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Adventures in LearningEvery time I read an article about how America’s children are a collective mess of flabby couch potatoes, I feel a surge of pride, because my daughters and I spend a lot of time outside. Every week, I take Isabelle, 8, and Lorelei, 6, to parks, ponds, prairies, creeks, and rivers. But I haven’t sprained too many muscles patting myself on the back because, deep down, I know that we may be taking our literal field trips not because I’m responsible, but because I’m cheap.

After all, it costs far less money to explore the Great Outdoors than to buy another Wii game. Still, spending time outside has paid off far beyond saving cash. I’m now in awe of both my kids because Lorelei, climbing trees and eager to start soccer, has become a little athlete, two words that have never been used to describe me (athlete or little). Meanwhile, Isabelle has talked about being a scientist for at least half her life. As someone who struggled to get a C- in high school chemistry, I realize it’s only a matter of time before Isabelle feels like she has to talk to me slowly, in short sentences.

Here are some outdoor activities that my daughters enjoy, and I’ll bet your kids will, too.

Letterboxing

Hard to explain, easy to do: It’s an activity that starts online (at letterboxing.org) and usually ends among cobwebs, weeds, and trees. Go to the site, click on Letterboxing North America, and you’ll see a map of the U.S. Within each state are places where letterboxes are hidden. Avid letterboxing enthusiasts hide these boxes—typically in parks and always in public places—and leave clues online on how to find them. The clues will usually tell you what park or landmark is the starting spot, and then give you instructions, like “head north” and “walk 13 paces to your left.” Follow them until you find the box, often in the hollow of a tree or in some bushes. The letterbox, a British term for mailbox, will probably have in it a notepad, a stamp, and an inkpad. You then make a stamp in a notebook of your own, and leave behind a marker that you were there (a stamp if you have one, or a short note). Lastly, you put the letterbox back exactly where you found it, so it’s just as challenging and fun for the next person to find.

How to get started

All you need to do is go to letterboxing.org and pick a spot near you. Bring a notebook and a stamp or a pencil.

What your kids will learn

Following directions, and they may learn some deductive reasoning. For instance, if the directions say 10 paces, did the letterboxer mean 10 adult paces, or 10 child-size paces? You almost can’t help but become something of a naturalist, since the clues will frequently point out that you’ll be passing, say, a walnut tree or that you’ll be going 20 yards through a special type of prairie grass.

Making it fun

Just as with anything, so much of this is attitude, excitement, and how you tell your kids about the activity. If you point out first that it’s a great way to exercise their minds and bodies—well, you’ll just lose them. Present it as a fun treasure hunt, with emphasis on the hunt and not the treasure, and they should be eager to get started. They might even want to be the ones who make up the clues and do the hiding of the letterboxes, which is fine as long as—obviously—you’re supervising the same way you do when you’re on the hunting side.

Bird-watching

Sure it sounds like an old person’s hobby, but don’t tell that to my thirtysomething wife who, with our kids, keeps a lifelong list of all the different birds they’ve spotted. It can take years to become a really gifted bird-watcher—I know I’ll never get past my current stage where I’m lucky enough to know that a cardinal is red and a bluebird is, well, blue. But even if you can’t tell an Eastern meadowlark from a Western one, basic bird-watching, not to mention good ol’ backyard bird feeding, is a great way to introduce kids to nature, and to give them a sense of how many species are out there.

How to get started

All you really need is a pad of paper and a pen, and you can start making a list of birds you recognize in your own backyard. Since what you can identify may be pretty limited, if you’re like me, you may want to buy a basic field guide or check one out from a library to help you distinguish birds. My wife recommends The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, for kids 8 to 12, written by the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest. A western edition hasn’t come out yet, so she suggests getting the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, which is reader-friendly to kids and bird-challenged grown-ups alike. And, of course, if you want to be a little more ambitious, you could spring for some kid-size binoculars, to help ensure that your child will stick with this for longer than five minutes. For the best results, don’t bird-watch in the middle of a boiling or freezing day during the summer or winter. Fall and spring, when birds are migrating, especially in the morning, are the best bird-watching times.

What your kids will learn

How to classify species, be good observers, and do research (in your bird book). Plus, the benefits of sticking with something. If you want to excel at bird-watching, it’s really a matter of logging in some time and getting familiar with birds. The more time you spend, the better you’ll be, and that’s a great lesson for any age.

Making it fun for the kids

Keep your binoculars on the lookout for nests that might have baby birds—that’s always a crowd-pleaser. Then, if fumbling through a paper field guide feels so twentieth century, at iBird.com you can find field guides for the iPhone and Android. And getbirdseye.com has an app for your iPhone and iPod. It’s kind of like Twitter for bird-watchers: Other birders will post what birds they’ve spotted, so you can find out what’s nearby.

You could also put up a feeder outside your child’s bedroom for instant bird-watching gratification. If you have the cash, the tech skills, and interest, you could install a nature cam in a birdhouse (some can be had for less than $100) and, if some feathered friends show up, watch the fun with your kids at the computer.

Collecting treasures

Sure, you could collect coins or stamps, but back to my penchant for being cheap, how about collecting free stuff? Lorelei has a growing collection of fossils, rocks, and shells that she collects from a nearby creek we frequent. Or maybe your kids will be more attracted to Isabelle’s collection: insects. In our backyard, Isabelle has caught lightning bugs, pill bugs, worms, crickets, grasshoppers, butterflies, and especially caterpillars, all of which she does on a catch-and-release basis. Except for the caterpillars. Those she raises, with the help of her mother and younger sister, into butterflies, which they then release into the wild. (This is trickier than it looks; you need to feed the caterpillars the proper leaves every day, until they start cocooning.) If you feel releasing the insects goes against the grain of a collection, you can always take photos of every critter your kids catch and put them on a CD or in a scrapbook.

How to get started

It’s incredibly easy: Just cover the top of a plastic container with netting (caterpillars need a dryer environment than what a plastic lid with air holes punched in it would provide) to serve as a temporary animal sanctuary, and a butterfly net (I’ve found butterfly nets at Target for as cheap as a buck). Of course, if you’re going to steer your child toward collecting rocks or fossils, all you really need is a bowl or space on a shelf.

What your kids will learn

Patience, for one thing. It can take repeated attempts to successfully catch a butterfly. Same goes for finding a fossil, shell, or rock worth taking home. You may even find your children reading books about the nature they are nurturing, or the fossil collection they’re building, and you might see a growing sense of confidence every time they make another discovery. Plus, if your kids are anything like mine, by experiencing nature up close and personal, they’ll come to love it, value it, and want to protect it. And as a bonus, traipsing about, looking for rocks and running after butterflies, also leads to some great exercise.

Making it fun for the kids

If they’re interested in the collection, you won’t have to do much. Collecting’s usually a kid-led adventure. What makes it fun for you is seeing their excitement and wonder. And, did I mention? It’s free. Enjoy.

Geoff Williams lives in Loveland, Ohio, and has written for publications as diverse as National Geographic Kids and CNNMoney.com. He’s also the co-author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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