Ah, a new year. A fresh start. Time to make some resolutions. Like most, you’ve probably set goals to lose weight, live healthier or spend more time with your family. Since you’re reading the Conservationist, maybe you’ve resolved to do something beneficial for the environment.
What if there was a way to accomplish these resolutions without diets, fitness plans or “quality time with kids” entries in your calendar? In fact, there is. All you have to do is take your kids outside for an hour every day. Sound too good to be true? It’s not.
Research has linked time spent outside to everything from weight loss to lower stress levels. But here’s the really good news: getting outside is even more beneficial for children. In study after study, playing outside has been reported to make kids healthier, smarter and better behaved. Not surprisingly, getting outside has also been shown to foster greater appreciation for nature in children. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that we live in an information-saturated environment where getting outside competes for your kids’ time with television, the Internet, soccer practice and dance class (to name a few). To win the competition, getting out has to be more fun than staying in.
To help in that regard, what follows is a month-by-month list of fun things to do outside. All you have to do is resolve to get out—and take your kids with you!
Encounter an eagle. Every winter, thousands of bald eagles follow migrating flocks of waterfowl to the Show-Me State. With a little searching—and a good pair of binoculars— you and your kids can find eagles perched in trees along large rivers, lakes and wetlands. To ensure an encounter, attend Eagle Days. For dates and locations, visit the Eagle Days link listed below.
Go sled riding. Build an igloo. Though Missouri rarely gets the deep, well-packed snow needed for authentic igloo construction, your kids can fashion a facsimile by packing snow into plastic storage tubs and stacking the resulting blocks.
Scavenge. Make a checklist of things found outside— feathers, pine cones, colored rocks—and send your kids on a scavenger hunt.
Track animals through the snow. For help figuring out what you’re following (is that a skunk track, Daddy?) check out a field guide from your public library.
Take a night hike. Fear of the dark is nothing more than fear of the unknown. Teach your kids there’s no reason to fear by taking them on a night hike. Use the full moon to light your way and listen for coyotes howling, owls hooting and frogs calling.
Build a house. Eastern bluebirds begin nesting in early March. To entice a pair into your yard, help your child build and put up a nest box. For building plans and pointers on where to place it, visit the link listed below.
A is for Armadillo. Go on an ABC hike with your preschooler. As you’re walking, point out things in nature that begin with each of the letters of the alphabet. This works for colors, too.
Witness a mass migration. Your kids don’t have to visit the African savanna to witness a critical mass of critters. Just take them to one of Missouri’s wetlands in the spring. There they’ll be rewarded with thousands of migrating ducks, geese and shorebirds all stopping in to fuel up for their long journey north.
Fly a kite. Take a picture. Loan your child a camera and let them venture out to photograph nature. Seeing the world from a child’s perspective is always enlightening, and you might discover your second-grader is a budding Ansel Adams.
Sing in the rain. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Equip your kids with raincoats and galoshes and let them splash in puddles, make mud pies and build mud castles.
Forget the baby chicks. Let your kids catch tadpoles, bring them home, and watch them develop into adult frogs and toads. For tips on keeping baby amphibians alive, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for a free copy of Raising Tadpoles.
Hug a tree—better yet, plant one for Arbor Day.
Forage for fungi. Let your kids participate in nature’s Easter egg hunt: hit the woods to search for morel mushrooms. For help separating the tasty from the toxic, e-mail email@example.com and ask for a free copy of Missouri’s Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms.
Summon night creatures. On a warm spring night, hang a sheet between two trees and set a bright lantern behind it. In a short time, any moths in the area will make for the sheet like, well, moths to a light. Butterflies and Moths of Missouri by J. Richard and Joan E. Heitzman (available at the link listed below) is a book that can help you identify your visitors.
Grow something. Gardening combines a child’s affinity for getting dirty with the opportunity to witness the miracle of a tiny seed growing into a plant. Plus, if you grow vegetables, you get to eat them.
Camp out. Create a buzz. When hummingbirds begin frequenting your feeder, let your kids sit quietly under it. Within minutes the fearless little birds will return, giving your children a front row air show.
Set a record. In mid-May, Missouri has more kinds of birds in the state than at any other time of the year. Arm your kids with binoculars and let them see how many different kinds they can count in a single 24-hour period. Birders call this a “Big Day,” and go to great lengths to break the state record of 208 species.
Go log rolling. A whole universe of life exists under fallen logs. Roll one over for your kids and let them watch what crawls, scurries or slithers out from underneath. Be sure to put the log back in its original place when you’re done.
Build a fort in the woods. Witness metamorphosis. Help your kids search the underside of milkweed leaves for monarch caterpillars. Bring a few home, keep them well fed with fresh milkweed, and in a few weeks the hungry caterpillars will turn into beautiful butterflies. For tips on monarch rearing, visit the link listed below.
Go fish. A child’s attention span is usually the limiting factor for fishing trips. Stack the odds in your favor by heading to a pond in June. This is when bluegill spawn, and any lure tossed in the direction of a male protecting his nest will surely elicit a strike.
Catch fireflies. Peruse a prairie. Every June on prairies across Missouri, nature puts on a fireworks display of blooming wildflowers. Pack a picnic lunch, bring along a butterfly net and let your kids romp through one of these multi-colored grasslands. For directions to the nearest prairie, explore the links listed below.
Beat the heat. Float an Ozark stream with your kids. The scenery is beautiful, riffles and rapids provide plenty of thrills, and spring-fed pools offer a refreshing respite from midsummer sun. There are plenty of great rivers to choose from. Check out A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri (see MDC Natureshop link listed below) to help you make up your mind.
Skip rocks across a pond or stream. Go froggin’. Dress your kids in clothes you don’t mind getting filthy and head to the nearest pond an hour after sunset. Take along a flashlight with a bright beam and shine it in the face of the nearest frog you see. This will cause the amphibian to freeze, giving your kids time to sneak up and grab it. You can let the frogs go, or—with the right permits—bring them home for a gourmet meal.
Swim in a pond. Troll for mini-sharks. When the moon is bright and the wind is calm, take your kids to a pond and let them twitch a topwater plug across its surface. In no time, the still water will erupt in a frenzy of Jaws-like splashing as hungry largemouth bass lunge up to inhale your kids’ lures. With that kind of action, Shark Week pales in comparison.
Hit the beach. Missouri may not have oceanfront real estate, but it does have hundreds of miles of sandy beaches. Don’t believe it? Take your kids on a hike along the banks of one of our big rivers. There you’ll find plenty of sandbars, perfect for building sand castles or having a picnic.
Make a wish. Though shooting stars can be seen at any time of the year, let your kids stay up late on the night of August 12–13, when the Perseid meteor shower peaks and up to 80 shooting stars can be seen every hour.
Play hide-and-seek. Capture the flag. When your kids have friends over, play capture-the-flag. All you need are two teams, two flags (bandanas work well), and a good-size yard, park or field in which to play. For a run-down of the rules, visit the link listed below.
Hunt for buried treasure. There are literally hundreds of geocaches—containers filled with trinkets—hidden across the state. Visit the link listed below to get coordinates to one, program these into a GPS device, and turn your kids loose on a high tech treasure hunt. If you want to go old school, draw up your own treasure map and let your kids use it instead of the GPS.
Race woolly bears. In September, fuzzy black-and-brown woolly bear caterpillars show up in full force. Let your kids round up a few, then draw a circle in the dirt about the size of a hula hoop. Place the captive caterpillars in the center, and make bets on whose woolly bear will make it outside the circle first.
Tag butterflies. Monarch butterflies flutter through Missouri every September on their way to wintering grounds in Mexico. Your kids can help scientists monitor monarch populations by catching migrating butterflies and placing identification tags on their wings. Tagging kits (with easy-to-follow instructions) can be ordered from www.monarchwatch.org.
Climb a tree. Role play. Doesn’t that downed tree look like a pirate ship? Could the animal trail leading into the woods be the path to a lost city? Maybe that hole in a tree leads to the castle of a fairy princess. Set the stage and let your child’s imagination run wild. Be sure to join in the fun—after all, someone needs to be the evil pirate king.
Go dove hunting. For entry-level practice in the art of wing-shooting, take older kids dove hunting. The only gear required is a shotgun, shells and some camouflage clothing. For regulations, season dates and hunting tips, visit the hunting page listed below.
Round up a rainbow. Take your kids on a hike in mid-October to witness Missouri’s trees at their showiest. Challenge them to collect a leaf of every color in the rainbow.
Bag some bushytails. Squirrel hunting provides hours of fun and is a cheap gateway for your kids to the sport of hunting. Regulation information, season dates and tips on cleaning squirrels can be found on the hunting page at www.MissouriConservation.org/7604.
Float leaves or sticks down a stream. Create some cordage. Milkweed pods pop open this month. Let your children scatter the fluffy seeds in the wind, then use the milkweed stems to make cordage for bracelets.
Host a weenie roast. October is the perfect month to build a bonfire and let your kids roast hotdogs and marshmallows. Older kids can gather wood and build the fire, learning an important survival skill in the process.
Feed the birds. Help your kids coat pine cones with peanut butter, roll them in birdseed and tie a string to their stalk. Hang up these “all natural” bird feeders, and in no time, flocks of cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches will arrive for a feast.
Rake leaves into a pile for your kids to jump in. Get starry-eyed. Dry fall air is a boon to stargazing. Head outside with your kids on a crisp, clear night, take along a star chart from the link listed below, and behold the Milky Way in all its splendor. If you have a laser pointer, use it to point out constellations to your children.
Sculpt some snow. Snowmen are great, but if the snow packs well, don’t stop there—with enough imagination, your kids can sculpt a whole menagerie of creatures. Let them decorate their creations with foods, such as birdseed or nuts, that will attract wildlife.
Ice skate on a frozen pond. Catch some fish. Take older kids to a trout park Friday through Sunday for catch-and-release fly fishing. The cold weather keeps crowds thin, providing the perfect opportunity for beginning fly anglers to hone their skills. For information on winter trout fishing, visit the links listed below.
Just get outside—your kids will know what to do. end of main article
New Kids' Magazine
Want more ideas to entice your kids outside? Try Xplor, the Department’s new kids’ magazine. Jam-packed with eye-popping art, photos and stories about Missouri’s coolest critters, niftiest natural places and fun things to do in nature, Xplor is sure to pull your child off the couch and out the door. This free bimonthly magazine will hit mailboxes in February. Don’t miss a single issue, subscribe today through the link listed below.
Tips for a Successful Experience
Stay flexible. Nothing ever goes according to plan with kids in the mix. So, be ready to throw out the plan. Though you headed to the pond to fish, your preschooler might rather throw rocks. Go with it. The objective is to have fun.
Adapt to your child’s age. Most ideas listed in this article work for a wide range of ages, but some are better for a particular age group than others. For example, your high schoolers will likely roll their eyes if you suggest a woolly bear race, but may love the idea of going on a float trip.
Dress appropriately. It’s tough for kids to appreciate nature when they’re cold, wet and miserable.
Pack a go-bag. Keep a daypack stocked with extra clothes, water, sunscreen, bug repellent, binoculars, field guides and a small first aid kit. This way, it will always be ready to go when nature beckons.
Station a treasure chest by the front door. Get in the habit of having your kids empty their pockets into a “treasure chest” (i.e. old shoe box) as soon as they come inside. This ensures no mud balls or woolly worms end up in the wash.
Participate. Believe it or not, your kids look up to you. By participating in their adventures you show them that being outside is important and that you value spending time with them.
For more tips, things to do and information on the benefits of getting your kids outside, visit the links listed below for the National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour campaign or the Children and Nature Network.