47 Ways to Reduce Screen Time and Add Nature to your Child’s Life

Kids’ screen time usage has doubled over the pandemic: Kindergarteners are using screens up to 6 hours a day, and middle schoolers are at 8-12 hours. Moving school online during COVID, with the loss of child care combined with remote work for many families, exacerbated a problem already being discussed amongst parents and educators: American kids are spending lots of time on screens and with technology, ergo much less time outside.

Most people would agree that less screen time and more time in nature is good. But with 80% of America’s population in urban environments, is substantial and valuable nature time in a city even possible for these children? Absolutely. With careful utilization of the available environment, even within most cities’ limitations, children can experience all the benefits of the outdoors. 

Spending time outside improves our immune system, boosts our vitamin D levels, makes us happier, reduces inflammation, helps us sleep better, lessens stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, lessens chances of developing asthma or cardiovascular issues or mental health issues or become obese, and even reduces mortality—the list goes on and on. 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Being outside even improves the chance of fighting off cancer by increasing our intake of aromatic plant compounds which trigger natural killer cells that are linked with a lower risk of cancer—people who took a long walk through trees for only two days in a row increased their cancer killer cells by 50%, and those killer cells remained far higher than usual for a month following those two walks.

Horticulture therapy, forest bathing, the U.K. Forest Schools—all of these movements try to show us humans what we already intuitively know: Being outside is critical to our wellbeing.With studies showing that being outside is so important, why do we keep our children trapped indoors in schools and at home?

As far as parents go, concerns over safety are often cited as the main reason against letting their child roam and play in their neighborhood. American parents are often exhausted after their own day at work, and it’s easier to have the children entertain themselves with technology while parents are getting dinner ready. 

The strain put on parents by the fairly recent historical shift to a more isolated nuclear family, combined with America’s individualistic and capitalistic environment, is nothing to dismiss. It would be callous of us to put even more burdens on already-exhausted parents, even if it’s in the child’s best interest, without at the least acknowledging the labor being asked of the parent, and trying to find ways to support both child and parent in their own needs. 

Ginny Yurich, the originator of the viral global movement 1,000 Hours Outside, doesn’t advocate for taking away or even limiting technology, which could seem like a horrible uphill battle in American culture—she just says, let’s match it! As simple as that. Her blog, 1,000 Hours Outside, is brimming with ideas and encouragements for the modern family to be able to get outside no matter where they’re at. Inspired by the famous British educator Charlotte Mason, the 1,000 Hours Outside movement boils down to approximately 3 hours a day (with built-in grace for not getting outside a day or two a week).

If more nature time sounds great but also overwhelming, here are  

47 easy ideas for getting your kids into nature (and off of the TV)!

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Easy at-home suggestions for parents:

  1. Take technology outside. If your child is going to watch a show regardless, take the iPad on the porch! You’ll still get some nature time, even if it’s coupled with a screen.
  2. Utilize tiny outdoor spaces. Even if all you have is an apartment deck, you can set up a valuable outside playspace. Bugs, clouds, and sun all exist on the tiniest patch of outside space. You can set up a small kiddie pool, sandbox, water table, an easel for painting or crayons, building blocks—many inside toys can also be brought outside.
  3. No outside space at all? Make window boxes with plants, hang an animal feeder, and have a chair near the window so your child can observe the nature that comes to visit!
  4. And if you do have a yard, absolutely set up a bird and squirrel feeder where your child can see them from a window.
  5. Prioritize the weekends as longer chunks of time outside, and weekdays as shorter chunks. That will feel more accessible after your own long day of work.
  6. Picnic. Eat after-school snacks on the porch or in the yard. If you don’t have any outdoor space, open some windows and get the breeze and outside sounds.
  7. Take homework or tutoring sessions outside. If possible, set up an area with chairs and a table so it’s easy to pop outside to do work.
  8. Cloud gaze through a window or outside: tell your child what you see, and ask them questions about the shapes they see.
  9. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

    Star gaze through a window or outside at night.

  10. If you can set up a safe outdoor playspace near a window, where they can be outside and you can keep an easy eye on them, there won’t be any barriers to them playing outside even if you need to be getting dinner together.
  11. Take a family walk after dinner.
  12. When scheduling play-dates, keep them outside if the weather is nice.
  13. Make fun tinker trays that are immediately accessible for you but aren’t regularly out for the kids so they’re a special occasion and you can grab them in those harried times when you’re trying to get something done and need your child to occupy themselves. You can easily use divided trays from the dollar store and fill sections with crystals and other rocks, corks (from wine bottles), magnets, glass pebbles, bolts & nuts, tiny chalkboards & chalk, seashells, acorns or other nuts, etc etc.
  14. Make herb playdough (tons of easy recipes online), add chopped dried herbs, and encourage your child to pick plants/ herbs to play with: they can do playdough printing, playdough sculptures, etc.
  15. Nature show and tell: after an outside playdate or a nature walk, encourage your child to select and present a nature item at the dinner table. Leaves, twigs, and stones are all easy; if they want to present a bug, you may need to talk about a safe container for the bug, and how to safely release it after.
  16. Measure rainfall: mark ½ inch lines on a cup with a ruler, and put it out during a rainstorm to see how much rain fell.
  17. Small yards: when filled with nature, even the smallest yard can provide lots of value. Consider creating a sandbox, a rock pit of tiny to medium or large rocks, a water table, and an area full of sticks and tree blocks and stumps of varying heights. These can all live in even the smallest of yards. Of course if you can set up swings and a playset, a sensory area, outdoor chalkboard, garden, tree fort, etc, all the better!
  18. Plants: have your classroom students take on the responsibility for planting, watering, and growing plants in your classroom.  
  19. Grow your own herbs and use them to spice up school lunches!
  20. Learn the trees by your home or school: how to identify them, how they grow, what they need.
  21. Bring nature inside with a rock garden inside the classroom. Set up a tray with a variety of beautiful rocks.
  22. Raise butterflies: monarchs on milkweed are easy to order online.
  23. Sand meditation garden. You can order these online or set up a tray yourself with sand and miniature tools.  
  24. Honor the cycles of the year. It’s okay if in the freezing winter you spend less time outside, and in the summer you spend more time outside. Showing our children how we honor the cyclical pattern of nature can be really beautiful and helpful to our bodies. Learn about when it’s too dangerously cold to be outside, and when a thermos of hot tea and bundling up will make it quite tolerable!
  25. Put bird/ squirrel feeders near your classroom window, to observe wildlife.
  26. Work with technology: take photos of things you love outside during recess or on a classroom walk and share them with each other when back indoors.
  27. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

    Nature Works Everywhere: Nature Conservancy online resource. Every educator has those times when they need to take a break and just put on a movie—when you’re in that space, put on a nature video!

  28. Invite your students to pick flowers and grasses during recess and hang them from your walls/ceiling to dry. They’ll look gorgeous and you’ve brought more nature inside.
  29. Camping. Take your child camping, and don’t bring an iPad.
  30. Watch movies outside. If you enjoy family movie nights, get a projector set-up and take your movies outside! Yes, you’re still watching a movie, but taking it outside still gets you a lot of the fresh air benefits.
  31. Take your child on a hike, to the park, or on a field trip!
  32. Support initiatives like the 10-Minute Walk Campaign, which aims to provide safe access to a park or green space within a 10-minute walk of American city homes by 2050.
  33. Plant a tree in your neighborhood, park, or school grounds. For your neighborhood, all you need are your own or your neighbors’ permission; for a park, you likely need to check with your city council; for a school, you check with the school.
  34. Turn the parkway (the space between your curb and the sidewalk) into a green area. Parkways are sometimes tough for trees, so consider planting hostas or colorful flowers for the bees, with a small bench or chair to admire them. You could also install bird and squirrel feeders, or a tiny library for your neighborhood.
  35. Make a fairy garden to display in your house—go collecting for tiny rocks and twigs to use in the design.
  36. Ask your child to be a tour guide and let them take you on a tour around your neighborhood. Ask them about local landmarks, trees, etc—you can encourage them to do actual research on these things, or to create their own stories around them.
  37. Look up the City Nature Challenge—it taps kids from hundreds of cities worldwide to observe the plants and animals all around them. Last year, citizen scientists documented 1,000 rare or endangered species, and a similar program in LA discovered 30 brand-new species of flies.
  38. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

    Hang nature-themed art in your house or in your child’s room.

  39. Engage with Project Learning Tree: it’s a Sustainable Forestry Initiative that uses trees to develop students’ knowledge and appreciation of the environment, foster skills for positive environmentally-friendly decisions, and cultivate personal responsibility. Their curriculums are created to supplement existing curriculum in schools for all grade levels and subject areas, and also includes non formal educational programs and collaborative ideas, like providing activities where students can earn Girl Scout Badges.
  40. Animal of the Week. Have your child present a report on the Animal of the Week, with only one requirement: it has to be one that lives in your area.
  41. Set up a rock tumbler and have your child contribute rocks they find on their outdoor rambles.
  42. Pick up trash around your neighborhood. 
  43. Research programs with your kids like Garden for Wildlife program with National Wildlife Federation.
  44. Bring animals to your children and their friends: some local wildlife rehabilitation center will do events!
  45. Have a pet. This requires an investment as you often have to do some/lots of work, but it also can be a great way to develop responsibility for your child. 
  46. Set up a bug box. This can be as simple as a kit you order online, or as extensive as creating a terrestrial or aquatic biome with various life forms.
  47. Replace home items with more nature focused items, such as replacing art supplies with homemade dyes from flowers and vegetables, or sequins or glitter with tiny hole-punched leaves.

With thoughtfulness and intention, it can be fun to get our kids outside more while becoming a consistent part of your family life. We just need to do it!

Adapted from a presentation by Chelsea Convis at the Children’s Literature Association Conference, 2022.