When I think back on some of our most memorable times as a family they most often involve doing something outdoors. Whether we’re creating obstacle courses in the driveway, having a water balloon fight in the backyard, jumping in the waves at the beach, or exploring a creek in the mountains, as long as we’re spending time outside we’re bound to be making memories. And there’s so much that kids learn through outdoor play.
When L.L.Bean contacted us with an opportunity to share about some of our favorite spontaneous (easy, no-prep!) outdoor play activities we were actually packing our bags for our annual trip to the mountains. What perfect timing, right?!
We visit North Carolina each summer to escape some of the heat in Florida and spend time exploring an environment that’s a bit different from where we live. It’s amazing what you and your children can learn by simply spending time outdoors in a new environment. There are different soils, different plants, different rocks, and—our favorite—different animals and bugs!
But don’t worry!
Although we do encourage you to take time to visit new outdoor places near and far whenever possible, you won’t need to go to the mountains to do the outdoor activities we’re sharing today.
You’ll just need to put on the right gear, head outdoors and use a bit of imagination.
No-Prep Outdoor Play Activities for Kids
These are some of the tried and true no-prep activities that always keep my kids engaged in a variety of outdoor settings from the beach, to the park, in the mountains, and even in our own backyard.
Create nature art-Gather materials on the ground in your outdoor space. Then use them to create art. This can be done individually or as a collaborative project for the whole family. Just make sure to decide as a group beforehand so you don’t end up with a mega sibling squabble.
Don’t forget to take a picture of your finished creation. After a while you’ll have a whole photo book of nature art to remind you of your outdoor nature finds and your time spent together outdoors.
Make tiny nature houses-Take nature art one step further and work together to create tiny nature houses. Along the way kids are learning valuable STEM skills as they experiment with different materials and different ways to make their structures.
My kids love pretending these are little fairy houses. They build them along nature paths when we hike, and I often found them tucked away in hidden spots in our backyard. Many kids will often use small dolls, animals or even sticks to engage in pretend play activities with their tiny nature houses.
Don’t be afraid to get wet-If you have a water source in your outdoor space, let kids play! The sensory benefits alone are amazing, but there’s so much to learn along the way, too. We spend hours climbing in the creaks in the mountains and testing to see which objects will float along in the streams.
At the beach we jump in the waves to learn about the force of water, make drip castles to experiment with physical properties, and watch the tide roll in and out to learn about cycles.
At home make use of those puddles after the rain…or better yet, play in the rain if there’s no lightning! Fill a pool with water on a hot day. Then gather some nature objects and see which will float and which will sink. Try making your own nature boats, too. There’s so much to do with water!
Sit STILL—What?! Yes, I said it. Get outdoors and sit STILL with your kids. While hiking, running, and playing are tons of fun, there’s so much to discover when we’re quiet and in one place for a bit. When we’re still different animals are likely to pass by, and we’re likely to hear things we wouldn’t normally hear.
While sitting and listening during our mountain trip we were delighted by two tiny hummingbirds that came whizzing around our heads in what appeared to be a game of tag. They were so close we could hear their wings flapping. It was an amazing experience that we would have missed if we hadn’t been sitting still.
This works anywhere. Simply sit, listen, and then discuss what you observed and heard. If there’s an aroma in the air, you can even discuss that. This simple practice helps kids become more in tune with nature, and it can also be very relaxing for them.
Try it as a short break in between more strenuous and active outdoor play.
Go off the path…at least a little bit-So often at the park or on a walk I’ll hear parents scolding children for straying from the playground equipment or the paved path. While I certainly want kids to be safe and follow the necessary rules, there’s so much to be explored just beyond the main path. We know this as adults, so let’s show our kids the value too.
While walking along recently we went a bit beyond the path and found a natural apple tree that had dropped quite a few apples onto the ground. As Floridians this is a special sight for us, and we spent some time observing the apples and comparing them to the apples we usually see in the store.
When it’s safe to do so, set some parameters for your children and get off the path to see what lies there waiting for you.
Look underneath the surface-If you’re willing, there’s also a lot to investigate when you look below the surface. Turn over some rocks to see what lies below. Spend some time digging in a location to see what’s underground.
In North Carolina we spent time searching under rocks and found worms, different bugs, and even salamanders. It was definitely a memorable experience for all of us…squeals and all!
Here at home the girls love digging for worms and making worm habitats.
Explore at night or in the early morning-Because of our daily routines we can often find ourselves outdoors during the same time of day over and over again. Switch it up a bit by heading out later in the evening or in the wee hours of the morning. Make it work for you by planning ahead!
During a recent trip to the beach we had to leave early in the morning on our last day, so we decided to make the best of it. We woke up the girls super early to see the sunrise. It was so peaceful, and the kids were in awe. It was definitely worth it!
While we were at the beach we also stayed up a bit past bedtime to explore the beach at night and do some ghost crab hunting. Although I grew up living in a beach town, I had never done this before. We took our flashlights and found crabs roaming around on the seashore. Cue the squeals again! But I promise you that’s another memory we’ll all be talking about for years to come.
In your own area think of a time of day that might be fun to be outdoors even if it’s a bit out of the norm.
Earlier I mentioned preparing for the outdoors by putting on the right gear. No matter what the temperature or environment the right clothing can make or break our outdoor time. First kids need to know that it’s OKAY-even encouraged-to get dirty. This will change how they play!
Their clothing also needs to fit their preferences. As you can see in the pictures above my daughters are different. My oldest prefers long pants so she doesn’t get bug bites. She could easily roll up her L.L.Bean jeans to get into the creek or keep them down if she felt bugs. She often wears jeans or leggings on our outdoor adventures. My youngest prefers function with a bit of fashion, so she is much happier in her L.L.Bean skirt with built in shorts. Once you’ve got clothing that meets both your children and your adventure grab a backpack and some water, and you’re on your way!
One last quick tip before you head outdoors with your family. If your kids are not used to extended play outdoors there might be a bit of resistance at first. Often in chats with friends people are surprised when I say we played outdoors for hours. Most parents scoff and say their kids won’t play that long without complaining. I personally find there are bits of unease as kids transition from one activity to the next. If they finish up something (like creating nature art), it may take them time to find the next thing. Instead of rushing inside at the first sign of discontent, I try to wait and see if kids will naturally re-engage. Most often they do, and our outdoor playtime is extended again and again as they move on to new explorations.
What are some of your family’s easy no-prep outdoor play activities? We’d love to try a few new ones soon!