Fetch Me A Worm! (And Other Ways to Get Kids Outside)

Hi Readers – Over the summer Judy Molland gave me an advance copy of her book, Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future,” which is filled with the kind of tips I like: Simple ones I hadn’t thought of. Now the book is out (and about). May her tips work for you! 

Get Out!

by Judy Molland

As an advisor to a couple of parenting sites, I’ve received several notes along the lines of, “When I tell my kids to go outside and play, they come back five minutes later saying they’re bored, they don’t know what to do, and there are no other kids out there.”

 I’m guessing most parents can relate. So here are a few suggestions from Get Out! Most of these are for young children, so they involve parents getting out, too. 

Find squirrel highways. Most squirrels stay in a relatively small area, usually about an acre, their whole lives. They know that area very well, including every branch of the trees they roam. If they didn’t have the branches memorized, they couldn’t skitter along them at the high speeds they sometimes do—when escaping a predator, for instance. Watch the squirrels in your yard or at a park for a while and see if you can identify the “squirrel highways.”

 Invent your own treasure hunt. Make a list of natural things likely to be found in your neighborhood or play area. Make copies of the list for each kid or team, hand out paper bags to collect the loot, and send them on their way. Kids will be more engaged if you include several weird or gross items on your list, so here are a few list-starter ideas: a dead bug, a bird feather, a leaf bigger than your hand, a worm, moss or lichen, a seed or pit, a stick shaped like the letter “y,” a smooth rock, and a cup of mud (bring your own cup). Remind the kids to respect natural surroundings. You could even put “five pieces of trash” on the list.

Create a water patrol. Give your children responsibility for watering plants, yards, gardens, patio planters, or window boxes. This gets them outside on a regular schedule, and they’ll feel good helping out.

Adopt a tree. Choose a favorite tree you can visit often, and have children take notes by recording the diameter of the tree’s trunk, the reach of the branches, and anything else they’d like to jot down. They can also make bark rubbings using crayons and paper, smell the flowers, and gather the seeds. Take a photo of your tree every week or every month, and put the pictures in a series to see how it changes over the course of a year—or longer. If something interesting happens, like a big snow or a wind storm, take more pictures!

Build a bat house. Did you know that a single brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour? You can attract bats to your neighborhood by building a bat house, which will provide you with natural pest control and provide bats—many species of which are endangered—with a safe home. Bat houses can be many sizes, from about 2′ x 3′ and up. Place yours in the sun and at least 12 feet off the ground to prevent predators from gaining entrance. For free bat house plans, check out http://free.woodworking-plans.org/bat-house-plans.html.

Have fun! 

Adapted from Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future by Judy Molland (© 2009). Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN: 800-735-7323; www.freespirit.com. All rights reserved. www.judymolland.com

 Thanks, Judy!

25 Responses

  1. Wow. I can’t get my kids to come BACK inside to play with me, even when I lure them with something like crafts or to read aloud to them. Food is the only thing that works then they’re back out again, building a treehouse shanty or going to the store to get ice cream. Those are some of the things they got up to today.

    Of course we are an unschooling family and I find the kids have a lot of autonomy and self-directed activities. We also don’t have TV or video games and I shoo them off the computer if they’re spending a lot of time on it.

    I sometimes wonder if the passive nature – as in, someone either telling kids what to do or showing them what to think – of so many kid activities (school, sports, tv, video games) creates kids that get bored easily.

  2. I usually just lock the front door.

  3. Nancy, I think I love you.

  4. That’s what my parents did, Nancy. Amazing how much that works, lol.

  5. I’m in with Kelly – my kids hardly come back inside period. When they come in, they have that mysterious smell that only parents know about: “outside.”

    I don’t know – maybe it’s that they have to do chores in order to earn beads (our currency) so they can use the computer for 30 minutes – but they’re more than happy to get the heck out of the house and stay out all day. They’d probably stay out all night if I let them. 🙂

  6. @Kelly just out of curiosity, what does “unschooling family” mean?

    I don’t have kids yet, but I think my first response to the words “I’m bored” will be to give the kids something to do: chores.

  7. @Meagan – Unschooling is a type of homeschooling, or a subset of it: here’s as good an article as any: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unschooling

    Having unschooled kids I literally never hear them say they’re “bored”. Of course you know how it is – or maybe you don’t if you don’t have kids – but sometimes the minute you say something is So about your kids, they go ahead and go against what you’ve observed a minute later!

  8. And cancel the cable. “I’m bored” is a result of a diseased brain that can’t think for itself anymore because it is too used to being spoon fed ‘entertainment’. There’s nothing wrong with TV in moderation, but when you’re watching because you’re bored, it’s depriving your brain of the ability to think for itself.

  9. One of the best investments we ever made was in one of those huge pieces of nylon rope. It was on sell at the home improvement store for something like $7. We took it home and let the boys….4 of them, do whatever they wanted with it. They rappelled trees(we have 70-75 foot Pecan trees), made swings and I’m not sure what else but that rope was well used. When one of my friends asked how I stood the stress of their adventures, I told her “I just shut the door and don’t look.”

  10. I love the squirrel highway suggestion. I can sit on the porch and be entertained by those little things all day long. Once there was a squirrel that was running across the driveway and tried to jump over the pond. He didn’t make it and I couldn’t stop laughing for a long time.

    The author isn’t kidding about kids and grown-ups with the treasure hunt. My homeschooled friends and I, ranging 13-17, would do treasure hunts at a park in Baton Rouge whenever we went there after our weekly bowling session.

  11. I not only lock the doors but the windows to – my kids are resourceful!!

  12. Add me to the list of parents who can’t get their kids to come in. This year, we planted a sunflower patch that gave them hours enjoyment. One thing I remember doing when they were smaller was telling them to go and find the mint growing in the yard. They spent hours picking and sniffing leaves from the various bushes and weeds in the yard looking for it. Once they found it, they would snack on the leaves too. This year, we planted planted cherry tomatoes for them to eat right off the vine when they’re ripe. (The mint stayed at the old house when we moved 🙂 There’s a lot of adventure to be had outside.

    (PS I just found this blog and I can’t tell you the relief I am feeling that my parenting style is not scorned by everyone – just the people I associate with at my kids’ school. It’s funny that no matter how secure you are in your parenting, it’s still comforting to know that you are not the only one who lets their seven year old walk the 25 minute hike to school.)

  13. I’d never dream of giving my kids activities to do outside (reminds me of those organized playground games we were talking about earlier). Thinking of things to do themselves is half the fun. They can think of much crazier games than I can. I do sometimes have to kick them outside (usually because they’re busy with some involved indoor game) if I think the weather is too good to waste, but I don’t have to entertain them once they get out there…

  14. I am jealous. Maybe because I only have one child, I often have the problem described in this article. She reluctantly turns off the TV and goes outside only to come back 5 minutes later to tell me there are no kids there and nothing to do. It usually turns out much better if I send her out with a friend, but we don’t always have friends who are children of free-range parents on hand for this. That’s one reason I am hoping the new feature Lenore has been promising us, a way for free-range parents to form local networks, comes soon.

  15. I love being able to kick my kids outside. The side yard of our house is dirt, so they have a lot of freedom to play and dig there. Then there’s the garden, which they also adore.

    It’s still sometimes a challenge to get them outside. But once they’re out it’s generally just as hard or more so to get them back in… especially on rainy days!

  16. I cna’t elp but notice that most of the peopl ehere appear to have yards.
    I grew up as someone who would go outside and not return until dinner.
    I’m completely in agreement with the desirability of that philosophy.
    But I have the problem described.
    In part it’s because my kids’ skills in this arena are rusty from lack of opportunity to practice, but in part it is because there really is little to do.
    We live in an urban area, with few kids around, and my kids are pretty young.
    A city street covered with cars has little to offer a 5 year old.

    What do you all suggest in terms of teaching kids in these confining environments to entertain themselves.

  17. There is a book, called the American Boys’ Handybook. I think every needs a copy. It’s out of copyright, and can be downloaded from here:


    It’s a manual for an awesome childhood.

  18. Sounds like these ideas would actually require me to exert some effort and play with my kids. I thought the point of being free range was that I got to sit on the couch and watch soaps and eat bon-bons while they played unsupervised in the wild.

    (I’m kidding, before I get outraged replies. Well, sort of. I really don’t want to have to go to these lengths to get my kids outside. I want to be able to just say – go outside. Play. Now.)

  19. A city street covered with cars has little to offer a 5 year old.

    We have no front yards here, and all the kids just play on the sidewalk… even the five year olds. They draw hopscotch grids in front of the houses (I’m gonna cheat someday soon and paint a few in front of MY house!), they play jump rope, they chase each other… when I was a kid we’d play king-of-the-hill on the stoops and we’d play cops and robbers with hula hoops.

    My nieces go outside by themselves and ride their bike and trike, or their scooters, up and down the block if there aren’t any other kids.

  20. Uly,

    I agree that a reasonably safe (from speeding cars) city street can be just as much fun as a yard. The decisive factor really seems to be having other children who are close in age to play with.

    We live in a beautiful neighborhood surrounded by woods. There are also several playgrounds, soccer field, tennis courts and a cemetery all within a short walk. Every once in a great while, I see kids spontaneously congregating in one of these places. But most of the time, they are empty.

    You guys should all move here with your kids. Pretty please?

  21. No, YOU should move HERE. I know everybody on my block, I’ve lived here 16 years (more than half my life), I knew most of my neighbors back when I was a kid. I’m not moving. But it’s a really great place for kids.

    Actually, a few weeks ago there was a post here, some woman started sending her two kids out to play. With them and the one other kid who was already out a lot, all of a sudden she found her neighborhood was full of kids – it took two families consistently playing outside to break the dam.

  22. Uly, it was a very inspiring post for me too.

    Whenever my 7-year-old daughter has friends over, as long as their parents do not object to them being outside unsupervised, I send them out. Whenever I see other kids on the playground, I kick her out the door.

    However, I have been telling her friends who live in the neighborhood for over a year to feel free to knock on our door any time – so far no-one has.

    I am beginning to understand why people in the US have children so close in age – back in Europe, the few people who choose to have more than one generally space them out so the older one can help with the younger one. There are other economic and social reasons of course, but one good reason is that, without a readily available playmate, most kids would rather just watch TV.

    I am so jealous of you for living in such a great neighborhood. Speaking of which, I just started something that could hopefully grow into a useful tool for parents (especially those that may be looking into buying a house):

    Please let me know what you think and if you feel like contributing, my email is listed in the map description.

  23. Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your info.And this is Home Improvement site/blog. It pretty much covers Home Improvement related stuff.

  24. It is inspirational post. Never knew that opinions can be this diversed. Thanks for all the keenness to offer such useful information here.

  25. I loved reading all the posts to this column. I wish that most of the kids I worked with loved to go outside as much as the kids I read about. I find that the younger the kids, the more they want to play outside. Then, as they get engaged with computers, etc., they tend to want to stay in. My job is to get them outside and then have them want to stay out. I will definitely check out Judy’s book.

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