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Outdoor activities for your kids that are simple, fun and designed for learning.



I spy with my little iPhone...

  • Ages: 3-5; 6-8; 8+
  • Materials: Device with a digital camera
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Season: All year

girl takes photo with iphone


The background

It’s never hard to sell time on our iPhones to our kids, but it's not always that we do so and feel like we are star parents. In fact, more often than we'd care to admit, we offer the phone when we need to buy instant quiet and/or compliance. But, when our friend handed our oldest his iPhone and challenged her to “take a picture of something yellow,” we saw just that kind of a rare chance to please her desire for technology and our need to parent. Give her a camera, some categories of things to capture, and you turn the iPhone into a powerful tool she can use to classify the world around her and to express herself.

And so it has continued, the categories getting more varied and abstract as we’ve played. She is thrilled to command the coveted device and we, both as parents and educators, feel gratified to see her use loads of language and make connections between words, objects and ideas. We also just love getting a glimpse into her thought process and see evidence that real learning is taking place—for example, we saw her set up for one shot, rethink the category and decide to take another, more appropriate shot, all at 3.5 years old. Mobile technology may neither be the panacea nor the devil, but it is powerful stuff, and it is really nice to find times when it’s unquestionably good for everyone.


The guide

  1. Grab a digital camera—Bring any device or devices that contain a digital camera (e.g.smartphone, digital camera, iPad/tablet, DS, etc.).

  2. Go outdoors—Though this activity can be done indoors, we've done it many different ways and it consistently works better outdoors. Head into nature where the objects and forces to identify, categorize and photograph are wonderful and virtually endless.

  3. Offer prompts and challenges—Get the ball rolling by giving category prompts. Start off by saying something like: "I wonder if you could take a picture of something yellow?" After some immediate scrambling, you'll likely elicit a response like, "Okay, what next?!" Trust yourself, and generate some more categories. Eventually, your child may start to generate his/her own categories, showing the capacity to not only match an object with a category but think flexibly and see various kinds of relationships between objects or ideas.

    To follow is a list of possible category prompts for you to build on. They are listed from the most simple to the most abstract. The younger your children, the more likely they’ll need to stick to prompts on the simpler end. But, it’s easy to underestimate our kids. So, we recommend that you build success early on by starting simple, then continue to increase the complexity until kids seem unsure (try to stop short of frustration). Once you detect their uncertainty, return to the type of prompt that gave the greatest possible challenge and riff away at that level.

  4. Share the collection—If you have time, upload your favorites to flickr, shutterfly or your blog and give this collection an audience of close family and friends.


How it helps your kids

In addition to learning how to take a picture, kids stand to learn a lot from this simple techie twist on I Spy. By matching objects to categories, even our three year olds are working towards the ability to make connections, a skill that will prove essential as kids attempt to understand complicated subjects and navigate the world. As you generate categories, you'll expose them to rich language, developing their vocabularies and setting them up to be better communicators, readers and thinkers. If you decide to share the collection together or online with friends and family, your kids can get a powerful boost to self esteem when they see their own work published and even get feedback from treasured adults and peers.


A few takes from our daughter's recent photo shoot.

Spring forward and embrace it!

  • Ages: 1.5 and up (solid sleepers)
  • Materials: none needed
  • Time: 30 minutes to an hour
  • Skills: curiosity; connection to nature; positive outlook
  • Special date: The first eve of daylight saving time

girl in crocus

With the disruptive forces of daylight saving time, most parents get irked and resist whenever our kids’ sleep schedule gets disrupted; who wouldn’t? Casting daylight savings as a problem, however, obscures a real opportunity for us and our kids. This year, try looking beyond the interrupted sleep schedule when springing forward, and embrace the wonderful transition that this day can represent.

First, it’s inevitable, so embracing it seems like a much better response to model than getting all in a bunch. Plus, any family with kids ages 2+ should celebrate the fact that the we now have the daylight we need to give kids a whole hour longer at the playground, park or wherever their afternoon free play flows. Hurrah! And, at the very least, it’s one of two times each year when one can’t help but notice how we experience daylight and our environment—we’d be crazy to ignore or shun such a magic show.

The Guide:

Make a special evening out of the first Sunday night after we "spring forward." Do something to highlight this semi-annual ritual, stressing the light and hope that it brings. Or at the very least, have some fun trying. Here are a series of activities to try:

  • Learn about sunset, twilight and dusk, then go check them out—Like us, you may assume these are the same. Turns out, they are quite distinct and happen in this order: sunset (sun disappears under horizon) → twilight (period of light before night falls with stages of relative darkness) → dusk (the end of twilight). If you can get to the woods, a park or the backyard, sit still and watch twilight fade into dusk. It happens so quickly when we are rushing around, not paying attention; we never really notice how beautiful it is.
  • ”Fly a kite at night”—Really, you can do any kind of short, fun outdoor activity before dusk falls. For older kids who remember recent days, talk about what time it is and talk about what you were doing yesterday at that time (in the dark!).
  • Enjoy a twilight stroll in their PJs!—Finish dinner. Do your bath routine and get ready for bed. Then, throw on your coat, go outside and grab that 25 minutes of twilight sporting your favorite pjs. What little kid won’t find such shenanigans extraordinary good fun?
  • Play with your shadows—Our shadows are the longest when the sun is near the horizon line (right after sunrise and right before sunset). Enjoy any one of these ways to play with your shadow as you celebrate the late sunset.
  • Play flashlight tag (ages 5+)—If your child is 5+ years old, grab a flashlight and head outdoors. Start playing tag in twilight until you reach the point where it’s hard to see one another. Then, give whoever is “it” a flashlight. He or she will have to use other senses and his flashlight to “tag” the other players. Check out one take on the rules for flashlight tag.
  • Learn together about daylight saving timeRead up on how this man-made ritual started and engage in the real, ongoing debate about why we still do it.

How it helps your kids:

This irksome disruption of sleep is actually an incredible opportunity to stop and delight in the cycles of nature. It is also a chance to teach kids not to fight but to revere and make the most of change—habits of mind that will help them navigate life. We are also building a family culture that values celebration, serendipity and, ultimately, fun. Finally, it gives parents the chance to pique kids’ curiosity about the natural and man-made aspects of daylight savings and give them some understanding that will likely only lead to more questions and learning.


Stack stone towers

  • Ages: 3 and up
  • Materials: smooth sea or river stones
  • Time: 30 minutes to an hour
  • Skills: Strategic thinking; Physics; Creativity; and Categorization
  • Location: Beach

Sand is marvelous, but don’t miss the sea’s other building tool: sea stones. Smoothed by the elements and yet still irregular in shape, these blocks challenge kids in a way that even our favorite old wooden blocks can’t. Kids learn about balance, develop strategies and activate their imaginations with each stack, tower or little world they build.

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