I’ve engaged children of all ages in outdoor activities over the past 20 years — first as an environmental educator, and more recently as a father. It has been an eye-opening experience to transition from working with other people’s children to kids of my own. My daughter Harper recently turned eight, and my son Bruce will turn six later this summer. Together, we’ve gone on our fair share of adventures. From early in their development, I subjected these willing participants to a wide variety of outdoor activities, occasionally eliciting the raised eyebrows of their mother. Before they were even walking, I’d plop them down in the forest and let them grab sticks, leaves — anything their little fists could clasp. Next, they graduated to negotiating shallow streams and hillsides, crawling over logs and rocks, and taking short hikes where I would let them lead me, sometimes off the designated path for a short time.
We still enjoy spending unstructured time together outdoors, and I plan to spend the better part of this Father’s Day relaxing in a hammock in the woods with my wife Sarah while mixing it up with the kids. They are now at the age where they’ll permit me to read a book and bow out from play from time to time. That’s the sweet spot — when we can all spend time outside as a family, the kids’ attention is captured by the outdoor world rather than a myriad of screens and their father can kick back and relax. In the time and place we find ourselves, the outdoors also offers a much-needed refuge from concerns associated with COVID-19.
If you’re interested in this sort of Father’s Day scenario, there are two foolproof activities that entertain kids outside for a longer duration that you might expect, all while exercising their growing minds and bodies. One of these is exploring a creek. You don’t need much: A net for catching critters is great, but even just some plastic containers can facilitate play. Start by finding a shallow, slow-moving spot in a stream with a rocky beach or other clear area (Western North Carolina, thankfully, has no shortage of such places). There, you can set up your camp chairs or hammocks for a day-base camp, give the kids an upstream and downstream boundary you feel comfortable with (you can always extend these boundaries later on), bring some snacks and water bottles, and let nature do the work. You’ll be surprised how easily your kids can fill the time. Be sure to respect the environment by not moving large rocks or altering the channel of the stream.
The other tried-and-true activity is building a lean-to fort. There’s any number of approaches to this, but my favorite place to start is with a tree that forks around three to five feet off the ground. Find a sizable branch to position into the fork on one side, letting the other end lay on the forest floor, and use this branch as the ridge of the fort, placing sticks on either side of it. If you want to line it with leaf litter on top, that adds some additional time to the project. For safety’s sake, I recommend telling kids not to pick up branches they can’t carry with one hand and never add to the fort while someone is inside.
You may begin your time with one of these activities in mind, but you’ll find that the kids will find ways to fill the time all by themselves. Playgrounds may be closed, but the forest remains open and ready for a Father’s Day to remember!
If you’re looking for a place to explore and play outdoors this Father’s Day, check out the Arboretum’s Playing Woods area near the Natural Garden Trail, or check out one of the streamside beaches along Bent Creek near the National Native Azalea Collection at the Arboretum.