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Oregon Family Magazine

Bringing the Outside In

08/28/2023 ● By Beth Stein
Coming up with Plan B is something nature educators do all the time. When you work outdoors, and with children, you’re always prepared to pivot. Regardless of whether it’s pouring or you feel like you’re roasting in a solar oven, you have to keep kids happily moving down the trail. Since some children toddle like turtles and others race like cheetahs, coordinated forward motion can be a challenge. But nature educators are good at modifying their plans, as are parents and other caregivers who spend time outside. These days, however, too often we’ve all had to push way past Plan B to Plan I – stay INDOORS – because wildfires have made the air unhealthy to breathe. This has been rough on everyone, from outdoor educators who have to cancel programs to parents stuck inside with children bouncing off the walls.

So how can you make the best of this difficult situation?

When you (or your kids’ camp instructors) can’t take your kids outdoors, you can bring the outside in! With a little planning and some creative thinking, nature play inside can help you weather the storm of Plan I days no matter where you live. Read on for ideas.

1)    Create a Natural Loose Parts Bin. Ahead of time, on good days for outdoor exploration, have your kids collect a medley of interesting small cones, stones, twigs, fallen lichen, shells, acorns, and the like. Put these natural materials into a bin that you can tuck away when your kids are not playing with them. Then on a Plan I day, designate a space where your kids can create nature art designs or build fairy houses and gnome homes with their loose parts. Add in some fabric scraps and little plastic animals for even more fun. Have kids clean up when they’re finished so you don’t feel like your living room has turned into the forest floor.

2)    Collect Wild Animal Dress Ups. Adventure out to a thrift shop and find some animal print or fur-colored shirts for a Wild Animal Dress Up collection. Adult clothing racks will include more choices and will also provide big shirts that offer fun full coverage. Store your camo clothes in a special bin or bag so they can be taken out at specific play times rather than just mixing them in with other dress ups. For even more fun, get some face paint! 

3)    Design a Nature Museum. Using things from your Loose Parts collection, or other natural items you have at home, encourage your kids to create a hands-on Nature Museum. Have them design displays, make “fun fact” lists, set up activity stations, and create tickets for entry. Then have them share their collections with you or other guests.

4)    Set Up an Indoor Campsite. If you have a small tent with self-supporting poles, set it up inside. Also get out sleeping bags, pads, headlamps, and other camping gear. Make clear rules about how to use/not use the tent and other equipment, and let your kids have fun pretending to camp. While this may take up some floor space in your home or apartment, it will also happily occupy your energetic children for quite some time.

5)    Allow Natural Tub Time. Remember those loose parts? They can come in handy for water play as well as pretend play. Fill up the tub, plop in your kids, and let them experiment with what floats and what sinks in nature. They can also build bark and twig boats for acorn people and make shell homes for mermaids! (This one is not for everyone, and if you do it, be sure you have a good drain trap so natural loose parts don’t clog up your pipes. You can also set this up small scale in a plastic dish washing tub.) 

6)    Read Books About Outdoor Adventures. A couple fun ones we like include The Hike by Alison Farrell and HIKE by Pete Oswald. The Hike is about three children who take off on a hiking adventure by themselves and features Northwest plants and animals that kids actually see around here – snowberry, old man’s beard lichen, Steller’s jays, and more! Most picture books are much more East Coast centric. The HIKE is about a boy and his dad who head off on a mountain adventure together, and is wordless, but lots of fun and imagination inspiring.

7)    Check out Nearby Nature’s Explore Activities. You’ll find our collection at These nature crafts, puzzles, scavenger hunts, and more include many Nearby Nature favorites developed over 30+ years of teaching. They were formally documented during COVID times to support families in need of fun home-based activities for their children. Although some are best outdoors, many are perfect for bringing the outside in!