Play “Sounds of Silence” outside.
Whether you’re in a city or a national park, have everyone close their eyes and listen. Ask each family member to name a sound he or she can hear: singing birds, barking dogs, rustling leaves, splashing water. Nature sounds are best, but identifying any noise—car alarms, slamming doors, people talking—can help kids learn to focus and be more in tune with the world around them.
Go on a geocaching high-tech treasure hunt.
Fly kites as a family.
Let kids loose with magnifying glasses.
Zooming in for a close-up look at dirt, rocks, tree bark, and even blades of grass seriously ups the cool factor of any green space.
Teach some math skills by figuring out the ages of trees.
On your next trip, pack a tape measure and a tree field guide or app to try this trick, whether you’re in a city park or on a hike in the woods.
1. Choose a tree and identify the species and its growth factor. “That’s a measure of tree growth per year,” says Scott Ferrenberg, assistant professor of biology at New Mexico State University.
2. Measure four and a half feet up from the ground.
3. At that spot, measure around the tree to get the tree’s circumference in inches.
4. Divide the circumference by 3.14. The number you get is the diameter. (Sounds complicated, but you got this.)
5. Multiply the diameter by the tree’s growth factor and—ta-da!—you’ve got the estimated age of the tree.
Encourage kids to take nature photos wherever you go on vacation.
Turn some of their favorite shots into postcards to send to friends and family.
Stop for the night near nature.
Make any hike or walk a nature scavenger hunt.
Check them off as kids spot them. Create a list of things to look for: nuts, feathers, flowers, leaves, insects, animal tracks, poop, etc
Stuck in one place for the day?
Make a shadow clock. Have your kid stand in the same spot every hour and take photos where his or her shadow falls. At the end of the day, scroll through the photos together to see how the shadow moved hour to hour, and how it grew and shrank.
Taste some nature.
Find an off-road orchard or farm to teach kids about locally grown produce as well as healthy eating. From May to October you’ll likely find something—such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, apples, or peaches—that the kids can harvest and eat fresh from a tree, bush, or vine (after rinsing, of course!).
Design a backyard obstacle course.
The people you’re visiting are sure to have Hula-Hoops, jump ropes, beach balls, water balloons, lawn chairs, etc., to create a fun outside challenge with.
While waiting in a mind-numbing theme park line, look up.
Challenge everyone to name cloud types: cirrus, cumulus, stratus, and nimbus. Or see who finds the moon first. It’s often visible during the day—especially the week before or after a full moon—but it can be tricky to identify in a clear blue sky.
Seek out animals that children might not meet at home.
Organize a trash patrol.
After cleaning up your own mess, send a little extra kindness nature’s way by asking everyone to find and toss at least 10 additional pieces of trash in the waste or recycling bin.
Go back to school.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines recording your kids’ surfing or rock climbing or whatever outdoorsy vacation lesson they want to take on, sign up for a family class. Learning and playing outside together lets kids know that you’re never too old to have fun in nature.
Got a hotel room with a view?
Shift your family’s focus off their screens and on to the world outside. Bring along drawing materials so kids can sketch what they see out the window. The actual view—pool, skyscrapers, mountains, beach—doesn’t matter. Looking outside and observing what’s around them is what counts.
Play “Nature Wins” on a road trip.
Divide into teams (like kids versus adults, or back seat versus front seat) and earn points by spotting examples of nature bursting out in weird or unexpected places: a flower growing through a crack in a sidewalk, a swallow’s nest under a bridge, or kudzu covering a power pole.
Rain wash away your pool day?
Show kids that nature is an all-weather play space. Observe what’s living in puddles. Count the earthworms that magically appear when it rains. Or just catch raindrops on your tongue!
Create wild land sculptures.
When visiting relatives, use their yard as a canvas for art made from found materials like stones, fallen leaves, flower petals, sticks, and bird feathers. No picking, plucking, digging, or otherwise disturbing any living thing. And all sculptures stay outside. “Challenge children to use their imagination and build something they think needs to exist,” says Catherine Widner, an art teacher at Jim Bridger and Spring Lane Elementary schools in Salt Lake City. “One of my students constructed a boat out of sticks and used kudzu for the sail. It was amazing!”
Find the fastest route to the roller coaster.
Put the children in charge of the theme park map and follow their lead. Sounds scary, but reading a map and looking for landmarks helps kids navigate the outside world—always a good thing.
Traveling with pets?
On dog walks, bring two bags: one for poop and one for kids to collect leaves, nuts, sticks, grass, rocks, etc. When you return, sit in a circle and take turns identifying the things in the bag by touch. (Just don’t get it mixed up with the poop bag!)
Add a creepy-crawly-cool factor to a family hike.
Make it a bug safari instead! Kids will flex their curiosity muscles when they carefully collect, observe, and release insects. Plus the interaction helps everyone feel more comfortable in nature, says Jennifer Roder, education director at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville. Any green space is fair game for a bug safari. (Just be sure to check any local, state, or national park rules.) All you need is a basic bug net (available at most sporting goods stores), some covered plastic containers with air holes poked in, and a field guide or app to ID the bugs. After a quick study, put the critters back where you found them. “We’re venturing into their home to explore,” Roder says. “We want to be good guests.”
Turn wait times into a nature game.
When faced with flight delays, traffic jams, or hotel check-in lines, take turns asking “W” nature questions: Why is the sky blue? Where do bats go during the day? What are pinecones for? Use your phone to look up the correct answer after giving everyone a chance to make an educated—or wildly creative—guess.
A quiet city hike?
If it’s in a historic cemetery, then yes! Besides birds, trees, and flowers to observe, historic cemeteries offer cool opportunities for history and even math lessons—all while adding a bit of creepy fun kids will enjoy. Here are questions to consider as the family goes on this slightly eerie hike.
1. What was going on in the world when this person was alive?
2. How old was the person when he or she passed away?
3. What do you think the person did for a living?