How to entice your kids away from the TV and into the great outdoors.
As a father, I am a firm believer in the importance of outdoor experiences for kids. So are most of the fathers I know. But in order to get our kids outdoors, we’ve discovered we need to overcome what I call “indoor inertia.”
My brother encounters indoor inertia whenever he tries to coax his kids outside. “Come on … let’s go for a walk,” he’ll say. “No” they’ll reply with surprising vigor, “we want to stay inside and watch TV!” Try as he might, his two children dig in and, for the most part, insist on staying put. To get his children off the couch and outdoors takes my brother an inordinate amount of energy.
It’s easier for fathers to just give into the pressure of “indoor inertia” and find ways to rationalize it. After all, we argue, children are easier to monitor when they stay indoors, aren’t they? In the age of multi-tasking, we can “look after them” while we are busy doing something else and we have the satisfaction of knowing that they are being entertained by the TV, computer games, Wiis and Xboxes.
But rationalizing only goes so far. We know that, in our heart of hearts, outdoor experiences are important for our kids’ physical and mental development.
So how can Dads entice their kids off the couch and into the great outdoors? First, it helps if you frame your visit to the outdoors as one of adventure and discovery. For kids, that’s a much more enticing prospect than just proposing a walk! Then, make sure you deliver on that promise. Here are a few adventures to try:
Track and Trail!
Ever wonder how an expert tracker can follow a trail, even in the middle of a dry summer? Trackers have keen eyes that are able to spot even the smallest disturbance. Overturned leaves, bent grasses, scraped moss, disturbed earth, scat (animal droppings) and browse marks (from chewing) are all sure signs of an animal passing through.
You can teach your kids how to follow these subtle clues too, by mimicking an animal’s trail and challenging your children to follow it.
Find a nearby wooded area. Even a small grove of trees at the edge of a city park will do. (Be mindful of the rules and regulations in provincial parks and conservation areas.) Take a solid round log two feet in diameter and one foot across and drive in a series of wood screws (30 or so), so the heads are sticking out all around the log. Attach a stout rope and drag the log in a winding fashion through the wooded area for about 50 to 100 meters.
The screws will catch on the undergrowth, turning over leaves and moving branches, and the path of the log will leave a distinct trail. The screws mimic the movement of claws and feet through the underbrush. At the end of your homemade trail, hide a small stuffed animal.
Show your kids the start of the trail and encourage them to follow the signs and clues to the stuffed animal. As your kids become more keen and adept, begin to remove some or all of the screws and make another trail. Fewer screws means less disturbance and the challenge of following the log trail becomes that much more difficult.
When you think your kids are ready for some real tracking take them to the wooded area after a rainfall. When you find tracks, follow them. If you can, take along a tracking guidebook (available from you local library).
Ask your children which direction the animal was heading (look for scuff marks, usually located at the rear of the tracks). Was it running, walking, laying down? Look for signs of browsing – rabbits have sharp teeth and nip small saplings at a 45 degree angle while deer have no top teeth and tend to tear and chomp overhanging branches and saplings (especially cedar). Red squirrels love to husk cones, pulling off the scales in large piles called “middens.” The more your children practise, the sharper their eyes become. If you are lucky, you can follow tracks right to their source (perhaps a squirrel up in a tree).
For added adventure, try using a tracking stick. Attach two hair elastics to either end of a inch dowel. If you find tracks in the soft mud, slide the hair bands on the tracking stick so you can measure the stride of the animal (the distance between the paw prints from the heel of one to the heel of the next paw print ahead). Once the tracks leave the mud, just keep flipping the tracking stick over and this will tell you where the next paw print should be. Again, look for subtle disturbances. Follow the trail as far as you can.
Build a Lean-to or a Fort
My kids love to do this!
Find an area that has a significant amount of dead fall. Prop a ridge pole or stout stick between two trees, about four feet high, parallel to the ground. Lean sticks against this structure, making a rudimentary frame. Use forest debris to insulate the top, sides and bottom. Use your judgment about how much to disturb the forest. I try to teach my children to use “dead material” as much as possible (leaves, grasses, etc,) to try to minimize our impact on the forest.
To take this experience to the next level, try constructing a “debris hut.” This is a survival shelter based on the idea of a squirrel’s drey (the leafy “balled” nest you see high in deciduous trees). Begin by mounding leaves almost waist high. Prop a pole against a tree over this mound no more than three feet high, with the other end resting against the ground. Use branches to create a frame on either side. Pile leaves, evergreen branches or whatever you can find on all sides to insulate. Heap on as much as you can up to the length of your arm. You’ve created a super insulated “sleeping bag” in the same way squirrels do when they make their winter nests. A well constructed debris hut can help children survive even in sub zero temperatures.
Kids are natural explorers. The more we fathers can facilitate their discovery of and curiosity about the natural world, the more we help children recognize that they are an intrinsic part of a greater whole.
Go to a nearby creek. Bring along a dollar store net, an artist’s paint brush and a yogurt container. Make sure your net is billowing downstream. Place your foot directly in front of the net and gently roll over some river rocks and stones. All manner of aquatic invertebrates (water critters) will float into your net. Use the artists brush to gently coax these critters into your yogurt container (full of water).
You and your children will marvel at the sheer diversity of aquatic invertebrates. Have your children examine the mouth parts. What does your critter eat? Pincing mouth parts indicate they eat other insects. How does your critter move? Some wriggle, some crawl, and some, such as a dragon fly nymph, shoot water out of their rear end! How does your critter breathe? Water beetles carry a bubble of oxygen under the water. A water scorpion breathes out of a long tube. Mayfly and stonefly nymphs use external gills, which are feathery structures. If you are able to get your hands on an aquatic guide, so much the better. Most of the critters you catch are babies and will turn into something else. What will they turn into?
Here’s another neat way to get kids to discover nature. Arm yourself with two dice – one die should be regular, and the other, a homemade one, with the following cardinal directions: North, West, East, South, North West and South East. Then take a walk in the woods with the kids. Hurl both dice to the floor of the woods and see what they say. For instance, one might say “5” and the other “South East.” Walk five steps to the south and east and then say “drop!” Hunker down and examine the forest floor. Invariably someone will come up with a nifty discovery, like spiders, or beetles, or half-eaten acorns. Tossing the “exploration dice” takes us on a unique and unforgettable adventure with discoveries every step of the way.
While you explore and discover, remember to instill in your children the idea that they are dealing with living creatures. Each discovery merits our kindness and respect. At all times let your children know that they are part of a living world that is as mysterious as it is wonderful!