How getting outside can bring out the explorer in your kid

Plus 20 fun activities that will inspire curiosity and self-confidence

Whether your children are more into Lewis and Clark or Luke Skywalker, they can learn important life skills from explorers. Observation, creativity, self-confidence, and curiosity are traits that all adventurers share. And getting your kid out into nature—whether as a daily boredom buster or part of a "staycation"—is a great way to foster these qualities for life. Here are 20 outdoor ideas to nurture your kid’s natural explorer.

Enhancing observation

Be tree detectives. Have them observe and collect visual clues (so no tree is harmed) like leaf shape and size, bark color and texture, and whether the tree has flowers or cones. Then using an old-school tree field guide, let kids solve the mystery of what kind of tree it is. (Here's a kid-friendly guide for getting started.)

Create a neighborhood map. Roll out a piece of butcher block paper so kids can draw in the trees, houses, yards with big dogs, and other landmarks they observe on expeditions (i.e. neighborhood walks). Mapmaking requires attention to detail and encourages kids to focus on what’s around them.

Play nature bingo. Print out 25-space bingo cards to carry on hikes or walks. Pre-fill the blocks with natural stuff to look for like a spiderweb, jagged rock, and local birds. (Plastic flamingos don't count.)

Choose a sit-spot. Pencil in a daily “sit-spot time,” a favorite practice among naturalists. Kids pick an outdoor site to sit, unplug, and tune in to nature for 20 minutes each day. Calm fidgety fingers with a notebook to write or draw observations.

Focus on creature features. Whether it’s a squirrel’s bushy tail or a rabbit’s oversize feet, animals have signature physical characteristics that usually serve a purpose (as in, yikes, let me hop away from that predator real quick!). Researching why critters look and act the way they do gives kids more incentive to quietly observe wildlife.

Igniting curiosity

Design a wildlife-friendly garden. Who knows what will show up when you create a space where birds, butterflies, and other critters feel at home? Put kids in charge of choosing food sources (like feeders or nectar and seeds from native plants) and flora that provide safe places for hiding from predators and raising their young. (Here are kid-friendly instructions for getting started.)

Point and click. One tap of the Seek app by iNaturalist gives kids (under your direct supervision) the power to identify plants and wildlife they’re curious about. Using a camera, image recognition technology, and lists of commonly seen wild things in your area, the app clues in curious explorers about what they’ve discovered. Families and kids 13 and older can earn badges by sharing observations online. (Get kid-friendly tips for taking photos outside.)

Watch plants drink. Kids are always curious about how things work—and that includes plants. Stems are basically plant straws, so to see how they suck water from the soil, try this experiment: Add water and red food coloring to a glass jar, stick the stem end of a white carnation or daisy inside, and watch the thirsty flowers slowly turn pink from their drink.

Take a virtual field trip. Broaden your kids’ horizons without ever leaving home by joining live broadcasts of the National Geographic Explorer Classroom. The free daily video events give kids the chance to see, talk to, and learn from real explorers around the world.

Zoom in. Off-limit no-no’s like treetops and beehives can instill some not-so-acceptable behavior in children. Instead, focus that curiosity with lower-magnification binoculars (which are easier to hold steady and provide a wider field of view) to get a closer look at nature kids can’t or shouldn’t touch. Look for a pair with 8x magnification to make safer-at-a-distance nature appear eight times closer than with the naked eye.

Boost self-confidence

Take a night hike. When the sun powers downnature’s spooky-cool night crew revs up. On an after-dark family walk, tread lightly, listen closely, and work together to identify sounds like owl calls and frog croaks. Wear headlamps to boost the adventure level (and stay safe) and spot nocturnal critters like opossums and raccoons.

Walk the line. Elevate your kid’s view of nature—and their sense of what they can accomplish—by suspending a low-hanging slackline between two trees or other fixed objects. Walking a foot-high slackline requires balance and focus; falling off (a lot) and trying again builds the resilience kids need to step outside their comfort zones.

Follow their lead. Explorers regularly face setbacks. The next time a downed tree blocks a hiking path, or a sudden closure shuts down a park, ask the kids for suggestions. Obviously you’ll make the final call, but encouraging kids to weigh in and share their reasoning helps them feel valued and capable.

Go west! Or north, south, or east by teaching kids how to use a compass. The mnemonic “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” helps kids remember how the cardinal directions appear on the compass face. Take turns walking north to south using only the compass needle as a guide to help them feel confident that they’ll always know where they’re going. (Hint: The needle’s red end always points north.)

Try something new in nature. Stand-up paddle boarding, spelunking, or even just handing over the hiking map opens up children to new experiences that make them feel adventurous and confident. Just for kicks and giggles, take a deep breath and see what new, possibly-scary activity your kid wants to tackle next!

Encourage creativity

Create a backyard biodiversity guide. If an interplanetary traveler came for a visit, what living things would your kids want it to see? Make local biodiversity the theme and let kids use digital or old-school tools to document their recommendations.

Curate a Small Stuff photo exhibit. Inspire creativity by inviting kids to photograph the little parts of nature, not the obvious whole (like a square of gnarly bark instead of the entire tree). Print and display the photos in a hallway gallery. Host an “opening” where budding photographers can talk about their work.

Take a micro hike. A yard stick, magnifying glass, and creativity are the only tools kids need to shrink down to ant-size hikers. Using the stick to mark trail length and their imaginations to pretend they’re miniature, kids lie down and “hike” (slowly on their tiny ant legs), using the magnifier to make discoveries.

If trees could talk … What would they say after standing in one place for 50 years or more? Have kids create these fanciful histories, or keep a week-by-week journal for a nearby tree so children can view the world from nature’s perspective. Add photos of memorable events the tree observed, like January’s blizzard or July’s backyard cookout.

Play blindfolded. In a park or yard, have kids take turns as the guide and the blindfolded person. The guide verbally leads the other child through a series of nature exercises—such as circumnavigating a tree, smelling flowers, and waiting to hear a bird’s song. The guide gets creative with instructions, and the blindfolded kid gets creative with following them.

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