Lessons From the Garden: Get the Kids Outside
By Paige Patterson
It’s time to drag the little people outside.
No, no, no, I’m not talking about leprechauns, I’m talking about humans between the ages of 2 and 17. I’m very specific about the age group since a market research company called NPD Group recently determined that 91 percent of that age group plays some sort of video game regularly. I find that statistic amazing, and sad, mostly because I can’t imagine being that age and wanting to be inside on my computer for hours and hours and hours when I could be swimming in the ocean, or exploring a forest, or watching bees pollinate flowers instead.
I had an interest in the natural world when very young that was not only encouraged, it was nurtured. I found and devoured John and Mildred Teal’s book, “Life and Death of the Salt Marsh,” and boom, my mother hired the high school biology teacher, Mr. Minardi, to take myself and a few other nature-minded kids through our local salt marshes for a few weekends of exploration and in-situ learning. Oh and previously I’d had my own nature tutor, Barbara Hale, who had taken me to the Creeks while Ossorio still owned it, and to various other places where wild things still lived so I could get up close and personal with the natural world. I was lucky.
Of course, when I was a kid, there were only about four television stations to choose to escape in front of (even less for the years when we lived in London) and the only other options were books and the outdoors. Both habits — reading and interacting with nature — stuck and while I’ve been known to lose myself in a book for the day, or deep into the night, I’ve always got some sort of outside activity going. I’ve done it all. I’ve collected seashells and butterflies, used potatoes to make art prints, looked at snowflakes under a microscope, raised bees in a Plexiglas hive take lived in the living room (my mom hooked me up with that as well, she was awesome) and made tie dye with shredded beet juice. I’ve been a birder, a tree climber, a gardener, a naturalist and a flower lover as long as I can remember. Bugs don’t freak me out, the ocean doesn’t scare me and I like getting dirty.
I have a bunch of these little people in my life now, and none of them are all that excited to join me in the outdoor world, and that freaks me out. I think (and studies suggest) that kids are happier when they breathe fresh air, that running in the woods or fields provides easy exercise and climbing trees improves balance. Lugging branches and brush to build a fort makes you stronger and just making up things to keep yourself occupied when told to “go outside and play” fosters creativity, teaches problem solving, and gives you confidence.
I believe that my generation, most of whom are the parents that are raising these kids, know this in their hearts. They, too, grew up like I did, without any really electronic stimuli; and yes, of course it’s very seductive to spend hours getting down a YouTube spiral or binge watching an entire season of a TV show in one sitting, but we have to do better. So I’m challenging all the adults I know to find a little person and drag him out into the fresh air.
To help I thought I’d give you a list of suggestions of things you could try to entice them with. I don’t think everything will work for everybody, but it might trigger your own brain to some of the things you did when you were a kid and you lost hours totally engrossed in something that wasn’t a screen.
Go fishing. Build a fort. Whether it’s on the beach, under a bush, or up a tree, there is nothing like making a place that is your own and where you get to tell your parents not to enter. See how many pink rocks you can find in one day. Make art a la Andy Goldsworthy using pine needles to sew autumn yellow leaves together. Try balancing stones on top of each other to see how high a stack you can make. Do not use glue! Get a microscope and check out stuff you find outside. Pond water, dog saliva, snowflakes (this was super cool, but requires serious cold weather gear and really good gloves.
Collect tadpoles, put them in a large glass jar (we’re talking restaurant sized mayonnaise containers) or a fish tank with a bunch of the water from the pond you found them in. Watch them transform into frogs in the kitchen. Don’t forget to pay attention to them every day or they will hatch and you’ll have to gather up hundreds of tiny frogs from every corner of the room — even behind the spice jars. I speak from experience here. Feed the tadpole lettuce or flake fish food. We used hamburger, but it was not the right thing to do. Release them back into the same pond area where you found them.
Collect black rocks with white stripes. Figure out what leaf would be the best hat and wear it for the entire afternoon. Drag a futon onto the back porch, turn off all the lights and count shooting stars, or learn the constellations. See how many different colors of green you can find by gathering as many green living things as you can (leaves, grass, moss) and put them all out on a large sheet of white poster board. Do the same with brown or pink or purple. Take a photo so you can remember. Build drip castles with a bucket of water and sand.
Pick a whole bunch of berries, blueberries, blackberries or anything else that stains your fingers when you squish it. Take a tee shirt and boil it in a pot of 8 cups of water and ½ a cup of salt. Wring the tee shirt out but leave it damp. Put your berries in a pot with at least an equal amount of water and boil them for two hours with a lid on the pot. The longer they boil the darker the dye. Make tiny pigtails of the tee shirt using rubber bands or string. Let your boiled berries coil and remove them with a strainer. Put the wet tee shirt into the pot and simmer for a little while. Turn off heat and let it cool down. Remove from the pot and rinse with cold water until water runs clear. Take off rubber bands. Hang outside to dry. Wear gloves or have tie dyed fingers too.
Play in the rain, jump into puddles. Don’t worry about staying dry and instead revel in being wet. Encourage nature photography. Use your cell phone and then use an app to publish them so they can be cherished and shared in person. Give your kid his own flower or vegetable patch to grow whatever they want. Use a whiskey barrel and potting soil so you won’t have to battle the weeds!
Create rock art. Collect a pile of rocks, decide on a certain size or shape or color and gather as many of them as you can. Then grab a bunch of newspapers and some nontoxic paint and paintbrushes and go crazy. Give them swirls, dots, stripes or shape into creatures. Give them each three or five or seven eyes.
Put up a bird feeder and count how many different kinds of birds you see. Keep a list. Get an identification book. Ditto with butterflies, but instead of a feeder, plant a butterfly bush. Plant a serpentine of sunflower seeds. There is almost no chance of failure with sunflower seeds as long as they have soil, sun and water. Identify which flowers would make good dresses if you suddenly shrunk to the size of a honeybee and were invited to a ball.
Collect interesting driftwood that looks like animals and create a zoo, or that resemble buildings and construct a city. On a windy day tie a magic marker on a string to a branch and holding a piece of paper under it, let the wind draw you a portrait of the day. Hook up an old-fashioned oscillating sprinkler and jump through it. Start a nature journal keeping track of everything interesting you see every time you step outside.
Take photographs of any animal or bird footprints you find and see if you can identify them. Take a ball of colored bamboo yarn outside and wrap it around a branch of a tree. Wrap it tightly with the yarn touching itself to make a solid band. Add a second color, and a third. Do the whole tree. Learn how to tell the sex of a worm (this is a trick, most worms are hermaphrodites, but they still need another worm to create offspring.) Start some seeds in empty eggshells. Fly a kite; better yet, make your own kite and fly it instead. Learn the difference between a frog and a toad and see if you can spot both on the same day. Make your own mud with a hose and make mud pies. Big ones! Make snow angels in the sand. Make sand castles in the snow. Get a sun-printing kit and make cyanotypes using the sun and found objects.
Collect fall leaves and place between two sheets of wax paper. Put old tee shirts or paper towels both under and on top of the paper and iron until the wax paper fuses. Let dry and place in front of your window. Make a salad including weeds and edible flowers. Use purslane, dandelion leaves, violet flowers and leaves, some garlic mustard and throw in a few chopped up daylily flowers for color. Buy a magnifying glass and stare at a flower and then everything else you come across. Marvel at leaves that have hairs on them, and the metallic looking powder on butterfly wings. Dry what you see. See if your flower is a single flower or if it’s a composite flower – one made of lots of tiny flowers. Think marigolds or asters. Learn how to skip flat stones. Go for a hike. Search for spider webs after the rain or when they are diamonded with dew. Make wind chimes from shells you find on the beach. Make herb infused vinegar, or basil butter, or freeze mint leaves in ice cubes to throw into iced tea.
Count fireflies. Create a scavenger hunt and find as many things as you can that start with the letter B, or that have red on them, or that have stripes or dots. Go on a paint chip walk. Grab some free paint strips in colors you think are either hard or easy to find in nature and then take a walk outside and see if you can find exact matches. Make a dandelion chain. Make a wreath out of bittersweet branches in the fall, or out of wild grape vines in the spring. Build warriors out of found sticks and carve them heads out of peeled and cored apples. Dip the carved heads in lemon juice (1 cup) + salt (1 tsp) for a minute and then mount them on their stick bodies and set them out in a warm dry spot for a couple of days. Watch as the faces shrink and warp to create fabulous alien beings. Have a battle. Make snowballs with a squirt of food coloring in them and leave them out in the sun on top of thick white rag paper. When the snowball is melted, bring the paper inside and let it dry. Frame the result.
I could go on, but I think you have enough here to get started, and besides, it’s time for me to go outside and take my daily “what’s in bloom” photo walk.