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As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, it's easy to hibernate (indoors) similar to our fellow mammalian friends. The feelings of coziness and comfort (and epic amounts of food from the holidays) that the fall weather brings can be enough to call it quits on staying active even before the weekend begins.
But the research is in, and we know that playing outside helps children in many ways, including improved physical and mental health, increased collaboration, and strengthened executive function skills like multitasking and being creative.
I know it might take a little convincing to get your family to head outside, so I've put together some of my favorite nature-based activities that will engage and inspire your whole family to take in the benefits of being outdoors.
Preschool Through Second Grade
- Sorting and Ordering: Collect Autumn Leaves: Here's an easy and fun fall activity for even your littlest learner. While taking a nature walk with your child, collect colorful leaves and sort them. Not only will this simple project help your child learn valuable math and science concepts of sequencing and size, but they'll also get a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature and its changing seasons as they create a pretty leaf collage.
- Patterns in Nature: Interconnections and patterns are all around us, and they are especially visible in nature! In this social-emotional learning activity, your child will go on a nature scavenger hunt to look for patterns in nature and take time to experience the wonder of natural beauty. This is a great activity to help your child build skills around self-management, managing relationships, and mindful seeing.
- Autumn Tree Paintings: This hands-on art and science activity engages children in mixing autumn colors. Create a full nature-based experience by taking a nature walk prior to creating your paintings. As you walk through your community, local park, or neighborhood, ask your child to think about what colors they see on the trees. For example, some maple trees are vibrant orange and yellow. Other trees mix red and brown. Still others blend green and yellow. Record their ideas on a piece of paper. When you get home, use your child's ideas to paint what you saw in nature!
- Color Spy: Enjoy the beautiful outdoors and indulge in a colorful game of I Spy while you're at it! Kids love this classic game, and this color-themed version is just as fun but twice as educational. Create a challenge for older children by encouraging them to use unique adjectives to describe each color (e.g., the vibrant pink flower). Help your child come up with ideas to support language development and creativity.
Third Grade through Fifth Grade
- Discover the Colors of Fall: This nature-based activity has kids go out into their community (with an adult), and then create their very own book all about fall. Using photographs from their trip outdoors as the artwork, children will write their own book about what they saw, putting into practice their knowledge of grammar, complete sentences, and sensory words. This activity will inspire adults and kids alike to take time to explore the beauty in their community and discover the colors of fall while developing their descriptive and creative writing skills.
- Listening for Silence at Home: Encourage your child to take a walk outside, listen to the silence in between sounds, and draw what the experience was like for them. This activity is a great way for your child to practice mindfulness and communication skills while connecting with the world around them.
- Everyday Darwin: Create a Nature Journal: Here's an activity that encourages your child to tap into their inner scientist as they research and track a native species. By creating an interactive observation notebook, your child will strengthen their organizational skills and get a chance to see the world from a different point of view. Get involved in this activity by creating your own interactive observation notebook. Next, compare and contrast your findings!
- Nature Appreciation Walk: Showing gratitude for family and community is essential, but let's not forget our gratitude for nature. Use this writing worksheet during a nature walk to remind your learner of the beauty and bounty of nature and how worthy it is of our appreciation. First, children will go on a nature walk (with a grown-up) and write and draw their observations. Then they will write about their appreciation of nature in a letter. Engage the whole family—encourage everyone to write their own letters of appreciation!
Other resources to inspire your nature-based adventures:
- Nature Journal: Nature is not only the biggest classroom, it is often the best teacher of all. Use this nature journal to inspire kids to get outside and learn in the great outdoors.
- Mandala Coloring: This mandala coloring worksheet creates an opportunity for students to color in a nature mandala and create their own illustration as a reminder of the impermanence of the gifts to be found in nature.
- Nature Sketchbook: Celebrate the fall season with this nature sketchbook, perfect for any lover of the outdoors! Just cut out each page and bind them together, and you're ready for some hiking and observing of the beautiful sights that autumn has to offer.
Most studies that look into the benefits of outdoor play agree on a few important things: Kids who play outside are happier, more attentive, and less anxious (see this article from the Child Mind Institute for more information). So spend some time outside today, and don't forget to dress for the weather!
When I think of Thanksgiving traditions my family had when I was a kid, a few come to mind, and they always put a smile on my face. We always started the day watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV in our pajamas. Later in the day, my mom would urge us to get out of the house to go do something active (and stop asking, "Is dinner ready yet?"). My brother and I would wander outside to find something to do while the minutes dragged by until dinnertime. Though these experiences felt small at the moment, I can look back and call them big memories. These are the traditions I grew up with, and they are still meaningful.
All these years later, it's fun to be a parent and have the opportunity to not only pass old traditions down, but also create new ones for my family and friends. If you're looking for some new Thanksgiving traditions to try out with your family and friends this year, check out this list:
- Share your thanks in writing or out loud. Using index cards, a tablecloth on which guests can write, or a more crafty project like this Handy Thanksgiving Wreath will all accomplish the goal of writing down what you're thankful for. Invite everyone at the Thanksgiving table to participate, and take some time to share with each other. Start the discussion by asking everyone what they're grateful for, and then have everyone at the table share their thoughts one at a time. It is sure to bring a positive perspective to your day!
- Taking a walk to the park after eating. This idea just makes sense after eating a heavy meal! One of my colleagues shared that they go to the park, and every single generation plays like they're all six-year-old kids. They have the best time climbing, sliding, jumping, and chasing. What better way to burn off the calories and get out of the house than to visit the park and have some fun?
- Karaoke. Another way to burn off some calories and get the group laughing is to pull out the karaoke machine. And if you don't have a machine, turn on the radio or put on your favorite music app. But be prepared—karaoke sometimes leads to dancing, so you'll want to be wearing your best dancing shoes!
- Turkey Trot. Many cities across the country host a Turkey Trot event on Thanksgiving morning. This fun run is perfect for families and all levels of athleticism. So if you're a beginning runner—or more of a walker, like I am—don't shy away from it. It's a great way to gather with friends and family and get some exercise.
- Create a family toast. Traditional toasts are fun and often hold special meaning, but it could be fun to try coming up with a family toast together. Engage your littlest family members, along with the adults, and write the toast down so everyone can read it prior to the meal. Be sure to put the written copy of the toast somewhere safe so you can use it again next Thanksgiving!
- Start the day with a big breakfast. A great way to kick off the day is a big, healthy breakfast that everyone can enjoy together. The kitchen is usually the busiest place on Thanksgiving, starting from the moment the main chefs get up in the morning. If everyone is fed well at the beginning of the day, they'll be more likely to hold off on too many snacks until the main course.
- Attend or watch a Thanksgiving Day parade. While the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is probably the most famous, it's not the only one that draws a crowd. Check to see if there are any Thanksgiving Day Parades in your local area you can attend, and if not, check out the parades that are aired on television. The sights and sounds can be magical for children and grown-ups of all ages.
- Have a special dessert. After eating a large Thanksgiving meal, it may seem crazy to even think about dessert, but maybe that's because the menu didn't include an exciting treat. Make a plan to have a special dessert, and remind all the guests to save room for it. Depending on the weather in your area, you might be able to go outside and make s'mores around a fire pit, but no problem if you're indoors—check out these Indoor s'mores for some fun that engages all your guests, especially your kiddos!
- Read picture books to share the history of Thanksgiving. Most books and shows for young kids include stereotypes that are not actually accurate about the origins of Thanksgiving. The book 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O'Neill Grace is filled with beautiful photographs, providing a more historically accurate version of the three-day harvest celebration back in 1621. Encounter by Jane Yolen and The People Shall Continue by Simon J Ortiz are both stories that teach about the history of indigenous groups, though they are not specifically focused on Thanksgiving.
- Volunteer in the community. Take an active approach to your Thanksgiving Day and go to a local soup kitchen or shelter to serve food to people in need. Bringing your kids with you will give them the opportunity to serve the people in their community, and teach a valuable lesson about humanity and service. If your Thanksgiving Day agenda does not lend well to volunteering, you can still give back in the days leading up to the holiday. Create "bags of love" with items like baby wipes, lip balm, bottled water, warm socks, and non-perishable food items. Pass them out to the homeless population in your town or city to provide them with a little support during the holidays.
Whether you continue with your tried-and-true traditions, or you start some new ones with your family and friends, take some time to think about some big and small ways you can make your Thanksgiving a positive, memorable holiday for yourself and others.
When Derek was a baby, I had his room decorated before I even bought diapers. At age 4, his room was robot-themed. Then at 5, it was all about the Legos, complete with a handmade Lego border that I made on my die-cut machine and painstakingly hot-glued to foam (so the tops of the bricks would be 3D.) Then there was Star Wars, then Harry Potter (huge Hogwarts castle crafted from black scrapbook paper above the bed), then the Golden State Warriors (a floor-to-ceiling basketball court made from orange electrical tape).
Yes, I am without a doubt, that mom. You should see the birthday parties. My biggest heartbreak came when Derek turned 12 and asked, "Can we please just do a party without a theme this year? Just, plain and simple?"
Um, what? Have you met me?
Turns out, much to my dismay, Derek may have been right to ask for the plain and simple. According to a fascinating study on classroom environments and kids' cognitive performance related to visual distractors (i.e., what stuff on the walls does to learning) published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a "busy" environment can take away from learning. The researchers who performed this study on children ages 8-12 offered up several tips for classroom teachers to ensure their walls provide maximum learning.
That got me thinking about Derek's room (now completely spartan—no mom decorating allowed). Here are some suggestions outlined in this study, along with some other modifications you can make to your child's environment at home to keep it warm, comfortable, and stimulating—but not too stimulating.
First, start with cleaning. Too many toys, prizes from birthday parties, and supplies strewn around the room can be a huge distraction and feel chaotic. Involve your child in making decisions about what to keep and what to donate. Sometimes when they know their stuff is going to someone who needs it, it is much easier to part with. Here's a caution when you declutter: the second you pick up that 10-cent action figure that's been under the bed for three years, your child will decide it is the only toy in the universe they want. Best to sweep those things into a tub and then sweep that tub...away. Later. (When Derek was younger, I used to have a tub labeled: "Little Junky Things Mom Wants to Throw Away." It just made me feel better to see my protest in writing.)
Organize for Function, Fun, and Favorites
A functional space is a happy space. Sit down with your child and think about what they like to do most, and see if you can create a special zone for that. Derek spent about three months in a fort in the living room with rainbow loom rubber bands EVERYWHERE before I realized that maybe we should make a space in his room for them. Remember that what your child likes to do will change often, and flexible space is the most helpful when hobbies and passions change.
Display Their School Work
Kids feel increased ownership and responsibility when they see their hard work reflected back at them. As someone who has 10 tubs in the garage, each labeled Derek's Preschool Art, Derek's 1st Grade Art, Derek's 2nd Grade Animal Report, and so on...I know often there is more paper coming home than anyone should have to handle. Consider a bulletin board or magnet board that features a few favorite pieces that your child is most proud of. Then, Marie Kondo it! Believe me, there will be more to come next week.
Don't Forget the Cozy
Above all, your child's bedroom should be a place where they want to spend time (bonus points if you want to spend time there too). I rarely cross the threshold of Derek's fortress these days, and I wouldn't describe it as cozy (smelly, maybe, but not cozy). But before they become teens, you have a lot more bedroom latitude. Don't forget to cozy it up with pictures, rugs, pillows, lovies, and plants. The coziest space in a child's bedroom is the spot where you and your kid can cuddle up and read every night. A big chair is great, but a bean bag and even the bed work just fine too.
Natural light is good for everyone. Let the sunshine in!
Use Visuals that Reinforce Learning
I wouldn't recommend setting up your child's room like a classroom. I mean, let's be real. Would you want your bedroom to mimic your office? Still, there are some great ways to create a happy space at home that still supports learning. Here are three ideas:
- Labels: I love my label maker. I would label each of the dog's paws if she would let me. Enlist your child in making labels and pictures for their stuff, because that will help with ownership and organization.
- Maps: A colorful map is always a great conversation starter, especially when you indicate where your family is from or where you have traveled.
- Books!: To me, there is nothing better than a room full of books. In your child's room, display them so they are inviting and begging to be read. (Maybe labeled baskets?) Think about the shelves of a bookstore, where the covers face out to pull you in. As winter approaches, it's the perfect time to think about ways to create a warm, comforting space for your child. It's also a great time to donate some unused or gently loved items to people and organizations who need them. Remember to involve your child in all these decisions and help them make their room their own!
My 3-year-old daughter is a "spirited" child. She came into the world almost a month early, and she's been nonstop ever since. Her personality is vibrant, with very high highs and very low lows. Although I don't have to wonder where she gets it (ahem), I truly admire her for being able to fully express how she is feeling from moment to moment. I never have to worry about her hiding her feelings from me; actually, it's quite the opposite.
With such a big personality, it's important for my daughter to learn self-regulation. As parents, my husband and I work hard to make her feel safe to express her feelings freely and in our home, though it's not always easy to support her in managing her emotions and working through them. I believe that when a kid is having big feelings, they are trying to communicate that something isn't right. It's our responsibility to honor them by listening and supporting them the best that we can.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is all about managing emotions, behavior, and body movement in the face of challenge. The ability to self-regulate looks different for a three year old compared to a preteen, and it's not an easy process at any age. For young children, it involves things like:
- Keeping track of changes in the environment
- Assessing how one is feeling
- Handling all of the information that comes from your five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch)
- Focusing and paying attention while doing the above
My daughter has some sensory differences, which affect her ability to self-regulate. Essentially, her nervous system gets overloaded from taking in the world. When this happens, she gets very anxious and might start crying uncontrollably, or her anxiety might be misinterpreted as anger. Sometimes we realize this after it's too late, but we'd much rather prevent a sensory overload from happening in the first place. By putting structures in place in your home it's possible to support all children in regulating their emotions.
Ways to Teach Self-Regulation
Here are some teacher tricks to get you started:
Use visual mini-schedules. I create these mini schedules to help my daughter self-regulate during transitions or when she's super excited about something. I know when she needs one because she'll ask me "When are we _____?" a bazillion times. Having something concrete and visual like this eases her anxiety and allows her to focus on just one chunk of the day. All you need is a scrap piece of paper, coloring materials, and fun stickers to get your kid excited!
Prepare for the unexpected. I remember so vividly my mother telling me what was going to happen ahead of time. As a special education teacher, she realized early on that transitions were super difficult for me, and when changes happened, I'd go into meltdown mode. I've started using her ideas with my three-year-old. Here's a couple ways you can prepare:
- Set expectations in a conversation. If we are heading to a friend's house or a restaurant, we talk about what she might expect before we get there. For example, I might say, "We are going to Lizett's house. I see you want to bring your favorite toy. Remember that if we bring your toy into her house, you will have to share. If you'd rather not share, we can leave your toy at home or in the car."
- Wait to discuss plans. Whether you've got toddlers, littles, or older kids who struggle with change, it's a good idea to hold off sharing tomorrow's plans until you're sure they're happening. I learned this strategy the hard way after telling my daughter that we were going to visit her favorite neighbor's house tomorrow, only to have a last-minute cancellation.
- Create a basket of activities. This is useful in many situations: when plans change, or my daughter is overwhelmed with too many options, or a babysitter calls to let me know my kid wants to roll down the stairs for fun, it helps to have a collection of agreed-upon activities for her to choose from. Sketch a bunch of different activities your child enjoys like playing with dough, drawing, climbing, swinging, playing with her dolls, dress-up, drawing with chalk outside, or running an obstacle course. Next, put the activities in a basket. This is a great way to help your child visualize the activities that are okay to play with friends, babysitters, and family members.
Advocate for your child. We recently went to a farm to check out pumpkins and enjoy fall activities outdoors. Upon arrival, we were told that our daughter had to wear a wristband to enjoy the rides. Well, she hates the feeling of things on her wrist, especially in the hot, humid weather we have here in Austin, TX. So I was her advocate. I explained that she has sensory differences and we worked out having her wear the band in her hair instead.
Here's a few ways you can be an advocate:
- Set boundaries. If I had given in and made my daughter put the wristband on, she would have had some really big feelings and we may have had to leave the farm. When an adult--whether it's a classroom teacher, family member, or neighbor--expects something of your child that you know is triggering, it's your job to speak up or teach your child to speak up for themselves. Next, work together to figure out a solution or plan of action that works for your child.
- Know your child's triggers. Does your child get overwhelmed at noisy restaurants? What about when it's super-hot outside? Is it too hard for your child to make a trip to Target without getting a toy? It's so important to know when our children can't handle a situation and to either avoid that situation or teach them coping strategies to deal with their feelings in a healthy way. Which leads us to...
Teach your child coping strategies. If we teach our kids coping strategies when they are little, self-regulation will become second-nature to them as they get older. Here's a few of my favorites:
- Use calming methods. Every child is different, so it's best to teach your child multiple strategies and see what works best. My daughter does well with deep belly breaths, singing through transitions, and using a calming jar. Some other ideas include using weighted blankets, creating a peace corner in your house or child's room, or playing quiet music. It's important to talk about when and why we use calming strategies, and share about activities that adults use to calm down too, such as taking a warm bath with lavender.
Discuss big feelings. When we give our children the words to express how they are feeling, we can support them when they are feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or nervous. One idea is to provide a sentence frame such as, "When I'm _______ I can _______." and provide emotion words (e.g., "sad," "angry," "happy," "overwhelmed," "nervous," etc.) and a list of strategies ("Go in my swing," "Go for a jog,' "Take a deep breath," etc.) for your child to refer to. You can also support your child by asking questions like:
- "How are you feeling right now?"
- "How does your body feel?"
- "Can you think about what is making you feel upset?"
- "How can I support you?"
Resources to Help You Support Your Child:
Managing the Chaos
I decided it was time for me to take back my afternoons.
Like clockwork, my afternoon default emotions had become some combination of nervousness, anxiety, anger, exhaustion, and short-temperedness.
I was becoming overwhelmed by all the things I hadn't gotten to yet—after-school drop off and pickups, work, meetings, preparing dinner, sibling conflict intervention, cleaning, laundry, lather, rinse, repeat. It was bringing me to a frustrated and cranky standstill.
What's worse, I noticed that my children were reflecting these emotions in their words and actions. Yikes.
Time for a Change
I decided it was time for me to take back my afternoons. As a curriculum designer, I had heard of practices like mindfulness, meditation, and social and emotional learning, but it never occurred to me that they could help transform my own home life. I grew up with the "tough it out" mentality, which worked for me before I became a mom of multiple children. Alas, it wasn't working anymore.
I wanted to learn new tools, and gift my children helpful tools as well. If my children are going to reflect my thoughts and actions, I want them to have the best reflection possible.
I love research, so off to the library I went! I discovered that mindfulness is not just a cutesy buzzword, but an "awareness of thoughts, emotions, and surroundings--and acceptance of that awareness." I read my first self-help book: 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children—and Ourselves—the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives.
That title is a mouthful, but the root of my problem was easy to understand: I needed more "nondoing" in my life. Nondoing would give my brain a chance to shut down and reset.
A Mindful Twist to Classic Games
My children love games and competition, so I knew I wanted the beginning of their journey towards mindfulness to encompass games and play somehow. To my surprise, I learned that many classic games could have a mindful twist.
The goal of Simon Says is to be the last person standing because you only moved when "Simon"—the person giving commands—included "Simon says..." at the beginning of the command. Everyone who moves when Simon gives a command that does not start with "Simon says..." is eliminated. Typically, the commands involve jumping around or dancing. The last player standing is the winner. This game is fantastic to cultivate good listening skills—if only kids listened on a daily basis as well as they do to Simon Says!
- Freeze and Melt, a mindful twist on Simon Says: Commands are involved, but it's not competitive. Ask your child to dance or run around like an animal before you say "freeze." They will freeze in place until you say "melt," at which point they should slowly melt into a puddle on the ground. When they're done melting (cue the Wicked Witch of the West!), have them stay on the floor for a few moments of deep breathing. Then, tell them to go crazy again and repeat the "freeze" and "melt" commands. After a few rounds, ask your child what it felt like to transition from one movement to the other.
- Mindful Goal: Help your child become aware of the tight muscles in the "freeze" position and contrast those with the loose muscles of the "melt" position to build body awareness during tense or emotional situations.
"I spy with my little eye" is a common phrase in this game. One player describes an object they see and the other players have to guess the correct object. Then they switch roles. The goal is to figure the from the description which object your opponent is talking about.
- Eye Spy, a mindful twist on I-Spy: Have your child describe things they see in a quiet environment. Point out objects they don't typically notice and describe them. You can also have your child guess a new object they haven't noticed.
- Mindful Goal: Taking the time to pause and observe things will help your child calm their brains so they will see things in slow motion, and then be able to process information without being overwhelmed. It can also help them become more open to appreciate different things around them.
Telephone This is a speaking and listening game where a group of people form a chain and one person whispers a sentence to the next link in the "telephone" chain. As one person after another repeats the sentence they heard to the next person in the chain, the words are often confused and the message is continually changed until the last person shares the sentence they heard with the whole group. It's an interesting game that almost always has a funny result.
- Echoes, a mindful twist on Telephone: Say a short sentence to your child and have them repeat it back to you. Share a longer sentence and have your child repeat it back to you again. Vary the length of sentences each time. Ask your child if it was hard or easy to repeat the sentences. Test your own memory by asking your child to create their own sentences for you to memorize and repeat as well.
- Mindful Goal: Trying to remember someone else's words can help your child focus and really hear what someone is saying. When children focus on other people's words, they can learn empathy.
Trying all of these games with my little ones, with varying degree of success, was fun and enriching for our family. These games serve as purposeful time spent with my children, but also gives us tools to call on in moments of stress or conflict. In tense moments, you can redirect your children to play one of these games, or have them focus on their breathing, to help your child calm their brain and refocus.
Check out this parent-friendly resource to read more about how to incorporate mindfulness in your home: 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children—and Ourselves—the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives.