One activity I use with my kids to help build observation skills, map reading, and get them into the forest is The Treasure Hunt. I use a combination of reality and fantasy to get them excited. We have a Dora The Explorer book, where pirate piggies steal a treasure chest full of costumes from Dora and she has to use “Map,” who talks and sings, to find them. My younger daughter is just 2 and loves acting out Dora. It encourages her to speak Spanish, so I play along. I sing the silly songs from the TV show and try to say the Spanish phrases, which she always corrects me on.
So, the first time I did a treasure hunt with them, I told them, “The pirate piggies have stolen your treasure chest and have hidden it in the forest! Map will show you the way!”
They unrolled the map that showed only a few key landmarks – the barn, a bridge, and a pig statue to represent the “pirate piggies” and an “X” to mark with the treasure chest is. I included a few words to help my 5-year-old practice her reading skills. After discussing the map a little, out they flew, leaving the fight-inducing playroom for the calming woods.
To make it a little bit of a challenge, I put the treasure chest in a partially hidden location, under some leaves. As they gain confidence in this game, I’ll add more and more landmarks and detail to the map as well as hide the treasure better and better.
This game has so many benefits and is just plain fun! For me, playing with my kids makes me feel more connected to them, happier with my role as a full-time mother, so often filled with chores, and keeps me feeling that spark for life.
And, just stepping foot out the door usually will encourage my kids to play in the outdoors for a long time. My main goals with getting them into the woods at the preschool age are to encourage them to love nature and science, push their boundaries, and be able to overcome fear, discomfort, or a challenge, but there are all sorts of other benefits of wilderness– they almost never fight outside, they play imaginative games almost non-stop, and the fitness and agility skills gained by playing among boulders, logs, trees, swamps, and creeks are similar to paying $100 a month for gymnastics training, without any commitments or driving.
If they are ready to come back, I usually try to convince them to stay a little longer by playing with them, but I try not to push it too hard because I want to keep it fun for them.
This activity can be done in a backyard for preschoolers. After age 5, a park with some forest cover is best to make the activity more powerful and feel more real to them.
What You Need for This Activity:
A Small Treasure Chest (You can make one with your kids out of a shoebox.)
A Hand-Drawn Map Showing Key Landmarks
Plastic Necklaces, Chocolate Money, Real Money or Little Toys
Explore. Play. Learn.
Join us in this outdoor classroom in Glen Allen, VA.
Nature is essential to growing healthy, competent children. Time in the backyard, going to a park, gardening, or exploring an abandoned woodlot all count as time in nature. For children under 5, an hour or two daily in the backyard might be enough to meet their needs. For children 5 and up, I highly recommend taking your kids into the actual wilderness, such as beaches, deserts, or forests, as often as possible, though at least several times a year.
Although the list of benefits of nature for kids could go on forever, here are the top 15:
1. Improves Attention Spans
Studies are showing that the average attention span for humans has now dropped to less than that of a goldfish. Yes, those computers that help us think, connect us and bring us news are bringing negative consequences that we’ve all probably noticed – a harder time focusing on one thing.
However, there is a solution. Get outside, slow down, and smell the roses!
2. Encourages Kids to Use All of Their Senses
When children use all of their senses, they build and strengthen neural connections in their brain which will help them form stronger pathways, which encourages memory. In other words, the more senses they use while learning something, the more likely they will remember it later.
3. Reduces Stress
In studies of adults, a wilderness walk reduces cortisol, a stress hormone, by 16%. In my own life, I witness daily how a simple walk in the woods reduces my stress level and my kids are in a better mood for the rest of the day.
Even sitting by a window with a view of a natural area can help reduce stress.
4. Builds Gross Motor Skills
Kids need to be active and taking them outside into a natural area encourages movement. Hiking, games, scavenger hunts, or just going outside without a plan at all will all motivate a child to play and get lots of exercise.
5. Encourages Curiosity
Lately, when my younger daughter sees a hawk or a vulture she gets very excited. I help feed her curiosity by asking easy questions for her, without giving away what species it is. What is the bird doing? What color is it? Why is it circling overhead? etc.
Finding insects, frogs, flowers, feathers, mushrooms, animal tracks, skulls, and bird nests all help kids grow curiosity for the world around them. As a mentor, taking my kids on a journey of exploration, curiosity, and fun is what I am attempting, rather than a quest to memorize the names of every species in our forest.
6. Encourages Imagination
There’s something magical about a trickling stream, a mossy knoll, a pine forest, a mountain, or a swamp. As a child even all the way through college, I’d make up stories for myself based on my forest explorations to help me fall asleep at night. For some kids, it encourages artistic talents, for others, creative problem-solving, such as how can I get this rope onto that branch way up there. For preschool and elementary-aged kids, nature motivates imaginative play, which helps kids practice verbal and social skills, builds empathy, and helps them understand their world. Imaginative play is essential to childhood!
7. A Sense of Belonging
Connecting to a wilderness setting, backyard, or park creates a deep sense of place and belonging in the world that cannot be easily achieved elsewhere. For me, I always felt at home in the forest. I felt so at peace there, I would walk half a mile from my home, navigate through briars and poison ivy, balance on logs through a muddy swamp, and then settle down for a nap under the trees where I could, at last, sleep in peace to the voices of nature. When I woke up, the birds would be singing just a few feet away and a few curious deer would be feeding a few yards away. I’d slip off my shoes and run silently after the deer, hoping to get close enough to touch them. To me, although I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, I spent a lot of my free time in the woods and I felt like the birds, beavers, snakes, and deer were my extended family.
It IS possible for kids to feel a deep sense of connection and belonging in the natural world in modern day life close to what native people used to experience.
8. Wilderness Strengthens Relationships Between Peers, Families, and Mentors
Meeting with other kids and mentors in a wilderness setting adds another layer to the picture, providing children with a community where they feel like they belong. Groups of kids will learn more together by sharing their experiences with each other and feeding one another’s enthusiasm. This creates lifelong friendships born from adventure, laughter, fun, and discovery.
9. Boosts Self-Esteem
Nature boosts self-esteem because you can always step into a world void of human criticism. A world of plants and animals buzzing with life and joy that reminds you whatever happened that week really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That breakup, that failed test, that nasty rumor will die and be forgotten, just as plants die in winter and spring starts a new season.
Wilderness also allows kids to push their boundaries and take risks, which boosts their confidence and self-esteem because they can prove self-worth to themselves. Nature, especially wilderness survival skills, motivate goal-setting, which boosts self-esteem and confidence tremendously as each goal is achieved and a child’s sense of resiliency rises.
10. Initiates a Love of Science and Improves Academic Performance
Spending time in nature, especially with the guidance of a mentor, can help grow a love of science and questioning. Studies show that kids who have science classes outside have improved science scores.
11. Improves Eyesight
Studies show using your eyes outside reduces myopia, or nearsightedness.
12. Improves Social Skills
Kids often play more cooperatively in green spaces. It encourages peace, self-control, and self-discipline for inner-city youth, especially for girls.
13. Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder Symptoms
Outdoor play has been shown to reduce attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms in kids. Getting exercise, taking classes outside, learning to track animals as a stepping stone to learning to read, and using all of their senses might just be what ADD kids need!
14. Teaches Grit
What is grit? The ability to withstand discomfort. Grit is an important ability that will help kids get through difficult times in grade school, college, and in the professional world.
Backpacking and hiking are great examples that teach kids grit with each difficult hill. But you can start them close to home too. Sitting in the backyard during a rainstorm or at night can be a great teacher of grit to preschool or elementary-aged kids.
15. Improves Self-Discipline
Studies show that the more natural an inner-city child’s backyard is, the more self-discipline he or she will have. The results of these studies are most notable for girls.
Nature makes kids calmer and less likely to have disciplinary problems in school.
Does it need to be said that nature is beneficial? Well, I thought I’d write a little about it here.
Walks in wilderness lowers cortisol level, a stress hormone, by 16%. Even sitting by a window facing a garden will lower stress levels more than sitting by a window facing a parking lot.
There’s also something about spending time in nature with others that is different from any other experience that spurs lasting friendships, playfulness, and aliveness. The fresh air, sunshine, and ample opportunities to run, jump over logs, and take long walks on forest trails make it a healthier experience than a gym alone. It helps alleviate seasonal depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
I believe adults need to play in the woods just as much as kids do.