Creating a giant leaf pile with your kids is an old favorite that most people have probably heard of. But, don’t dismiss it. Getting outside, smelling the leaves, running around, raking, and jumping in leaf piles makes this one of my most memorable fall activities from childhood.
Raising happy, self-assured kids means teaching them happiness. And happiness stems from play. Everyone knows kids play and most recognize the benefits of it. But, did you know that it’s extremely beneficial for grown-ups to play too? It keeps that feeling of aliveness present, makes you happier, helps you regulate your emotions, reduces stress, fosters creativity, and helps form bonds with friends and family. I’ve heard it said that successful people don’t work, they play. It can apply to any field or hobby.
So, start initiating play in your life today by building a leaf pile and jumping in it! If you have kids, you can play hide and go seek in leaf piles or have them bury you in leaves. Your kids will have wonderful memories of fall and playing with you that will last for the rest of their lives!
One activity I do every year as soon as the grass is covered in leaves is a leaf maze. It’s easy and the kids love it! All I do is rake the leaves away from where I want the maze to be. I add dead ends and put in little obstacles. You can be really creative with this if you have the space and time by turning it into an obstacle course in a maze by including logs to balance on and jump over, tunnels to crawl through, rope swings, and/or toy monsters they have to avoid or fight off.
For kids who are competitive, you can put bean bags at one end of the maze and have them race to see who can grab the bean bags and run back to the starting point first.
You can also do this same thing by letting your grass get tall and mowing the grass in a maze design.
When my older daughter was two, I had her in a gymnastics class. We didn’t live in the woods back then and it seemed like a great way to allow her to get the exercise she craved. I’m a big proponent of exercise and sports for kids and adults, but I didn’t like that she had to be stuck inside for that class even on beautiful days and the drive was 25 minutes each way! Later, I signed her up for soccer and the commitment of taking her to soccer every Saturday morning became a burden that none of us enjoyed.
Now that we live in the woods with a big yard, I encourage her to build her muscles using the landscape. It saves money plus we’re all happier when we can relax in nature and play on our own terms.
Now, at 5, she climbs trees on her own, balances across fallen logs, and sprints down the trail. My younger daughter, who is almost 3, does her best to keep up with her big sister, almost always preferring to run and play barefoot, which builds muscles, tendons and ligaments in her feet to develop a more natural gait. Running barefoot also helps build smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination. Her growing ability to catch herself on her short, toddler legs and feet and avoid injury is amazing to see.
We also play an array of chasing and hiding games in the woods and in our yard that keep us bonded as a family and keeps our fitness up year-round.
Sports, in contrast, seem to come hand-in-hand with emotional distress, disconnects between parents and their kids, and injuries. According to the US National Library of Medicine, there have been 2.6 million emergency room visits a year for kids ages 5 – 24, with a 70% – 80% attrition rate by the time the child is 15 years old. It recommends waiting until age 6 to begin organized sports. (Oops!) Often coaches, parents, and kids overemphasize winning rather than having fun, leading to stress, family discord, and a greater potential for injuries.
It’s not all bad to play sports, of course. Reducing child obesity and teen depression, improving cognitive development, and setting children up to live healthier, longer lives are great reasons to encourage your kids to stay active.
But, what’s amazing about the great outdoors is it can meet nearly every need a child has. It can be a sport without the over-competitiveness. Or, a team sport without the stress. Spending time in nature boosts the self-esteem and a feeling of belonging. It’s fun, exercise, and an academic pursuit all in one! It teaches grit, which means the ability to get through difficult or uncomfortable situations, a trait that leads to career success.
What better way to teach strategy than capturing the flag with a group of kids at night in a wooden setting? Or teach grit by taking a backpacking trip with friends and family? Or teach preschoolers science by catching frogs together and looking for frog eggs and tadpoles?
As I teenager, I ran long-distance and loved taking my runs to the forest. Hopping over and running across logs, navigate over and under foliage, and avoiding wet spots all make for a great physical and mental workout that leaves you energized and connected to the world around you.
On the nature connection side of this, when running the woods (or anywhere outside), you’re more likely to see deer, foxes, owls, opossums, and raccoons because you can run so fast the animals don’t have time to hide or run. Then, you can find their tracks, trails, and den!
You can never LOSE when you’re racing against yourself in the woods. Nature is your coach, opponent, and referee. Your spiritual guide and your science teacher.
In addition to, or even in place of, competitive sports that can lead to over-scheduling, parent-child disconnects, and injuries, kids need time to play, have fun, and learn to problem-solve with their peers and family in the great outdoors.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) is a common weed in Central Virginia that I have eaten since I was young. It’s pink, roundish flowers are so tempting and pretty and conjure images of Thumper in Bambi and his desire only to eat the blossoms. I used to take a pinch of the flower petals and bit the white, sweet tips off, wasting the rest. I had no idea what I was missing!
I didn’t think to eat the leaves as a kid, but they are bursting with nutrition, just as Thumper’s mother told him. They contain vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, and C, plus calcium, chromium, cobalt, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, sodium, and zinc. They even contain protein, since it is a legume. How’s that for a free, local vitamin pill?
But, wait! There’s more! The flowers can be dried and used as a tea that helps prepare women for pregnancy. There are a few precautions. Eating a lot of it may cause bloating and there are discrepancies about whether pregnant and nursing mothers should consume it. Some say it’s extremely healthy and others say to avoid it completely.
Nonetheless, it’s a great, local, easy source of vitamins worthy of our attention and deserves a place in our diet.
If you like this post, please sign up for our free e-book, “10 Delicious and Easy Wild Edible Plants in Central VA.” Also, check out the Adult Courses and Kids’ Courses for upcoming courses in the Greater Richmond Area!
Wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.) is a common weed in central VA. It has 5-petaled yellow flowers and a delicious, lemony flavor that even kids love and can work as a lemon replacement in recipes. It’s best raw and works as a great addition to salads that might just eliminate your desire to include a high-calorie salad dressing!
Although eating a lot of it may interfere with calcium absorption, it is rich in vitamin C. It also is mildly antibiotic!
To learn more wild edible plants, please sign up for our next Wild Edible Plants 101 course!
Chicory is a neat plant for coffee and tea lovers. It doesn’t contain any caffeine, but it tastes similar. To make a tea/coffee substitute, collect the roots. After washing them thoroughly, roast them on a low temperature in the oven. Then, grind the roasted root into a powder. Finally, use it like you would tea leaves. You can buy cheesecloth so you don’t have to drink chunks of powder.
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Yes, that’s right! I’m a firm believer in teaching kids how to observe and track mammals before even teaching them to read. Here’s why . . .
I hope your excited about tracking! I sure am! I LOVE tracking . . . it’s one of those things that just makes me smile for no reason.
And, I want you to know that regardless of your current tracking skills, you can help your kids learn. Grab a field guide from your library and head out to a muddy or sandy area. You can do this! It’s our birthright to track mammals – something that has allowed us to survive and thrive throughout the world as early humans.
And, kids can learn animal tracks with surprising ease. My rising Kindergartener can already recognize, or at least guess the right family of, most perfect tracks in mud with ease, so teaching preschoolers tracking is doable, kids love it, and it’s SO MUCH FUN for grown-ups too!!! It’s much more fun than pushing your kid on a swing at the playground! So get outside and find some tracks!
All toddlers will have food riots from time to time. If my kids are rebelling against their veggies, all I have to do is get them back outside, eating delicious wild greens such as greenbrier, sassafras, violets (in photo above), shepherd’s purse, or sheep sorrel. Most of these veggies are available year yard in our yards and particularly palatable to young kids as well as grown-ups.
Gardening takes work. Buying organic greens also takes time and money. Wild edible plants, on the other hand, often can be eaten raw on the spot, or simply washed and eaten in a salad.
Kids love running around, gathering plants. It’s something humans are wired to do as a carry-over from our ancestors. Putting a handful of wild greens or flowers in their mouths to eat just makes sense to kids – much more fun than trying to force them to sit and eat a salad at a table.
Buying, washing, cooking, or munching on a salad takes time. Why not forage outside while you’re on a walk, playing, or reading a book outside?
Hunter-gatherer diets used to be incredibly varied with hundreds of plants eaten each year. Although hunter-gatherer people had to experience many hardships, such as war, weather pattern changes, and disease, most agree their diet was healthier and studies suggest they had fewer rates of colds and allergies, were physically stronger and faster and had better vision. Striving to move closer (although, without the hardships) to a natural, human diet and lifestyle is better for everyone and grows stronger kids!
Sometimes, kids who are obsessed with a movie, tv show, or video game might just need an adult mentor to help them take their favorite characters outside.
My younger daughter loves Dora The Explorer, which we normally read in books, but she has seen a few of the TV shows. If I repeat some of the silly, Spanish phrases from the shows, it helps get her running around and talking (in Spanish!) outside.
My older daughter loves the Lion King. Sometimes, she’ll play games based on the movie. Rather than steer her away from TV-themed imaginative play entirely, I play along with her, pretending to be one of the characters on TV, which in my case is normally the bad guy, Scar, or a hyena. They quickly squeal with excitement and laughter, running and hiding until I catch them.
This imaginative play helps bridge a gap between indoor, digital technology and the actual world outside, which will help her make that mental and physical leap continuing on into the future, encouraging enough off-the-couch-time.
Also, for a parent or adult mentor to kids, it’s helpful to play along and talk about the things kids love, even if it is on the screen. Avoiding it, disparaging it, or ignoring it in order to spend quality time in nature may actually create a disconnect between kids and their adult mentors.
Encouraging reenactment play based on their beloved characters outside shows them that I love them and support their interests.
When I was a kid, I LOVED Tarzan more than anything else on TV and it was one of my dad’s favorites too. In many ways, I was destined to love nature as this preference suggests, but I know watching something neat on TV and then reenacting it outside was one of the early activities that helped get me off the couch and into nature and loving it!
Parents also can steer kids into watching and liking movies and shows that motivate outside time, teach morals, or are educational by restricting or avoiding ones that don’t fall into those categories.