Worrying About Entertaining Your Kids? Enjoy Simple Moments Outdoors

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To the literal delight of me, a parent who has been cooping up small children indoors for a long Northeast winter, spring is springing. We can finally go outdoors and not be freezing. 

But, wait. What is that? Feel that little tingle in the back of your head? That’s the pressure parents in 2022 can attest to. Do we have to… make magical moments outdoors now? As a parent at this moment in time, I can fully speak to the notion that we pandemic parents are not only battling the threat of disease, a lack of COVID vaccines for kids under 5, and a dearth of reliable child care options. No, there’s something else afoot. It’s called Instagram, and it’s full of other parents who design glossy-catalog-worthy images of their children engaging in magical activities, indoors and out. 

Fairy houses, tea parties, rocket building, water tables, sensory bins, oobleck — it seems like there is no shortage of magical, Instagram-worthy activities we could create for our children outdoors. I will stop here, promptly, to note: there’s nothing wrong with all of those activities. I hope I get to do each one with my kids at some point. But, they require a lot of thinking ahead. A lot of creating props and other things. A lot of doing. Constantly focusing on what activity we’re doing and what it’s achieving is sort of turning us all into one- or two-parent preschools. 

What if We Just Want to … Go Outside? 

I’ve been working to fight the urge to always have a conceit for what we’re doing outside, instead simply leading the family outdoors to see what happens. I’ve followed my kids’ lead, and guess what? Their imaginations fill in the blanks. Last week, while I did some yard cleanup, my six-year-old rubbed mud all over her play house and then took water from her sandbox (which was filled with rain water) and cleaned it off. She found this to be a delight. It was not worth taking a photograph of. Then yesterday, we went for a walk by a lake and sat in the sand. My one-year-old started sifting through it, rubbing it on a rock, and letting it flow through her hands. I think we may have discovered a sensory activity, but it’s not a bin filled with dried beans and it required no extra work or thinking ahead. Hallelujah. 

I think there can be a happy medium, too. Sometimes just letting the kids loose in the yard doesn’t do the trick. The same way parents are trained to think we’re supposed to create activities, our kids sometimes expect some guidance in terms of how they can amuse themselves. Is this good? I don’t have any clue. But I do know that my daughter and I have gone on some pretty solid adventures by introducing a thin concept of something we could “do” outdoors. One time we went on an acorn hunt. What we really did was take a super beautiful hike on a lakeside trail, use our imaginations to tell stories throughout our walk, and spot wildlife in the woods. If that sounds saccharine, like it’s edging on being the word version of a too-sweet Instagram story, I’ll just say — none of that was accomplished through any effort. My point is that we can achieve these things without trying very hard, which I feel is something we should be striving to give ourselves more often.

The thing is, by taking the pressure off of myself to deliver some heightened experience outdoors, I’ve actually opened the door to us getting outside a lot more. There’s nothing to prepare. Nothing to plan for. And the outdoors really does have so much to offer. Spend a little time in the woods, on a beach, or in a yard with a kid, and you’ll quickly see all there is to play with. Twigs, rocks, dirt, sand. Following our kids’ lead will land us somewhere where adventures are spun out of thin air and dirt. Could there be anything more special?

Tags: Activities for Kids, Outdoor Adventures, parenting

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Written By

Lauren Harkawik

Lauren Harkawik is an essayist, journalist, and fiction writer in Vermont, where she and her husband are raising their daughters. See Full Bio

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