27 Great Ways Children Can Play and Learn This Summer

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  • Post last modified:March 15, 2023
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Spending time in nature has a positive impact on both our physical and mental health as well as supporting the development of your child through play. The numerous benefits of spending time outdoors can include the following:

  • lower stress levels,
  • a stronger immune system from exposure to a wide range of healthy bacteria,
  • healthier weight due to increased movement,
  • reduced risk of myopia (nearsightedness),
  • increased attention, and
  • can strengthen relationships.

Just remember to put your phones away to get the full benefit of your time in nature.

How Much Time Do Children Need to Spend in Nature?

We know it is important to spend time outdoors, but how much time do we actually need to see a benefit? According to an article by Dr. Andrew Weil 2 hours a week is the minimum needed in order to start seeing some health benefits. Furthermore in Ontario under the Childcare and Early Years Act, outdoor time in a childcare centre requires 2 hours minimum per day for a full day program. My family aims for a minimum of one hour everyday. Some days we don’t get out at all, other days we can spend up to three hours outside. Remember to find a balance that works for you.

Supporting Your Child’s Development Through Play

No matter the activity you choose there are many ways that it can support the development of your child. There are five main areas of development in early childhood; physical, emotional, social, cognitive and language. These areas are frequently interconnected and one activity can often support more than one area.

  • Physical development includes gross motor (using large muscles), fine motor (using smaller muscles), and sensory development (engaging the senses).
  • Emotional development refers to the ability to recognize, manage and express their own and others emotions.
  • Social development relates to our social interactions with others and building our social skills.
  • Cognitive development involves thinking, remembering and reasoning.
  • Language development is about the understanding and recognizing of a language as well as communication and literacy.

Skills in each area will vary depending on the age of the child. Gross motor, for example, could mean sitting up for an infant, balance for a toddler, or running for an older child.

The following is a list of 27 activities that children and families can do. This is not an exhaustive list, as there are so many possibilities for outdoor play. While some are more appropriate for younger children and some more appropriate for older children most of the activities listed below can be adjusted in order to be developmentally appropriate for your child no matter their age. Do whatever works best for you and your family.

27 Family Fun Summer Activities

1. Go for a walk or hike: For infants go for a walk in a stroller or practice pulling up, keeping their balance, and walking. Take your toddler out for a walk around your neighbourhood, what do you see? What do you hear? Older children can try out a hiking trail – be a scientist and make observations on what you hear and see. Do you see any wildlife? Can you identify the trees?

2. Bird watching: For infants/toddlers listen to the birds, point them out when you see one, read a book about birds. Toddlers and older children can use binoculars to look in the trees to find birds. Bring a book about birds with you, can you identify the birds? Can you identify its sound?

3. Go to the park: There is usually a wide range of play equipment at parks for all ages. Let your child explore.

4. Nature scavenger hunt: Put together a scavenger hunt for your child or find one online that is age appropriate. Give infants some objects from nature to explore such as a pine cone, leaf, or small branch, let them sit in the grass for sensory exploration. With toddlers try playing I Spy. For older children you can check out geocaching.

5. Outdoor sports: Infants can play with a small ball to explore or roll around. For toddlers practice kicking or throwing a ball. Let older children pick their favourite sport to play or maybe they would like to try something new.

6. Riding toys: For younger children use push or pull toys such as a wagon. Balance bikes and other riding toys are great for toddlers. Go for a family bike ride with older children.

7. Chalk: You can draw pictures for infants, what did you draw? What colours did you use? For toddlers and older children let them draw and explore their creativity, play hopscotch or make up your own games.

8. Go to the beach: Spend some time together as a family. Play in the sand and the water. Bring a picnic to make a day of it.

9. Gardening: Let infants explore the soil. Toddlers and older children can help dig and plant seeds.

10. Sandbox: For infants let them sit in the sand for some sensory exploration. Let toddlers scoop sand in and out of buckets. For older children add some water and make a sandcastle or other creations.

11. Water play: Let infants have a basin with a small amount of water and water toys – you can increase the amount of water and change the toys to make this age appropriate for older children. Let toddlers and older children play in the rain and splash in puddles. Paint with water on the sidewalk or wash bikes or cars.

12. Art: For infants try sponge painting or drawing with large crayons. Toddlers and older children can try rock painting or paint garden planters. Use paper and crayons, try water colours. Draw or paint what you see in nature.

13. Explore your community: See what family friendly events are happening in your community. Are there any festivals, a local farmers market, or farms you can visit?

14. Picnic: Have a family picnic either in the backyard, a favourite park or go somewhere new. For older toddlers and children get them to help pack your picnic basket.

15. Bring toys outside: In your backyard set up a blanket for infants or table for toddlers and older children in the backyard and bring toys out such as animal figurines, blocks, books, board games

16. Yard work: Let infants play alongside you while you work. For toddlers and older children let them help pick up branches, pull weeds, water plants, rake leaves. Cut the top half of a yard waste bag off to make it a more appropriate size for young children.

17. Play with bubbles: For infants blow bubbles for them. Toddlers and older children can play with bubbles, or even make you own bubble mix. Check out this recipe.

18. Move your body: For infants reaching, rolling, crawling and walking. Let toddlers walk, jump, climb, throw, balance on one foot. Older children can run, hop, jump, throw and catch. Some fun ideas are yoga, an obstacle course or dance to music.

19. Free play: Let children have freedom outside to choose their own activity while they play.

20. Movement games: Infants love songs with actions, peek-a-boo is always fun. For toddlers try move like an animal, freeze tag or Simon says. Games for older children can include tag, red light green light or what time is it Mr. wolf?

21. Learn to use a compass, get a map of your neighbourhood, learn to read a map, map out a path and go for a walk

22. Learn to tie knots: For infants/toddlers explore with a ribbon ring or silk scarves. Let preschoolers practice tying their shoes. For older children there are many books available on how to tie knots.

23. Find shapes in the clouds: Point to the clouds for, name them, watch them move. For toddlers and older children use your imagination so see what shapes you can come up with. ‘It Looked Like Spilt Milk’ by Charles G Shaw is a great book to use with this activity.

24. Play dough: Allow infants to touch and play with the ingredients or play dough for sensory exploration. With toddlers and older children you can make your play dough together and then look around in nature for inspiration on what to create with your play dough. Click here for my favourite recipe.

25. Make a bird feeder: For older infants let them feel and explore the bird seed – watch they don’t put it in their mouth – use a bird feeder tray and let them scoop bird seed into it. With toddlers try making a Pine Cone bird feeder like this one. Older children can make birdseed ornaments like these.

26. Search for insects: With infants have some books or figurines to play with. For toddlers use a magnifying glass or butterfly net. Older children try an ant farm or butterfly kit.

27. Transfer/Move objects: For infants use a bucket or a box and transfer objects from one container to another. With toddlers and older children they can move rocks or small logs from one spot to another in the backyard.

Getting Outside to Play

As you can see from the list above there are so many possible ways to spend time outdoors. But it isn’t just about finding something to do outside, sometimes it isn’t easy to get out the door. Our lives get so busy and there are many things that can prevent us from heading outside such as time, weather, not having space or access to a space.

As a result you need to find ways to fit time outdoors into your daily lives and make it a part of your regular routine. Think about what is stopping you from going out, how can you overcome that to spend time in nature. Check out the image below for some ideas on overcoming barriers to playing outside.

Pathways to Play: Overcoming Nature Play Barriers

Always Remember Sun Safety

Having stressed the importance of time spent in nature, it is equally important to remember sun safety when heading outside during the summer months. Sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses are essential. Wearing light clothing can help keep your skin covered while not getting too hot. Stay in shaded areas and remember to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Plan your day outside by checking the UV index and avoid time outside when the sun is at its highest. Try to go out earlier in the morning or later afternoon. If you need help finding a safe sunscreen for your child or for more sun safety tips check out EWG’s guide to sunscreens.

Ensuring your children are getting enough time outdoors is just as important as supporting other aspects of their development. Additionally, depending on the activity you take part in, time outdoors will contribute to other areas of their development. With this in mind let them explore and test boundaries, it is important for children to take risks and learn their own limits. The benefits to our overall well-being make spending time in nature a habit you want to instill in your children early on. There is such a wide variety of things to do outdoors that no matter what your interests are there is always something fun to do.

Further Reading and Resources:


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