Screen time limits. WiFi passwords. Netflix. Hulu. YouTube. Privacy controls. Smartphones. Tablets. What do all these things have in common? To start with, most of today’s parents grew up without any of them, and without a doubt, there are times when many of today’s parents wish they still didn’t exist.
That’s because kids today are spending more time on screens than they are doing just about anything else. While screen time can be an easy way to keep kids still at a restaurant, quiet in the car, or occupied at home, too much screen time is actually hazardous to a child’s health, not to mention it can negatively impact social skills and even vocabulary.
Some research has connected increased screen time with the lack of time kids are spending outdoors, which is reported to be half as much as their parents and less than a prison inmate’s allotted hour-long outing per day. Author Richard Louv has termed the phenomenon Nature Deficit Disorder and suggests parents and educators join the “No Child Left Inside” movement.
Still, for parents, the challenge of getting kids off screens and back outside to play can be tricky. While rocks and bicycles and the power of the imagination have changed very little, safety concerns make it more difficult to just send kids outside until the supper bell rings. Luckily, if parents are willing to invest a little of their own time and imagination, they can turn their own backyard into a safe, screen-free escape for the whole family.
Take It Outside
One of the quickest, easiest, and least expensive ways to ensure your kids get enough time in nature is to simply take some of their favorite indoor activities outdoors. Building blocks, science experiments, puzzles, modeling dough, slime, and art projects can all be done outside just as easily as inside. As an added bonus, you won’t have to worry about the kids making a mess. Bring on the glitter!
All you really need is a workspace, such as a folding table, a breakfast tray, or even a cookie sheet. If you need to protect the ground or work surface, a cheap plastic or vinyl tablecloth will do the trick. When you’re done, you can pack it all up and bring it inside. If you have extra materials or just want to leave them outside for easier access, invest in a plastic tub with a lid or several gallon-size, zip-top bags. That way, you can pile all of your supplies right inside, where they’ll be protected from the elements until you’re ready to use them again.
Summertime is the perfect time for kids to spend time outdoors, but the season has its own challenges. For one, it’s hot. Water play keeps kids cool, and it’s easy to scale way up or way back depending on your space and budget. Just don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray!
For younger children, a water table, kiddie pool, and sprinkler are as good as any splash pad without the driving or the crowds. For older children, consider a blow-up or quick-set pool. They are available in a variety of sizes, depths, and styles. Some even come with pumps, filters, and covers that keep your water fresh and clean throughout the season. Typically, these more expensive features reduce maintenance and water usage.
With a few extra additions, you can make your very own backyard beach. A sandbox will provide a whole other sensory experience. An umbrella and seating — either in the form of lawn chairs or a blanket on the grass — will give adults and children a place to rest and relax. Keep snacks and drinks nearby in a cooler with ice packs or, if power is available, a mini fridge.
No matter where you live, nature is all around you. Chirping birds, buzzing bees, and good, old-fashioned dirt can be entertaining, educational, and therapeutic for people of all ages. Gardening, in any of its many forms, helps build muscle tone, reduce stress, and increase confidence. So, whether you pick a section of the yard and start digging, invest in a raised bed, or build your own greenhouse from scratch, your kids can benefit from this age-old pastime.
Beyond planting and tending a garden, there are other earth-friendly activities your children might enjoy. With just a lidded trash can and an online tutorial, your kids can help turn last night’s leftovers into useful compost. You can also make your own birdhouses or feeders or build your own rain barrel. On top of getting your kids outside, these activities will also teach them to care for and value the earth.
If you’re willing to invest a little more time and money on a nature-based hobby, you might want to look into raising your own space-appropriate livestock. Chicken coops and beehives are becoming more popular backyard features, because they are kid-friendly and relatively easy to care for compared to other animals. Moreover, most of the things you need are easy to find online or at a local home and garden supply store. They also reward you with tangible goods, such as the eggs and honey produced by chicken and bees, respectively.
Another inexpensive backyard project that can keep kids active is the addition of sports and recreation equipment. Basic sports gear, like basketball hoops, volleyball nets, and soccer goals, can be purchased at big box stores or online retailers. With some basic tools, they can be assembled and ready to play within no time.
For kids interested in gymnastics or tumbling, consider a trampoline. While they are fun and easy to use right out of the box, you can also dig a hole for your bouncy backyard centerpiece. In-ground or sunken trampolines are obviously a more permanent feature than an above-ground version, so plan your location accordingly.
Another simple option for kids of all ages is a swing. Simple metal swing sets are low-cost but are usually only suitable for young children. More rustic options, like tire swings and rope swings, are easy to install, but you have to have healthy, strong, sizeable trees on your property. There are also a variety of new swings out there in a variety of price ranges: surf swings, swing seats, ball swings, and group swings, just to name a few.
You could spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on creating a dream backyard for your children, but nothing will make your kids want to step away from their screens more than spending time with you. If you head to the backyard, there is a good chance they’ll join you.
Of course, you may not want to hang out in a few inches of water or run back and forth through a sprinkler. Be sure that whichever activities, improvements, or projects you choose for your kids, you build in some adult fun as well. Add lights and music to the patio so you can sit and watch your kids swing. Plant some of your favorite flowers in their garden, or purchase a trampoline with a higher weight limit.
After all, kids aren’t the only ones who are spending too much time on screens and not enough time outdoors. Your kids’ dream backyard could — and should — be your outdoor haven, too.