Outdoor Activities For Kids At Home – Loving Nature and Adventure From Your Own Backyard

A young boy wearing snug winters clothing, running away from the camera through a field of dry grass
How on earth do two highly energetic, details driven people find themselves staring down the barrel of yet another school holidays with nothing planned, and another COVID lock-down to boot?

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If you’re scrambling for outdoor activities for kids at home – you’re not alone.

I’m a planner by nature, I plan everything and get annoyed with those who insist on a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to life; constantly making last minute arrangements and the inevitable subsequent cancellation – you know who you are! So being totally unprepared for a three-week stint with three kids has thrown me.

I considered a last-minute jaunt to the coast or a family camping trip, but without the required forethought and planning, even being your own boss doesn’t allow this much flexibility. Yet I yearn for an escape, as put so well by one of my favourite modern adventurers.

“You may have felt it before. A surge of joy, a feeling of wholeness, a spontaneous connection to something greater than yourself. Those moments when the sun sets or rises, sitting quietly by a mountain or the sea. There might be a shiver down your spine, an emotional shift – a kind of release. It’s perfectly normal, this feeling. It’s called experiencing nature. That connection is a sense of belonging in the natural world. – Doron & Stephanie Francis – Homecamp.

With COVID once again forcing so many of us back into lock-down, or some form of restricted movement, over yet another school holidays no less, this wonderful feeling may seem like it’s slipping even further out of our grasp. As a society the opportunities to experience nature have grown even narrower during COVID, resulting in mental health issues, anxiety, attention disorders and depression – there’s even a name for it: Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv in his bestselling book ‘Last Child in the Woods’. There is no formal diagnosis for this, it’s just a way to describe the psychological, cognitive and costs of human alienation from nature which can be experienced quite acutely by children (Psychology Today, 2009 No More “Nature-Deficit Disorder” | Psychology Today).

Science and quasi-science is slowly catching up with what we have intuitively known for a long time. That spending more time outdoors is good for our health and wellbeing. With that in mind I decided to look in my own ‘backyard’ for some solution to school holiday boredom.

I am a huge fan of the micro-adventure and all the possibilities on offer in my own microcosm, just waiting to be freshly discovered, especially these school holidays by little hands and inquiring minds. What I also love is the idea of combining a micro-adventure with some gathering, growing and learning to love all that nature has to offer as a modern-day adventurer.

So read on below for some adventure packed ideas about what to do these school holidays, to get your little ones outdoors, connecting with- and learning about the environment.

A young smiling boy wearing snug winters clothing, crawling through dry grass

The art of foraging

Walking into the woods on a foraging expedition isn’t about braving the elements or conquering nature, for me it’s the sense of anticipation of the little teacup shaped treasures waiting to be found, it’s the crisp mountain air and the crunch of dry leaves and twigs under your feet. Early to mid-autumn most years I take my family into the forest around Hanging Rock to forage from the earth and learn the different types of fungi on offer.

A woman and a young girl walking foraging for mushrooms in the forest and a basket containing collected mushrooms

Autumn is wild mushroom season and the radiata pine plantations around Hanging Rock are prime areas for a fungi forage. This is because the pine trees rely on a symbiotic relationship with the mushrooms to grow. We look for a few different mushrooms, Slippery Jacks (Suillus luteus, S. granulatus and S. quiescens) and Saffron Milk Caps (Lactarius deliciosus).

Slippery Jacks are mushroom shaped with yellowish pores on the underside of the cap and a slimy layer on the cap surface. The flesh doesn’t stain blue when its cut. There are several species in Australia, but they are all found around the exotic pine trees. Suillius luteus has a white membrane veil covering the pores when young, leaving a ring on the stem. Suillus granulatus has a stem with fine dots on it and S. quiescens has a short stem with no rings. Saffron milk caps are a bright orange with darker concentric rings on top of the cap and have an indentation in the centre. The stem is hollow when cut. The orange gills exude an orange milky latex and bruise a green colour when touched. Before cooking, caps of the Slippery Jacks should be peeled.

The season usually lasts until early winter, so you could be lucky and find some edible mushies still in the forest, if not it’s still an enchanting way to spend a few hours. When foraging for mushrooms it’s very important to remember that eating wild mushrooms can cause poisoning, so you need to be good at identifying the safe ones before eating any of your haul. More information is available on the NSW Forestry Corporation ‘Mushrooms in NSW State Forests’ factsheet (Mushrooms in NSW State forests (forestrycorporation.com.au)

A sea of stars

One of the best parts about camping for me when I was a kid was seeing the sea of stars in the night sky, our outback adventurers taught me why the milky way was called ‘milky’ (if you can’t answer that question, you really need to get out of the city), it’s not till you’re away from the city light pollution that you can fully appreciate where its name comes from. These school holidays a trip away may not be possible, but you can still get re-acquainted with the good life outdoors by sleeping out under the stars in your own backyard. We have a swag, and sometimes will set it up next to a campfire in our yard – because natural beauty isn’t only remote and wild.

A group of children sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows with a tent behind them

Natural Park

I will always remember the time when my beautiful niece was visiting and begged her mum to take her to the park (my fault, I had said we were going). She was so upset when I told her that I had meant that we were going into our own backyard because we have a park right here! Oh dear! We are lucky enough to have a natural wonderland right on our doorstep. Unfortunately, I had set the expectation and my enthusiasm for trees and rocks wasn’t enough to mend that broken heart.

I like to think that seeing fun, games and creativity is a frame of mind, re-frame the way your kids see nature and objects in nature to realise that we live in a playground. Hay bales turn into super-sized steppingstones; a pile of gravel into a climbing tower ready to be summited and hay shed rafters become monkey bars. In saying that, kids are just little adults and need time to readjust after the rigidity of school life, they need time and space to let their creative juices start to flow again so that they can see the wonder around them.

A young boy climbing a fallen tree log, a young girl with a purple dress standing in a vegetable garden and a young boy standing tall on a straw bale

Build a frog pond

My son is a lover of all things creepy crawly, slimy, and if it bites or stings even better. So, for his last birthday he decided he wanted a frog pond because he had become fascinated with the large green tree frogs that live in his great nan’s outdoor spa bath and thought he could entice them to come live with us if only we had a suitable habitat. Lucky for him he has two parents who are scientists, so we got really enthusiastic about this gift and cleared out a small bit of garden near the house to build a pond. We researched pond shapes and sizes, what types of plants frogs like (lavender, marigold, fennel  to name a few), read articles such as “Getting Started – Frog Bog Basics” that informed us that we needed 70% shade, 30% sun, leaf litter for tadpole food and algae growth. As an environmental scientist I was aware that any runoff of herbicides and pesticides into our bog could be deadly to our frogs, so we decided to design around preventing any stormwater ingress, just in case. Through this research we refined our understanding of how to make a homely frog bog where our green friends would soon be singing kumbaya.  

We were now ready to build! Armed with our knowledge we took the whole family for an outing to Bunnings to buy our set-up. We hadn’t really set a budget, it was a birthday present after all, so usually we would spend no more than $100 and thought this adequate to get a decent pond and small pump…well were we wrong! But we were all in by now, the kids were excited, it was the promised birthday gift and we had set aside the whole day to build this thing as a family. One and a half hours later and $550 lighter we left Bunnings with a black plastic ‘natural’ shaped bog-to-be, a solar powered recirculating pump and gravel.

We had wanted to buy a larger ‘bog shell’ with more variation in depth to allow the frogs and tadpoles a choice of water temperature and depth, but quickly realised that was way out of the already blown budget, so we decided to make do and pile in the rocks and logs to create a varying depth habitat (as shown below). You may not realise this but Australian frogs are actually used to their homes drying out during summer and take the opportunity to shelter under surrounding damp vegetation, so our less than ideal pond may actually be perfect!

Our next step was to secure food for our green friends because by doing this we would be benefitting ourselves too! Frogs eat insects and help control insect populations, and these insects are their main food source. Attracting insects can be done by installing a light near your frog bog, that will shine at night and attract their dinner (Creating frog-friendly habitats – Land for Wildlife (lfwseq.org.au)). We ended up placing our pond near a bedroom window and figured that there would be enough light from there in the early evening to attract some food.

Our frog bog was built in roughly half a day, and now we sit back and wait in anticipation for the night time serenades…oops, did I say we built it outside a bedroom window!

A young boy and a young girl walking through a vegetable garden and picking produce

Get your veggie garden ready for Spring

With winter in full swing, you would probably have lettuce, silverbeet, radishes and pumpkins coming out your ears. Or, if you’re like me you have found that life has become a little too busy of late to keep up with the planting, weeding, feeding regime and you let your veggie garden go many months ago. Well, why not take the opportunity of the school holidays to get the kids involved with the garden and help you pull out weeds, rake over beds and prepare the soil for a spring planting when the frost is done. After the weeds are all gone from my veggie patch, I’ll be bringing in some composted green waste from our local waste management centre to spread over the beds. Our property is situated mostly on granite sands, and when we built our raised veggie beds we tried to import as little as possible in the way of additives to get the garden established. Therefore, over the years we have tried many different cost-effective solutions to try and increase the amount of organic matter in our garden soils. In recent years we stumbled across the local tips composted green waste and using this in conjunction with broken down cow poo from our paddocks and native clay, it’s been like a tonic for our nutrient stripped soils. We now have worms galore in every bed and no more excessive drainage problems because we greatly improved the water holding capacity. So why not let the kids get their hands dirty these school holidays and help you overhaul your veggie garden, ready for a big spring/summer crop.

Get the kids into beekeeping

Kids love bees, and I say this from experience. We have had beehives for several years and our kids love getting suited up and smoking the bees whilst we remove frames or check the bees’ health. Originally, we set up our little colony using a ‘Flow Hive’ (Honey Straight From The Hive | Australian Made & Invented – Flow Hive AU (honeyflow.com.au) and we loved the look and perceived lower cost. Unfortunately, our bees didn’t and wouldn’t build out the comb! This was strange but we were still quite new to beekeeping, so it’s possible we had set up our hive in a way that was unappealing to our buzzy friends. Nonetheless, we switched over to a traditional form of bee box and went on to produce a whopping 100L of honey last year alone. If you’re looking at becoming an apiarist, despite our lack of success, I would suggest you give the Flow Hive a go. It’s really kid friendly for starters because you can collect the honey with a turn of a handle and the kids don’t have to get suited up to do it. It also allows you to view the inside of your hive without needing to smoke the bees and remove lids. The most interesting part of keeping bees, besides all that lovely golden, runny honey is paying close attention to the way the hive works and watching the bees go about their daily tasks of collecting pollen, protecting the hive, raising the baby bees or being a queen and revered by your entire population. Kids find the details fascinating and love watching the bees at work. You can purchase the hive online and get in contact with your local apiary club to find other local beekeepers who you can buy a split from. You can also mail-order queens…the mail order bride of the bee world.

Armed with a renewed enthusiasm and love of the outdoors and all the possibilities, embrace the cold these school holidays, and make some beautiful memories with the little people in your life.

A young girl dressed in a purple dress standing in a chicken coop ready to feed the hens walking around her

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