Four easy outdoor activities to make the most of autumn with your kids

September 17, 2021

by Lindsey Flannery

Autumn is almost here, and it’s time to take advantage of the cooler weather and get outside! Kids benefit from time outdoors in all seasons, but fall in particular offers an abundance of ways to engage your kids in nature. And best of all, you don’t have to venture far beyond your own backyard.

Considering children now spend an average of seven hours a day looking at a screen, the unstructured, free play that unfolds when kids get into nature is more important than ever. Research indicates that it’s necessary for healthy growth. In fact, regular time in nature can help combat depression, attention deficits, and anxiety. It can even reduce bullying and improve academic performance. All from simply getting outdoors!

While unstructured, free play is valuable, we know that having some fun ideas in your backpocket can make it easier to actually get your kids out of the house and make the most of your time. Here are some ways you can enjoy time outside with your kids this fall.

1) Enjoy a picnic

You have to eat anyway…. Why not do it outside? A packed picnic basket or cooler and blanket are all you need to make this work. And if the air is chilly, a sunny day is best! Choose a spot where you can observe different kinds of trees, hear birds singing, or enjoy a beautiful view of a valley or sunset. 

As you eat, encourage your child’s curiosity and observation by asking them what they see, hear and smell. What is starting to change from summer? Are there any yellow leaves? Which ones are the first to change? (Often, this will be walnut leaves!) Why are squirrels burying nuts? (They’re preparing for winter!) Are there any insects in the grass around you? What are they doing?

When you’re done eating, your child will be grounded in their senses and ready to run and explore. 

2) Forage for wild edibles

Foraging means finding and harvesting wild edibles. It can be as relaxed as you want it to be, and it gives purpose to your outdoor exploration and encourages close observation. In the fall, there are many edible plants, berries, roots, barks, mushrooms and flowers in woodlands, parks, and even your backyard!

The two keys to foraging are: 1) proper identification - you must have a positive ID on the plant to ensure that it’s safe to consume. This website is helpful, or if you want a reference on hand, this book is specific to the Midwest. And 2) make sure you’re harvesting respectfully, from a place where it’s legal and safe to do so. Ensure that there are no pesticides used in the vicinity. 

    Here are a few local plants that are easy to find in the fall, easy to identify, and safe to eat:

    • Wood sorrel looks a bit like clover and has small yellow flowers, is abundant in many yards, gardens and parks, and tastes lemony. Add the leaves to your sandwich or salad.
    • Dandelions come back in fall and you can find young, tender green leaves: ask your child to describe the taste. (Bitter!)
    • Contrary to popular belief, crabapples are perfectly safe to eat. They’re just a bit more sour than their cultivated counterparts, but they are fun to pick.
    • Elderberries have immense medicinal value, but don’t eat them in the field (they can cause stomach upset raw). Find them on the edge of woodlands, collect and cook down into elderberry syrup for a natural immune booster.

    3) Observe, draw, and share

    One of the simplest ways to appreciate nature is to observe it closely. Bring your child or a small group of children into the backyard, a local walking trail, or park. Instruct each child to choose any small natural object: it could be a leaf, stone, flower, stick, bug, etc.

    Next, encourage them to observe the object closely for a couple of minutes, touching, smelling, even tasting if appropriate. Then, provide each child with a piece of paper and a pencil, and instruct the child to draw the object. The act of drawing engages different parts of the brain and enhances memory. 

    Finally, talk with your child about why they chose that object and what they observed. Your interest and curiosity will reinforce theirs! To take this to the next level, you could provide your child with a nature journal for drawing and writing all nature observations throughout the seasons. 

    For a simpler version, simply engage in observation of a specific object without drawing. Again, your curiosity and shared interest is key!

    4) Go on a fall foliage hike

    In Central Illinois, the peak of fall foliage is typically in mid- to late October. If you make the effort to get into the woods on a sunny day in late October, you’ll be rewarded with the kind of beauty and novelty that family memories are made of.

    Identify a trail ahead of time, and when you arrive, let your child lead the way as much as possible. If they want to stop and climb a rock or tree, let them. If they want to run ahead and listen to the crunching sound their feet make, be prepared to keep up! 

    So much of the benefit of time outdoors for children is that they have more freedom to let their curiosity lead them. And the research shows us time and again that this is when kids learn the most: when they’re driven by their curiosity, interest, and excitement.

    When you see that interest take hold, encourage it by asking questions about what they’re observing. “Oh, look at that beautiful leaf you picked up! Can you tell which tree it fell from? You’re right - it matches the huge yellow leaves on that sycamore.”

    If you’d like a more structured activity for your fall hike, a perennial family favorite is collecting and pressing leaves. Challenge your child to see how many different colors and shapes of leaves they can find. At home, press them between heavy books, and use them for crafts like leaf rubbings or simply glue them to paper in fun designs.

    Making autumn magical for your child can be as simple as packing a picnic basket or heading to your backyard and observing what you see. Make the most of this beautiful season while it lasts because as quickly as the trees burst into beautiful colors, they’ll begin to fade.

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