Did you know that playing outside is crucial for your children’s health? I’m talking about the old-fashioned, barefoot, boy-in-overalls-with-a-straw-hat-catching-frogs kind of playing.

Studies show that time in nature increases children’s cognitive abilities, creativity, and imaginition, and also provides the exercise all children need. Plus, it’s said to relax the brain and reduce the stress and fatigue that can come from living in urban environments.

But you’re a busy family…how do you incorporate the great outdoors into that schedule?

Thankfully, for homeschoolers, nature is an excellent teacher. While most kids are learning inside a classroom, your kids can be outside, absorbing lessons that supplement the rest of their schoolwork. Here’s how:

Taking a nature walk allows your kids to notice what’s happening around them. Have your kids put their sneakers on, buckle the baby into his stroller, grab your four-year-old by the hand, and go for a walk! They need the exercise, the fresh air, and the refreshing break from school, and quite frankly, so do you. Notice what’s happening around you. Take the time to stop and watch the squirrel hop busily around. Collect acorns. Pick the flowers. Sing with the birds. Sometimes nature is the best teacher and the best therapist.

Buy (or make!) your kids a nature journal. A nature journal is just a notebook that lets your kids keep track of what they are seeing in the world around them. It’s a great way to combine nature and the outdoors with what they are learning in the classroom.

Want them to work on writing? Have them write a description of what they see using all five senses. Math? Give them rulers and let them measure the length and width of different objects they find. Art? They can draw detailed pictures of flowers and leaves. Nature journals get your children outside, practicing the skills they are learning inside, and make a great contribution to that end-of-the-year portfolio.

Come up with a nature scavenger hunt and send your kids racing to win. Your children need exercise, so why not make it fun at the same time? Arm them with bags or baskets and a list of all the things they need to find. Maybe it’s objects in nature that match the colors of a rainbow, or a challenge to find leaves from all the different trees in your area. Send them out to race against each other and see who can locate everything the fastest.

Turn the items they collect into art. It’s no fun collecting things if you don’t get to do anything with them! Paint the pebbles they gather. Press flowers and turn them into bookmarks or a wind chime to decorate your front porch. Make mobiles out of sticks, acorns, and other findings. Need more ideas? Here’s a site that has numerous nature crafts you and your kids can create with the things they bring in!

Designate a place for displaying the cool things your kids discover. Make a science shelf by choosing a shelf or a table to display all the things your children find. Stock it with field guides and bird and wildflower books that help them identify their treasures. It encourages them to explore and gives them a place to show off their findings!

Turn a corner of your yard into a garden. Nothing teaches kids about how things grow and gets them outside better than a garden. Grow vegetables or flowers and watch the excitement in your kids build as stems pop out of the ground, sprout leaves, and finally are ready to harvest. They’ll learn patience as they wait for plants to grow, work ethic as they learn to keep the weeds back, and the satisfaction of having the food you grew show up on the kitchen table as a part of dinner. I’d say that’s worth it!

Finally, just let them play! When I was little, my younger sister and I loved playing outside. One year we created a complicated made-up-world which we lovingly named Pottersville. Pottersville was a fully-functioning little town, complete with a river (crossed via a pinecone bridge), houses (underneath the pines), and a boot and clothing factory (hey, they had to make an income somehow). We played there for hours, coming up with new ideas based on the resources nature gave us.

Children love to play and imagine, and the great outdoors are the perfect place to do that. Think of it like an artist’s set of paints: the resources are there for creative and imaginative fun; you just have to give them the chance to dive in. Take them to a local park or just outside your back door, and let them play. I think you’ll be amazed at the worlds they create.

In our world today, children are spending more time inside looking at a screen and less time outside. What if that’s because they’ve never discovered all the fun that exploring nature brings?

It’s time for you, my friend, to introduce them to the whole new world of the great outdoors.

Have favorite outdoor activities for your kids? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!