Connecting children with nature is more challenging than it has ever been, as kids spend less time outdoors than they used to and more time with digital screens. But it’s also more important, in today’s urbanizing world, to foster a love of the outdoors in the younger generations—not just for the planet’s sake, but for their own. Being in nature can help promote children’s physical health, improve academic outcomes, and increase their social and emotional well-being by reducing stress and improving their relationship skills. That’s why nature play—unstructured, child-led play in a wild environment— is such a priority at Lincoln Park Zoo.
And there’s nothing like a Chicago summer to bring out the childlike nature lover in all of us! At the zoo, we feature plenty of exciting programs designed to facilitate nature play, like our Learn, Explore, and Play (LEAP) programs designed for 2- to 4-year-olds, our Campouts at the Zoo, and play pop-ups you may encounter here during the summer. But you don’t have to wait for a formal event or even come to the zoo to engage in this type of activity. You can do it in your own time and in your local area, exploring parts of the city while taking advantage of the season. Here are some great ways to turn a simple walk or any outing into a nature play experience:
Get Out and About
Summer activities come in many shapes and sizes. In a city with the resources that Chicago has, you’ll always be able to find something to do, whether that’s enjoying festivals and markets or going to a Lake Michigan beach or local forest preserve. Places like Garfield Park Conservatory, Montrose Beach, and The 606—or Lincoln Park Zoo!—are great places to enjoy different landscapes full of greenery and sensory opportunities. But of course, taking a walk around your neighborhood can be just as relaxing and educational. Make some memories by planning an outing that’ll help you explore the place you live!
Make a Plan to Interact
Taking a walk in nice weather may be enough. But, if you really want to enhance your family’s experience, here are a few ideas that will help you do so in a low-effort way.
Create a theme. Choose a simple overarching idea to guide your exploration. Consider your senses: bring a toilet paper tube to amplify noises that you hear or a magnifying glass to look at objects more closely. Focus on textures: bring a blob of Play-Doh with you to create impressions of leaves, grasses, rocks, or other items. Look for certain colors, or types of bugs. The possibilities are endless!
Turn your outing into a treasure hunt. There are a few different ways you might do this. You could create a scavenger hunt list or an outdoors-inspired bingo card to facilitate the search for specific items, like birds, grass, pinecones, seeds, anthills, clouds, or other things you might find outside. Or, you could bring a bag or bucket with you to encourage the collection of leaves, sticks, rocks, and other interesting items. Just remember: don’t take anything from the outdoors if it seems like an animal or plant is still using it.
Use technology strategically. We know—this doesn’t sound like something caregivers should be encouraging. But believe it or not, certain types of user-friendly technology can upgrade your walk without distracting you from it. Apps like iNaturalist and Pl@ntNet can help you identify and learn about the plants you encounter while you’re walking. Star Walk can teach you about the constellations you’re seeing above (maybe more out in the suburbs). Merlin Bird ID lets you figure out what birds you’re viewing in five questions or less. You can also enjoy exciting outdoor activities with the apps Outdoor Family Fun with Plum, Nature Cat’s Great Outdoors (both based on PBS Kids shows) and Geocaching.
Bring It On Home
You may wish to invite your children to document their observations, just like a real scientist would, so they don’t forget the adventure. Take objects you’ve collected to make art projects like collages, sun catchers, or rubbings. You can even try to make something that goes back out into nature and benefits local wildlife. Or, your family can observe collected items more closely at home and use them for other things: for example, to practice pattern-matching and math concepts.
Often, people think nature play is limited to places like Lincoln Park Zoo. And it’s true that connecting people with nature is part of our mission, alongside advancing standards in animal care and wildlife conservation. But, even in a big city, many easy ways exist to explore nature in your own backyard. Taking advantage of these doesn’t just provide cognitive and feel-good benefits—it lets you enjoy summer in Chicago. What could be better?