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Getting Outside

For many kids, stories about animals, gardens, farms, and wild habitats are an inspiration. Maybe they too can restore an abandoned garden or don a pair of ladybug wings and flap outside. Maybe they can learn to fish a city stream or build a cardboard kingdom on a rocky hill.

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But keep in mind that the line between stories and getting outdoors doesn’t move in only one direction. In his essay, “Manhood for Childhood: The Wilderness of Childhood,” author Michael Chabon makes a compelling case that unstructured time outdoors is what nourishes the imaginative space for understanding and creating stories in the first place. As one example, reading Treasure Island was not, for him, an inspiration for pretend-play in the outdoors; rather, he was already enacting his own pirate games while playing outside with his friends, so reading

Treasure Island was a moment of recognition, of resonance, with his own lived experience. 

 

In short, stories and outdoor experiences feed into each other in an ongoing interplay of physical and mental discovery. With that in mind, I’ve provided some suggestions below for story-loving parents, caregivers, and educators interested in expanding the territory of play and adventure for the children in their lives.

 
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Infants

Long before babies can understand words, we begin to talk, sing, and share stories with them, building the foundation for their own language and literacy. An introduction to the natural world is just as elemental. Consider some of the following simple ideas for sharing time together outdoors in these formative years.

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  • From baby’s first days, take her outside in your arms, a pack, or a stroller. Vow to leave cell phones put away, ringer off, whenever possible. Point out the colors, say hello to the squirrels and butterflies. Listen to the birds. Ooh and ahh.

  • Think of the outdoors as another room. Spread a blanket under the shade of a tree. Bring board books,snacks, and a soft toy. Let your baby crawl over and on you. Share a story and a nap. Breathe deep.

  • When baby is old enough to point and reach out, introduce him to soft moss, bumpy tree bark, pond water, warm dirt, cool grass. You may be surprised at how often his fascination refreshes your own appreciation of these basic elements.

  • Keep in mind that nature is a natural pacifier. Fussy babies often quiet when taken out into the dark night. Rocking, swinging, or simply staring up into moving tree branches can soothe and distract them. 

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Recommended board books for babies to look at and chew on: The Snowy Day; The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Planting a Rainbow; The Carrot Seed.

 

Toddlers & Preschoolers

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Very young kids are eager to venture outside to see, sniff, poke, and stomp. Now you can pair your outings with specific stories, read before or after, that resonate well with their experiences.

  • Books for very young children are often full of animal noises, weather sounds, and other onomatopoeia. And for good reason—small ears are extra attuned to sounds of every kind. Visit a puddle, stream, pond, or beach and invite little ones to throw pebbles into the water. They’ll love listening to the plinks and plunks of different size pebbles. Try throwing a whole handful—

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does it sound like the rain? Enjoy different combinations and be patient: your toddlers may want to stay all day! [Book ideas: The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters; Over and Under the Pond.]

  • Young children love collecting objects in nature—almost pocket-sized stories of their own. If your kids find a special treasure, pause to respond and talk about it. You might even set up a table to display acorns, leaves, shells, feathers, rocks, seedpods, and other natural wonders from your schoolyard, neighborhood and beyond. [Book ideas: Leaf Man; I Want That Nut!; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.]

  • Invite your children to marvel at animals in your neighborhood as well as on your bookshelf. Crouch close together to watch rabbits, ants, and worms. Follow the antics of squirrels throughout the seasons. Find red birds, brown birds, yellow birds, and more. You can model a respectful, admiring attentiveness that will set a tone for their whole lives. [Book ideas: Tracks in the Snow; Oh!; Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn.]

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  • Many picture books give kids a chance to open a flap or experience a new texture, but few offer the tactile rewards of real earth. Have your kids just discovered a great mud patch, garden bed, or a sweet stretch of sand? Plop down and dig in! Bring out some shovels, pots, and old

spoons. Or just use your hands. Washing up with a hose or bucket afterward may be half the fun. [Book ideas: Lola Plants a Garden; And Then It’s Spring; Diary of a Worm.]

  • Very young children are usually game for hearty explorations outdoors if they have the security of a trusted adult nearby. Hold little ones’ hands as they clamber over fallen logs. Lift them across a shallow creek. Lie side by side to count clouds or stars. Share picture books about other young adventurers. [Book ideas: Ladybug Girl; The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters; Going on a Bear Hunt; Come On, Rain; Gilberto and the Wind; Stella, Fairy of the Forest.]

 
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School-age Children/Early Readers

As children advance through elementary school years, their capacities grow by leaps and bounds. You can adapt the following ideas for any of these ages by adjusting children’s responsibilities and physical range, and by deepening the accompanying conversations and readings.

 

  • Kids have an innate fascination with other creatures that shows itself in their love of animal books, toys, and games. Carry this affinity out into the real world by continuing a friendly attentiveness to local birds, bugs, mammals, trees, and more. You don’t have to be a wildlife expert to follow animal tracks, listen to a woodpecker’s tapping, or admire the fluffy form of a cold songbird. Channel the spirit of children’s stories by talking to animals, hugging a tree, making a wish on a seed or a star, or imagining the paths of fairyfolk. Encourage kids to sketch or write simple poems about their favorite natural subjects. [Book ideas: Children of the Forest; Amigo; The Giving Tree; Juna’s Jar; Mouse and Mole: Fine Feathered Friends; Cecil and the Pet Glacier.]

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  • Gardens have long been a popular subject in children’s literature. Plant a few seeds or a whole garden as you share these stories and novels. Kids can select the plants, the colors, or even a theme, such as a butterfly garden (designed to attract butterflies) or a salsa garden (complete with tomatoes or tomatillos, onions, chiles, and cilantro). [Book ideas: City Green, Miss Rumphius; Planting a Rainbow; The Secret Garden.]

  • School-age kids make great hikers, especially if you focus on having playful fun instead of covering lots of miles. Start by using your local bookstore and online sources to find appealing places to explore. Once there, follow children’s lead as much as possible. Maybe they want to grab a stick and make it a sword or a magic wand. Maybe they want to climb a tree. Maybe they want to build a dam across a little rivulet. The stories below model these and other playful ways of spending time outside. As you and your kids develop confidence outdoors, allow them the freedom to roam away from you as much as feels right. [Book ideas: Stella, Fairy of the Forest; Ladybug Girl and Bingo; I’m in Charge of Celebrations; The Bee Tree; The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley.]

  • There are many ways to nurture an expansive imagination outdoors. Next time you’re resting beside a stream or even under a city tree, consider asking if anyone wants to build fairy or elf houses. Use sticks, rocks, leaves, grasses, and other natural objects to build your structures and decorate them with pebbles, sticks, flowers, and more. Who could live in this house? Can you find the dwellings of other creatures living nearby? [Book ideas: The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies; The Minpins; The Wind in the Willows; The Lord of the Rings.]

  • If you’ve read Winnie the Pooh, you may remember the game of “Pooh Sticks.” This simple game holds timeless appeal for kids young and old. Begin by visiting a river or stream with a footbridge across it. Have everyone select a small stick, take them to the upstream side of the bridge, then drop the sticks into the water at the count of three. Race to the other side of the bridge and watch to see whose stick emerges first. Like pebble-throwing for toddlers, this is an activity that can consume a tremendous amount of time and attention as kids select their sticks, come up with strategies to make them faster, and cheer them on. Be ready to linger...and enjoy!

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  • As they grow more independent, encourage kids to find a natural spot near home where they can safely spend time playing alone or with other friends. Perhaps they’re ready to build a small fort with tree stump seats or a pine

branch roof. A corner of a house lot or even the edge of a school playground can be space enough to build imagined worlds for a single day or a whole season. [Book ideas: Roxaboxen; The Raft; Summer in the City; Abel’s Island; My Side of the Mountain.]

  • Nighttime has long been a time to gather and share stories—both indoors and around a fire. Not surprisingly, the night itself features prominently in lots of children’s literature. Read one of the stories below and then head out into the yard, a nearby thicket, or even just your neighborhood streets after dark. Or take a nighttime walk on a camping trip! Kids love carrying flashlights to light their paths and help spot animals. After a while, choose one place to hunker down, lights off. Huddle in close together. Gaze at the stars. Count the night noises around you. The nighttime world has a way of drawing people extra close. [Book ideas: The Camping Trip; Owl Moon; Sky Sisters; Henry and Mudge and the Starry Night; Fireflies; The Bat Poet.]

 
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Tweens and Teens

The teen and pre-teen years can be exciting and tumultuous both, as young people assert their burgeoning identities and worldviews. Time outdoors in nature is no panacea, but it has been shown to boost physical health, emotional well-being, and even cognition. Whether alone or with peers or family members, tweens and teens can learn more about themselves and the world by exploring nature firsthand.

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  • Do the tweens and teens you know like adventure stories? Maybe it’s time to try a new outdoor pursuit, such as fishing, canoeing, kayaking, cross-country skiing, or snorkeling—either with family members or peers. Whether they’re moving fast or slowly, they’ll be taking in fresh air and enjoying the drama of all-new experiences. [Book ideas: A Different Pond; Three Bird Summer; Seedfolks; A Ring of Endless Light; Dogsong.]

  • Leaving electronics at home is often recommended when young people spend time in nature, but it’s not essential. In fact, mobile devices have the potential to sharpen young people’s attention to the living world. They might take cell phone photographs of flora and fauna, produce an outdoor film, or start a blog documenting their nature activities. Encourage them to think about any media as a form of storytelling. They can enrich these stories with details of the natural world that other kids may know nothing about. Who knows, they might even inspire more teens to come along for the ride. [Book ideas: Half a Chance; Echo Mountain; The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, The Yearling.]

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  • Devote a weekend or some vacation time to visiting a state park, national wildlife refuge, national seashore, or other natural area. Can you interest the kids in a camping trip? You can always enlist the aid of friends with camping experience or a group like the Sierra Club that organizes trips

for you. Remember, even damp tents and fires that fail to light can make for memorable togetherness. Bring along one of the following novels to read about even bigger adventures in the out of doors. [Book ideas: Hatchet; Julie of the Wolves; Island of the Blue Dolphins; Ordinary Wolves; The Lord of the Rings; Treasure Island.]

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