Family Fun Outdoors

Childhood obesity now affects one third of American children. Obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years and for the first time in our history, American children may face a shorter expected lifespan than their parents. Not surprisingly, the rate in obesity has also coincided with a rise in childhood illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and depression.

Organized sports are often touted as the answer to keeping kids healthy and active. But consider this: the obesity epidemic coincides with the greatest increase in organized children’s sports in history. What are kids missing that organized sports, including soccer and Little League, can’t provide?  One answer is free, unstructured time outdoors. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes child free play as not only critical for physical, cognitive, and social development, but also as an ideal way for parents to strengthen family bonds and to serve as role models for their children.

But you might ask how do we find the time to get outdoors? One way to reclaim time is to examine your family’s time spent connected to electronic devices.  We now live in a world so plugged in to devices, sitting mere feet apart but tuned into anything but each other.  At home, at work, even in transit, we are filling every empty space – yes, our lives are full. But are they fulfilling?

The National Wildlife Federations “Be Out There” campaign recommends that parents give their kids a “Green Hour” every day. Some tips for how to reclaim time outdoors and spend more family time together include:

Examine your own media use.

  • Draw clear lines between the different demands on your time.
  • Make outdoor time a priority, and part of your family routine.
  • Play. Laugh. Repeat.
  • Be patient with your children and with yourself.

The outdoors beckons you to take that first step and it’s easier than you might think. Follow some of these easy tips for getting your family outdoors, both in your own backyard and beyond!

In Your Own Backyard

There are many things you can do as a family right in your own backyard that are simple and do not involve a lot of time or expense.

Take a time out. Simply spending time outdoors doing things we normally do indoors is a great way to spend time outside. Throw a blanket on the grass and read to your child. Eat meals outdoors. Take the toys outdoors. Play hopscotch or outdoor hide-and-seek!

Watch birds. Bird-watching is an increasingly popular hobby, requires no expertise to begin, and fosters attentiveness and patience in children. Planting native shrubs, trees, and other plants that provide food and shelter can attract birds to your backyard. You can also make or purchase a bird feeder and put up a bird bath in a place you can easily view the birds.  Creating and keeping a bird journal is a great way to hone observation skills while enjoying the birds in your neighborhood or at your own family’s feeders. Visit the National Wildlife Federation for more tips on how to make your backyard more bird friendly. The National Audubon Society’s website has a lot of information and resources at: and the Alachua County Audubon Society’s website has local birding information.

Invite butterflies.  Laying out the welcome mat for butterflies is a fun family project. Create a butterfly garden to invite butterflies to your backyard. Choose a warm, sunny spot to plant your garden. Fill your garden with fragrant, brightly colored blooms, especially purple, red, pink, orange, and yellow ones.  Choose native plants whenever possible since these plants provide butterflies with the nectar or foliage they need as adults and caterpillars. For more tips on how to create your own butterfly garden, click here.

Pitch a tent. Arrange a backyard camp out with your children by setting up a tent in your backyard or on your patio. Listen to and discuss all of the sounds that your hear, such as crickets, frogs, owls, possums, and other small creatures.  Talk about why some animals are awake at night instead of during the day. The National Wildlife Federation sponsors the Great American Backyard Campout every June to encourage families to get outdoors and camp in their own backyards.

Seek hidden treasures. This activity is simple and can be adapted to the season, the location, and the age of the participants. Scavenger hunts allow families the opportunity to explore outdoor spaces together and encourage children to gather and interpret information about the world around them for themselves. There are just a few things that you need: (1) an outdoor place to explore; (2) notepads and pencils; and (3) small reusable bags and containers.  All you need to do to get started is: (1) provide each child with a collection bag or container; and (2) create a scavenger hunt list of nature items, appropriate for the season and location, for participants to find. The list could include leaves, twigs, cones, stems, buds, shells, flowers, seeds, bark, and more.

Beyond the Backyard

Take a hike. Put on some comfortable clothes, apply some sunscreen, grab a water bottle, hat, sunglasses, and a snack or two (always a good idea with kids!), and head out the door to a local park. Alternatively, take an evening stroll around your own neighborhood. You can also hike and seek, which is a combination of a nature hike and a scavenger hunt.

Pedal to health. Bike riding is a great way to spend quality time with your children. Before you leave, be sure that everyone has a helmet and plenty of water. Long trousers and shirts with long sleeves are recommended to help protect tender arms and legs from potential falls.

Get hooked on fishing. Fishing is a great way to teach kids about wildlife and for parents and children to spend time together.  All you need is a hook, line, sinker, and a bobber. Stick with an ultra-light rod and reel so kids can feel the fish bite more easily. For really young children consider using a simple cane pole without the reel so kids don’t have to cast. Go where the fish are to keep kids from getting bored!

Some more great sources of information about what families can do outdoors with their children include the U.S Forest Service’s Discover the Forest website, the National Wildlife Federation’s Get Outside website, the Nature Rocks website, the National Get Outdoors Day website, and the Let’s Move Outside website.

For more information contact Annie Hermansen-Báez, U.S. Forest Service, 352-376-3271, ahermansen@fs.fed.us.