Make Time for Outside Play – Even After School Starts

by Wendy Gabriel

I am a huge fan of playing outside for kids of all ages. Now that my oldest isBe Out There in kindergarten (gasp!) it occurs to me it might get more challenging as she gets older to allow time for unstructured outdoor play. 

Our friend, Anne Keisman, with the National Wildlife Federation is helping us out by giving us some great tips to get outside during a busy day:

1. Scenario: Traffic made you late, there’s no time to cook dinner, so you drive the family over to the rotisserie chicken place to get a quick meal.

Tip: Keep a picnic blanket in your car for an impromptu picnic on any spot of grass you can find!

2. Scenario: Backpack? Check. Lunch? Check. You’re ready to head to school.

Tip: Whether you drive or walk to school, or wait with your child by the bus-stop, take a moment to notice nature. Make it a game of “I Spy” — or download this nature scavenger hunt at

3. Scenario: Your child is studying plants at school and, at the dinner table, recites how photosynthesis works. You, yourself, have never successfully kept a plant alive.

Tip: Start small: All you need is some bird-seed and a sponge. For sponge-garden instructions, visit Next step: check out National Gardening Association’s parents’ primer for gardening with kids at

3. Scenario: You and your youngest wait outside your older child’s school, a few minutes before the bell rings.

Tip: Look up at the sky together. “Wait, mom — is that a sheep or a donkey?” Picking out shapes in the clouds is a classic childhood activity — and needs no special equipment.

4. Scenario: Your child looks at you and says, “Mom — I’m a little old for cloud-watching!”

Tip: For older kids, combine technology with the outdoors and go geo-caching or, the lower-tech version, letterboxing. There are about 20,000 letterboxes and 250,000 geocaches hidden in North America. Visit and

5. Scenario: The kids get home from school and immediately plop in front of the TV. You suggest going outside. They respond, “Indoors is more fun!”

Tip #1: Set time-limits for TV watching and video game playing. It won’t be popular, so make sure you have a back-up plan. If you have a backyard, kid-customize it with a homemade fort, dart boards, a trampoline, a craft table. Set up a bird house to keep wildlife visiting.

Tip #2: No backyard? Find your local parks using For older kids, start stretching your child’s boundaries, allowing them to go for unsupervised walks in the neighborhood with groups of friends. They’ll love the feeling of independence.

6. Scenario: Outside, it’s a perfect fall day, but you look at your child’s homework assignments and realize outside play-time isn’t a reality.

Tip: Take homework outside! There’s no reason math problems can’t be done in the fresh air. Set up a clean outdoor workspace for your child on a patio table, perhaps.

7. Scenario: Your daughter comes home from school clutching new-found treasures: three crumbly leaves, two acorns and a dirt-encrusted rock.

Tip: Instead of putting them on the kitchen counter, a drawer, or — gasp — the trash, start a nature table. Set a limit of how many items they can have in the “nature museum” — so they’ll keep it to a manageable number. Other ideas: use an old tackle or sewing box, or a hanging shoe-organizer with clear plastic pockets. Have your kids decorate it!

9. Scenario: A blank piece of paper in front of her, your daughter asks you, “What should I draw?”

Tip: Have your child make a map of your neighborhood — using only natural landmarks. This will heighten his or her observation skills and can be the first step in creating a “field guide” to the nature in your neighborhood.

10. Scenario: It’s 8 p.m. Dinner’s over, but not quite time for bed.

Tip: Keep flashlights near the door, and go for a neighborhood night hike. Kids will love the novelty — and you can challenge them to identify “night sounds.” Learn how to make a moon journal at

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  1. Ally from Zwaggle’s avatar

    Great tips! I love that you found ways to incorporate nature into every day activities, no matter how small.

  2. Lyz’s avatar

    Thanks for these tips! Since I grew up on a farm, I assume my kids are as aware of the outdoors as I was. Leah would LOVE a Nature Box. And maybe I’d *gasp!* stop throwing that stuff in the garbage!


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