) and pretend you’re a spider! It can also double as a sweet laser maze you must crawl through without touching any string.
Another crowd favorite that only requires string/twine/rope and a basket/bucket is the homemade pulley system. We like to tie some rope around a basket with a handle and toss the basket over a branch.
Badda bing: pulley system! You can fill up the basket with some of the sweet rocks you collected, action figures, maybe your baby sister like we did once (don’t worry, we had adult supervision!), and use the magic of physics to lift the basket up off the ground.
4. Use Your Surroundings
Do you have invasive bamboo in your yard and suddenly as much free time as your retired neighbor? Pull that bamboo out and use it to build forts! What about invasive ligustrum with all those pesky berries?
Carefully collect the berries and smash them up to make natural, and beautiful, blue paint. What about prickly pear cacti? Carefully remove the spines and the pear makes for a delicious treat and striking pink paint!
5. Spring Exploration
What a great time of year to be stuck at home! Flowers are blooming, butterflies are fluttering, bees are collecting nectar and pollen, birds are mating and nesting, and life is flourishing!
But there’s one kind of life we’ve been particularly interested in. Have you seen the million caterpillars floating through the air on their invisible threads? My son has been stopping every single time he sees one. We always slow down to look at them. One of the great lessons we get to practice is restraint, as our current ratio of touchable caterpillars is one out of every ten.
There are so many questions I, even as an adult, have about those beautiful, green babies. Why are they hanging in midair? How do they float around as if they’re not attached to anything? Are they attached to something? Don’t they look remarkably similar to the floating Live Oak pollen? Is that why they all aren’t getting eaten up by birds? What percentage of caterpillars make it to butterlfy-dom? How the heck do caterpillars turn into butterflies!?
6. Take a Nature Walk
Nature provides the opportunity for so much learning, especially given our access to technology. However, and I cannot stress this enough, don’t cut out the wondering! Our brains are a magnificent thing, and there is so much growth that happens when we wonder.
If we shortcut the system by immediately looking up an answer, we’re doing our brains a disservice by not allowing it a proper workout. Our phones are efficient tools, but they are just tools. Don’t let them do all your brain’s work!
On your next walk try asking a few questions to spark some wonder. Challenge older kids not to interrupt their brains’ natural deduction process with the internet. Work out some likely answers as a family, and you can always check your work later.
Nature Play While Sheltering in Place
Having nobody to be with other than each other and having nowhere to go other than outside has been restorative for us as a family and provided so much joy for our kids.
Do you miss volunteering with Austin Parks Foundation? No worries. Our outdoor play can increase kids propensity to be environmental stewards later in life!
Don’t let the weather get you down, every child has an unexplained calling to jump in puddles. Go for it! I could go on and on! Listen to Go Outside by Cults, get your dirty clothes on and get out there and touch some stuff!