Cooler days. Longer nights. More time in front of the television and computer?
As fall makes its mark on both the thermometer and family routines, it may be tempting for parents to let kids plop down more often in front of a screen. “The primary inhibitor of play for American children is television,” maintains Dr. Bruce Duncan Perry, Senior Fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas. “On average, our children watch 28 hours of television each week — all stealing time from social interactions, abstract thinking, creativity, and play.”
That’s not such a good thing for kids, but here’s an idea: parents can view fall as a prime time to be outdoors with their kids—and to extend the “as-one-with-nature” theme with fun family activities once you get back home.
Check out these ideas for autumn outdoor family experiences:
•Play “I Spy.” Make a list with your child of things you want to see outdoors. Keep it simple, focusing on shapes, colors, animals, and elements like wood, water, and stone. Check off each item as you find it and celebrate when you are done. (If you like to end your outing with a treat, you might add “hot chocolate” or “apple with peanut butter” to the list.) Encourage your child to draw or paint something she saw once you are indoors and all warmed up.
•Take a walk on the wild side. Whether it’s the woods, the beach, or along the banks of a river or pond, go for a walk somewhere that nature still owns and take along a bag to pick up a few of nature’s treasures along the way. Ask your child what the trees are doing and where the water is going. Listen for birds and wind and other natural sounds. If allowed, collect a few leaves, twigs, shells, pebbles, feathers, seed pods, and other remembrances of your hike. Back home, use these items for craft projects after baking everything on a cookie sheet for 45 minutes at 200◦ to eliminate any insects or their eggs. A favorite idea? Make a centerpiece with colorful autumn leaves and twigs by arranging them in a base of clay or Styrofoam and tie a pretty ribbon around it.
•Adopt a square foot. Bring out the budding scientist in your child by encouraging him/her to pick a small area outdoors—only about a square foot or so—to “adopt” for the season and beyond. It could be in your yard, in the park, on the sidewalk or anywhere that’s easy to visit regularly. Investigate what’s happening there. Are there plants? Insects? Evidence of other animals? Has it changed since we last looked? Does the weather affect what we see? How does it look when we use a magnifying glass? This project will be a great way to get outdoors over and over again. Help your child keep a log of observed changes, accompanied by his drawings and photographs.
This fall, why not make a family commitment to get outdoors together regularly? Even if it’s not your favorite weather, remember the old saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. An afternoon outdoors with your kids will do much more for them than an afternoon staring at the TV. And there’s nothing better for family togetherness and bonding.
 Perry, Bruce Duncan, M.D., Ph.D. “The Importance of Pleasure in Play.” In Early Childhood Today (in print and online at http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/pleasure.htm.) New York: Scholastic, Inc.