Connecting With Nature: Explore a Pond

Explore a pond via The Risky Kids
Oftentimes as parents we feel like in order to make nature a part of our children’s lives we must make time for some grand expedition. We feel we must pack up the car and the gear, travel to the park or the nature preserve or the trails, and make an entire day of it. And while that is all well and good (and should be done now and then, according to the Nature Connection Pyramid), we can all make nature exploration a part of our lives without much time, effort or money. I’m so inspired by the practicality of the Nature Connection Pyramid, and its potential to encourage families to make nature a part of their everyday lives in many different ways. As I’m inspired, I’ll be sharing ways in which we’ve incorporated the suggestions of the Nature Connection Pyramid into our lives.

nature connection pyramid

This past week was our Spring Break, and we spent most of it close to home, giving the kids ample opportunities for unstructured outdoor play. Eli ran free with his neighborhood friends and cousins, taking advantage of warm weather and freed from the constraints of an earlier bedtime. Elena and a friend planned their own picnic, baking a cake, shopping for supplies, and exploring a waterfall.


We also carved out a morning to do some nature exploring near our neighborhood. I noticed on a run the other week that the neighborhood behind ours has a wooded area with a pond. We set off on bikes, filling a backpack with some empty jars and a magnifying glass.

Exploring a pond

I was hoping we might find tadpoles, but it appears to be too early in the season for them. We’ll definitely check back often in the next few weeks in hopes of catching some.

Tadpoles or no tadpoles, there was still plenty to explore. There was mucky mud to squish our boots in, bright green moss to feel, and logs to balance on.

Boy and pond

Eli was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see any signs of life in the water, but I encouraged him to fill a jar with water anyways. We took it home with us and had a look with the magnifying glass.

Studying pond water

Have you ever looked at pond water up close? I thought we might see something, but I was wholly unprepared for the variety of tiny life contained in a jar of pond water! We saw teeny-tiny water bugs, some kind of beetle, a small crustracean-like critter (called a scud) scavenging the muck on the bottom, and several worm-like creatures. It was fascinating (and an excellent reminder to be thankful for clean water to drink)!

I hope you’ll make some time this week to do some nature exploring close to home! In the meantime, what are some of your favorite ways to explore nature with your kids?

This post is also included in the No Such Thing As Bad Weather Outdoor Play Party Roundup. Visit for some great ideas!


The Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights

Our Spring Break begins today, and as I look at the 10-day forecast it seems as if our break will have at least a few days of the wonderful spring weather we’ve been dreaming of. As the kids and I brainstormed and made a list of things we’d like to do over the break, I was reminded of another list I picked up while attending the Indiana Children and Nature Network meeting a couple of weeks ago.

It’s the Indiana Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, and you can download a copy for yourself from the Indiana Department of Natural Resource’s website. While it’s geared toward getting Indiana’s children outside and connecting with nature, it obviously translates to children all over the world. I love the list format. I don’t know about you, but my kids love a good list! There is such satisfaction in checking off the things you’ve done.  And how satisfying will it be to finally get outdoors again without layer upon layer and check this fun activities off one by one? Here’s the list:

1. Explore and play outdoors in a safe place.

Follow a nature trail via The Risky Kids

2. Follow a trail and discover native plants, wildlife and history.

Fishing with kids via The Risky Kids

3. Experience traditional outdoor activities like fishing and hunting.

4. Discover and celebrate Indiana’s past (or whatever part of the world you call home).

Camping with kids via The Risky Kids

5. Camp under the stars.

Climb a tree via The Risky Kids

6. Climb a tree.

Visit a farm via The Risky Kids

7. Visit a farm.

8. Plant a seed or tree and watch it grow.

Play in a stream via The Risky Kids

9. Splash and play in streams, lakes and ponds.

Geocache Tree

10. Enjoy the outdoors using all the senses.

11. Ask questions, find answers, and share nature with a friend.

What would you add to your own Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights?



Book Review: Go Wild! 101 Things To Do Outdoors Before You Grow Up

This post contains affiliate links.

As soon as I saw this book I knew it was something I’d have to read and share with you! And what better timing than Spring, when we’re all anxious to get outdoors.

Go Wild! 101 Things To Do Outdoors Before You Grow UP

Go Wild!: 101 Things to Do Outdoors Before You Grow Up, written by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks, was written to to inspire kids between the ages of 11-16 to explore and enjoy the wild, and to make it a part of every day life. The authors wrote it with an emphasis on fun, but also with a passion for making outdoor skills real and attainable. They noted that many kids are familiar with extreme survival shows. And while they may happily watch on them TV, they never realize they can attempt actual (though less dramatic) outdoor expeditions in real life.

While the book is geared toward tweens and teens, I found several activities that I could tailor to include Eli (6), such as making a one-person leaf hut, making a tepee, and knot tying. However the emphasis of the book is teaching outdoor survival skills to older kids with the idea that at some point you can turn them loose outdoors by themselves.

The book is divided into 8 sections: Shelter, Fire, Foraging, Cooking Outdoors, Tools & Weapons, Bushcraft (wilderness) Skills, Water & Keeping Clean, and Keeping Safe. It would serve as a valuable resource not only to adventurous kids, but to families or adults who want to learn more about outdoor camping and survival skills.

Go Wild! Shelter Building

image via

A few activities we’ll be trying for sure? Crayfishing, for one! The authors describe how to build a simple crayfish trap, using a small,plastic basket with holes for the water to drain, some string, and raw bacon. While we probably won’t eat them, I know we’d enjoy trapping and observing them for a bit.

How about slingshot paintballing? Fill paper towels with flour, twist them up and tie or tape them shut. After you have enough ammo for a fight, use slingshots to launch them at each other. They’ll explode on impact! It’s totally unnecessary for outdoor survival, but sometimes you have to lure kids (especially older ones) away from screens with the promise of great fun first. From the weapons section I’d also love to make our own peashooters.

I particularly enjoyed how the authors used anecdotes of their own experiences and photographs of their own children. They acknowledge that with their own kids, they worried and wondered if they were irresponsible in the freedom they gave them. I appreciated their honesty. It makes me feel better to know that other parents struggle with the fine line between letting our children experience life, with all its inherent risks, and protecting them from harm. This quote from the authors helps to put it in perspective:

“Perhaps the biggest risk young people face is taking no risk at all.”

Indeed it is. Check out “Go Wild” and start taking some fun (yet valuable) outdoor risks! You can learn more about the authors and their other books at


10 Ways to Ring in Spring!

Tomorrow is the first day of spring! Can I get an amen for those of us who feel as if this winter has overstayed its welcome? To celebrate, I came up with 10 playful ways to ring in spring’s arrival.

Fly a kite

1. Fly a kite.

Take advantage of spring’s blustery days and fly a kite! I don’t buy fancy kites, and I’ve been known to scoop up a few when I see them on sale. If we lose one or the string is hopelessly tangled we just move on to a new one!

Enjoy a spring shower

2. Enjoy a spring shower.

Stomp in the puddles, twirl your umbrella, make friends with the worms! Who says you can only play outside when it’s sunny and dry? Not us!

Geocaching with kids

3. Try letterboxing or geocaching.

Spend the dreary days learning about letterboxing and geocaching so that you’re ready to go when good weather and inspiration strikes.  If you’re just starting out, it can be easier to locate the cache in the spring, before the heavy foliage of summer takes over. While you’re searching, take note of what you see. What’s budding and blooming? Then return in the summer, fall, and winter and note how the location has changed through the seasons.

wild mushrooms

4. Forage for mushrooms or edible plants.

Find some guidebooks to help you. Not only are they a valuable resource, they can provide hours of quiet time on icky weather days as kids leaf through the pages. Last fall we discovered that we can forage wild hickory nuts in our neighborhood. Who knows what we’ll find this year? I’ve got my fingers crossed for morels!

5. Play with chalk and puddles.

Colorful sidewalk chalk is another item I keep on hand year-round and buy extras when I see them on sale. We call mixing chalk and water making a “colorful river” at our house, and it’s beautiful fun.

make up an outdoor game

6. Learn a new outdoor game (or rediscover a childhood favorite).

Or make up your own, as we did in the photo above! (The game was War Ball. Everyone dragged out a variety of balls from their garages, lined them up in the middle, and split into teams. When the game starts, everyone rushes to the center, grabs a ball, and starts throwing. Like Dodge Ball, when you’re hit, you’re out.) Sure, you remember playing hopscotch, foursquare, and red rover … but do your kids know how to play? Get a group of kids involved in a game and then slowly back away and let the magical childhood memories commence.

7. Search for tadpoles.

We’ve been scoping out what we think is the perfect tadpole habitat. It’s still too cold, but in a few weeks we hope to collect some tadpoles and watch them grow. Stay tuned for details!

play in the mud

8. Play in the mud.

Little toes were made for squishing in the mud. Heck, so are big toes, for that matter!

Of course the weather doesn’t always cooperate, and spring doesn’t necessarily mean sunshine or warm showers. For days that look more like winter, try these activities that will still get you in a spring-y mood:

Nature Center Animals

9. Explore your local nature center.

Bring the outdoors indoors! Many nature centers switch their exhibits and programming for spring. They might even offer some special spring-themed hikes or activities. Click the link above for more information on how to find a nature center near you.

10. Give indoor rock climbing a try.

This is on our Spring Break must-do list. My kids have been begging to try!

What are your favorite activities to ring in spring? Be sure to share them in the comments! For more outdoor inspiration,  follow The Risky Kids Pinterest boards!


Getting Kids Outdoors: ICAN Do It (and You Can Help)!

Play Outdoors

Yesterday I had the privilege of sitting in a room filled with people who have the same mission as we do here at The Risky Kids: to get kids outside as much as possible. I was there with educators, non-profits, medical professionals and law enforcement officers to learn more about the Indiana Children and Nature Network (ICAN).

ICAN is a grassroots movement organized by outdoor and environmental educators from around the state of Indiana. Their goal is to connect children, families and communities to nature and the great outdoors. They called us together because they want and need our help to spread the message and get kids outdoors. Their main focus right now is broken into three groups:

The Medical Community (mainly pediatricians and family practitioners): using them to spread the word and educate parents on the importance of children spending time outside each day.

Early Childhood Educators: introduce young children to the outdoors early to build lifelong habits.

Family Nature Clubs: facilitate the development of Family Nature Clubs throughout Indiana, connecting families and communities to nature.

And that’s where I come in. In addition to starting our own Family Nature Club, I’m hoping to help inspire and educate others on how they can do the same. As I sat there listening to the spirited discussions, one audience member pointed out that in the end, it is the parents that need convincing. They have to feel as if they are doing a good thing by letting their kids roam and play outside, instead of feeling like bad or neglectful parents.

I stood up and introduced myself and told them about The Risky Kids, and all of my wonderful readers. I told them about how that is exactly what inspires me to share our story week after week: to build confidence among families that they can choose a more playful life, with more joy and less worry. That this kind of parenting is the new (old) normal, and that by giving our kids the gift of freedom and outdoor time we are raising a happy, healthy, self-reliant generation of kids.

I will continue to keep you up to date on the progression of ICAN’s mission and on the Family Nature Club. In the meantime, please check out their website, including their resources for starting your own Family Nature Club. If you’re not local to Indiana, check out the Children & Nature Network for more information on how you can get involved. Finally, I’ll leave you with the Nature Connection Pyramid. This was a handout we received and I couldn’t love it anymore. It’s such a helpful and wonderful reminder of how important outside time is for kids, and how easily it can be incorporated into our everyday life. Enjoy … and go play outside!

nature connection pyramid


Creating a Natural Backyard Kids Can’t Wait to Play In

Plans to enhance backyard play

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of moving into our new house. Last spring and summer we were too busy unpacking boxes and getting settled to put much thought into our backyard. Now that we’ve had almost a full year to observe things like what’s growing in the yard and how the kids play, we’re ready to make a few changes and improvements.

What do we love about our backyard? Well, the trees, for one. We have lots of trees that provide nice shade in the heat of the summer. We have a large deck with plenty of built-in seating as well as a swing. The previous owners also left behind a very nice playset. Although our kids rarely play in it, it is a nice draw for the younger kids in the neighborhood. It’s a very large backyard, so there’s lots of room to run and play.

As much as we love it, there is a downside. Because of the trees and the shade, it’s impossible to grow grass in the majority of the yard. As a result, a large portion of the yard becomes rather overgrown by mid-summer with weeds and brush. While we know that keeping some of that is important for wild life, it definitely inhibits the kids from playing in parts of the yard. We also worry about it being an eyesore, as most of the yards around us are very well manicured.

Our goal for the backyard is to transform it into an outdoor space that encourages play, invites relaxation and community, provides sanctuary for wildlife, and looks nice. It’s a tall order, and it will have to be done in phases over the next few years, but I know we can make it happen. Here are a few ideas I have that I think we can implement this spring and summer:


As we clear out some of the brush, I’d like to replace it with plants that encourage natural play. Some of the brush will stay, as it provides a habitat for insects kids love, like grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars.

Loose Parts:

Having the space is nice, but kids need things that will inspire play. Loose parts encourage all kinds of open-ended play. Sticks, rocks, PVC pipe, buckets, shovels, and funnels are a must. We have some pea gravel that the previous owners left behind – I’d like to keep it as well as a dirt pile for the kids to dig in.

Active Play:

In addition to the play set, I’d like to get some other items that fit well with the natural landscape but encourage active play. I’m thinking tree stumps for climbing, something to balance on, and a rope swing. We have some large rocks in a mulched area of the yard that I’d love to move to the wilder area so the kids can jump and climb on them.

Relaxation and Community:

We have a freestanding fire pit the owners left behind. We used it a lot last year, but it’s on it’s last legs. Mike is going to build us a permanent fire pit. I love thinking of evenings spent outside with the neighbors and their kids, visiting while the kids roast marshmallows.


You know I love my birds! I plan to add a few bird feeders. I think a bat house would also be a cool addition. We end up with a lot of sticks in our yard. Instead of getting rid of them, I plan to designate a spot in the yard for a woodpile. Not only will it provide kindling for the fire pit and loose parts for play, it’s a good habitat for bugs, amphibians and small mammals.

I will definitely keep you posted as these ideas become a reality in our backyard. In the meantime, feel free to follow my Risky Backyard Pinterest board for even more inspiration. If you’ve added anything to your backyard that’s enhanced the outdoor play experience, please share!



The Great Backyard Bird Count 2014

Robin Great Backyard Bird Count

I don’t know what it is about birds, but I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with them. We always have at least a finch feeder out, and I get so much enjoyment from watching them out my back window.

Learning about birds, feeding the birds, and observing the birds that make frequent your little corner of the world is a wonderful way to connect kids with nature in a very real way. It takes very little time or money, and it can be done year-round.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Every year the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society partner together for the Great Backyard Bird Count. This year’s GBBC is right around the corner, February 14-17, 2014. The goal of the GBBC is to collect data on wild birds, which in turn helps scientists learn more about wild birds and to get the big picture on the status of the wild bird population. It helps them learn about things like how climate change is affecting bird populations, migration patterns of different species, if bird diseases are affecting birds in different regions, and the differences in bird species and numbers in urban, suburban and rural areas.

The best part about the GBBC is that they want and need your help! Simply spend at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the GBBC tallying the numbers and kinds of birds you see. Everything you need to know about how to participate can be found at  Beyond learning more about the birds in your own backyard, it’s a cool way to be a part of a great big science project. And I’m always a fan of using resources like bird guides to foster a love of non-fiction reading and research skills. Of course there’s also an online bird guide and some cool birding apps for your tech-loving kids.

Hawk Great Backyard Bird Count

We’ll be participating as a family – hope you’ll join us!


Winter Kayaking


Most people think of kayaking as a warm weather activity, but have you ever tried winter kayaking?  Lisa tells us how … and why you’ll want to give it a go!

My friend Linda flew in from Michigan to kayak one weekend last year. We’d planned to do three different rivers in three days. With two rivers down and one to go, I asked Thomas if he would like to join us for Sunday’s paddle. He surprised me and said, “Yes!” I admit, I freaked. It was March in middle Tennessee and it was cold. The temperature had been hovering right about freezing. We’d had snow all for the two previous days. They were the beautiful delicate flakes that melted as soon as they hit the water. But still? He didn’t have the right gear and he had never paddled in the winter.

Linda looked at me and said, “Your son wants to go with us and we’re going to make it happen!” It pays to have risky friends!

We chose a closer river, pieced together the correct gear, arranged an early exit option for Thomas and packed lots of snacks.

In preparation, we told him what to do in case he flipped his kayak. Swim to the nearest shore, don’t worry about your boat, get out of the water and take off all of your wet clothes  (things we didn’t imagine saying when we signed up for motherhood).

We had the best paddle ever!

We practiced our stealth mode. This is useful for floating under low branches.


Thomas elected to do the entire paddle with us. He was a rockstar. There was no drama, no complaining, no tears. Just pure joy and pride. I am so grateful that Linda encouraged me to take Thomas with us.


We all made it safely to our take out spot. I got to spend the day sharing my passion with my son. I got to see him spend time in nature. He got to talk and paddle and be still and float. It was an amazing day.

Please remember that paddling in cold conditions is not only risky, it can be dangerous. Linda and I are experienced cold water paddlers. We dressed appropriately and packed for emergency situations. We both had cell phones in dry bags around our necks at all times. Depending on water and air temperatures, hypothermia can start with as little as fifteen minutes of exposure to the water.  If it’s something you’d like to try, don’t let these things stop you, but please be smart and find an experienced paddler to accompany you the first time.

While you definitely have to take different precautions to kayak in the winter, it’s worth the effort to experience nature in winter’s light.


Start a Family Nature Club

Family Nature Club

When I asked other parents about what keeps them from playing outdoors with their kids, I got some eye-opening responses. A few of the most common answers were that they don’t enjoy certain aspects of outdoor play, that it’s boring, or that they’re afraid of some of the elements that go along with nature (bugs, poison ivy, animals, etc).

It’s a shame, but it’s completely understandable. When there’s a barrier that keeps you from trying something you might enjoy, one of the best ways to surmount it is to enlist the help of friends. When something is daunting or you don’t know where to start, having someone else to help you through it or encourage you can be the difference between doing and dreaming.

One of my family goals for this year is to get us out and about in nature more. We’re great about playing outside, but I would love to see us do more hiking, camping, and exploring the many trails and parks around us. Our tree identification project also sparked a desire in me to learn more about the plants and animals around us. I have lots of great ideas, but often lack the motivation to get out and do them. Or maybe I have the motivation, but the kids are less than enthused because they want to hang out with friends rather than just each other.

That’s why I’m so excited to see about the prospect of starting our own family nature club.  Family nature clubs are a way for families to get together with others and explore nature together. By banding together with other families, you have the encouragement, the community, and the opportunity to share ideas for activities and new places with a group. Anyone can start a nature club and it can be made up of any group of people you like – friends, neighbors, schoolmates, playgroups, church groups, or random local internet friends (my favorite!).

The Indiana Children and Nature Network has links to great online resources you can use to start your own nature club. If you’re local, you can attend a free training session with an ICAN representative at Cool Creek Nature Center in Carmel on Saturday, January 18 from 2-5 p.m. You can register here.

I’m excited to start our own club, meet some new friends, and explore around us. Is this something you think you’d like to try?


Repost: DIY Slingshot

Over the holidays I’m taking a little break from blogging. Throughout the week I’ll be reposting some of the most popular posts from The Risky Kid archives.  Slingshots are still a big hit at our house, and if we ever see a stick that’s a good candidate for a slingshot we feel compelled to pick it up. You never know when it might come in handy! This fall we hit the jackpot on slingshot ammo: acorns and hickory nuts. Add a target or a pyramid of plastic cups and you’ll have hours of target practice fun.

Make Your Own Slingshot

Task:  Make an awesome shooting tool.


Forked stick

Rubber bands (Medium to long rubber bands work best. You can always tie a couple together if you don’t have bigger ones on hand.)

Scrap of leather or cloth

Pebbles, peas, flower buds, acorns … pretty much any small object for ammunition.

Clear area  (without people, pets, or other things that might get damaged)

Possible Hazards:

Danger to others (depending on your aim!)

Projectiles (you’ll shoot your eye out!)

Property damage


How It All Went Down:

In a circumstance of happy coincidence, Eli and I found the perfect forked stick on our way to throw rocks.  Therefore, that’s my first piece of advice if you want to make your own slingshot:  always be on the lookout for the perfect stick.  Nothing will slow your weapon-making roll like not being able to find a single useful forked stick when you want one.

After that, it was pretty simple.  We chose a piece of fairly thin, supple leather for our ammunition pocket.  Elena followed the instructions and put the slingshot together herself in about 5 minutes.  It’s a sturdy little weapon (okay, we might have needed a little bit of duct tape), and it’s been fun for the kids to work on target practice.  It’s not hard at all to launch a pebble a great distance … it’s the aim and accuracy that takes lots of practice.

We’re on the prowl for more perfect sticks.  One slingshot isn’t going to be enough, especially over the summer.  They’re fun and very portable and the envy of the neighborhood.  Every kid wants to try it and every parent yells at the other kids to get out of the way (rightly so).  Without realizing it, the kids are learning about aim, trajectory, effect of ammunition size and shape … basically their own little hands-on version of Angry Birds.

If you just can’t find that perfect stick or you want to bypass the whole DIY bit, you can purchase a ready-made slingshot.

Make a Slingshot

Slingshot how-to

  1. Make a pocket for your slingshot.  Cut a small rectangle out of leather or a scrap of sturdy cloth.  You can either tie the rubber bands to the pocket, or cut two small holes at the edges and loop the bands through.
  2. Assemble the slingshot.  Tie the rubber bands to the ends of a forked stick.
  3. Gather your ammunition and get ready to shoot!  Place your ammunition in the pocket and trap it by pinching with your thumb and forefinger.  Hold the handle steady at an arm’s length.  Pull back on the pocket, aim, and fire!
  4. Have fun coming up with different targets and ammunition.  Aluminum cans, paper bulls-eyes and lines of action figures make great targets.  Of course if you have terrible aim, you can always start with the broad side of a barn.
Did you ever own or make a slingshot as a kid?  If you make your own, I’d love to see your photos on our Facebook page!

Want more?  Read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).