I’ll be the first to admit that when I was a kid, my favorite part of summer vacation was holing up in the den, shades drawn, so I could watch cartoons all day while eating popsicles. But I don’t really remember anything about my time spent indoors—other than how awesome the popsicles always were.
No, my favorite summer memories are the ones from my time outdoors in the sun. I can still smell the sweetness of the dried grass I would use to make small dolls (what can I say, I was obsessed with Little House on the Prairie). And, I can even feel the cool shade provided by my tree fort, made from branches and scrap wood and decorated with acorns—the hub of all my outdoor activities.
Only children are used to spending time by themselves, but when they’re always indoors, it can be difficult to get them to look up and notice the world around them. They’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the great indoors when it’s cold outside again this fall. So, on summer break, encourage your little to have an outdoor adventure with these fun things for an only child to do outside. Interacting with the world around them, using their hands, breathing in the warm summer air, and feeling the dirt between their toes will inspire unforgettable memories that they’ll carry into adulthood, creating their own stories that are even more immersive than whatever’s streaming on their laptops.
Nature Activities for an Only Child to Do Outside
Smell is the sense most associated with memory; freshly cut grass probably brings back memories of your summer vacations. For me, though, even stronger memories are connected to the scent of pine needles. One whiff and I’m immediately transported to the forest bike path where I spent many summer days trying to break my personal speed record while avoiding the pinecones that littered the trail.
Planning outdoor activities for sunny summer days doesn’t have to be complicated.The nature around your home, even if only a small patch of green in the front yard, isn’t just there for looks. It’s also the perfect outdoor play space for your only kid to soak up the smells, sounds, and sights of all things summer. Here are a collection of nature activities for an only child to do outside:
- Practice nature photography: Budding photographers can take an instant camera outside to capture the wild wonders hiding in their very own front yard. A macro shot of a blade of grass can be surprisingly arty, and searching for the perfect shot is almost as fun as seeing the resulting photographs themselves.
- Collect natural objects: I’ve been collecting purple wampum, a type of shell, during long walks on the beach since I was a kid. Starting a nature collection is a fun way to make spending time outdoors seem purposeful, so kids aren’t at a loss as to what to do once they get outside. Colorful rocks, bird feathers, wildflowers that can be pressed, and seashells can be hunted and gathered, and little will kids realize along the way that their searching has caused them to more deeply examine the natural world around them.
- Search for wildlife: Are there rabbits in your neighborhood? What about woodpeckers or frogs? Sometimes we don’t realize how much wildlife is actually all around us. Help kids find a list of the wildlife that calls your area home, wherever that may be, so they can try to observe these creatures in their natural habitats. You could even make just one of these wondrously woodsy birthday party favor gift bag ideas for nature obsessed kids to get your child started. Even something as humble as a muddy roadside ditch can be home to frogs and tadpoles, and there’s nothing better than turning over a rock to find a tiny salamander burrowing into the cool dirt below.
Arts and Crafts Things for an Only Child to Do Outside
Just like you can freely eat juicy watermelon outside without having to worry about getting anything sticky on the carpet, so can you fling paint and make a lot of noise! The freedom to get messy is one of the best things about playing outside and, with just a few supplies, your outdoor space can become a young artist’s paradise, inspired by these arts and crafts things for an only child to do outside in the sun:
- Try painting: Painting is a hands-on task that will also get your little creative to look closer at their surroundings as they try to capture every last detail of the wildflowers growing at the edge of the yard or the flickering orange light of the setting sun.
- Learn woodworking: When I was little, my parents would set me up on a picnic table in front of the kitchen window with a pile of wood, small nails, and a hammer. I would bang away at DIY wooden birdhouses and questionably constructed “sculptures” to my heart’s content, many of which still grace my parents’ otherwise tastefully decorated home. It’s a relief to keep the noise and the sawdust outside, but don’t be surprised if your kid starts gifting you with their unique crafts after even one afternoon of experimental carpentry.
- Decorate the sidewalk: I considered myself something of a sidewalk chalk Banksy when I was younger, and most kids feel the same way when gifted with their own bucket-o-chalk. Combined with the fresh air and sunshine, your kid may realize that they prefer making art on the sidewalk even more than they like doodling in Snapchat.
Outdoor Summer Learning Adventures for an Only Child
Reading adventure and exploration books on a blanket outside was a hallmark of my summer vacations—classics like Hatchet, Little House on the Prairie, The Jungle Book, and Peter Pan were the perfect fodder for my games of pretend in my tree fort and in the woods around my house.
Getting your child to pursue something educational doesn’t have to be as obvious as putting a book in his or her hands. Instead, try something interactive that helps them explore their hometown, while also enjoying the sunshine, with these outdoor summer learning adventures for an only child:
- Visit an outdoor museum: Local parks, hiking trails, and arboretums are like outdoor museums that kids can explore while still being as loud and active as they please. Many hiking hot spots have informative signs and placards set up identifying local wildlife and geologic structures, while arboretums may offer guided tours.
- Learn your town’s history: Every day after school I would walk past a “liberty pole” that proudly proclaimed it stood in the place of one that had been blown up by three young members of the Daughters of the American Revolution who were preventing British soldiers from using said pole as a mast for one of their ships. Local legend or not, it was proof that even the smallest towns have their own bits of lore. Check out the town square, churches, cemeteries, and local monuments to learn more about your area’s history. If you aren’t sure where to look, call your chamber of commerce or local library to see if they can guide you and your child to any hidden historical gems.
- Start a nature journal: I used to draw the clouds I spotted while lying in the grass in my diary, keeping track of any cool shapes or ominous approaching weather I saw. Introspective, science-minded kids will get a kick out of their nature journals, where they can track things like the weather, the wildlife they spot throughout the day, and any cool natural objects they find when they’re out exploring. Just make sure they store it somewhere safe when the summer’s over—I can say from experience that nothing’s as funny or touching as reading the inner thoughts you jotted down as a kid once you’ve grown up.
Active Things for an Only Child to Do Outside in the Sun
Kids don’t need a full schedule of gym classes in the summer; they can burn off energy doing things out in the sun! It’s amazing to think back on how many calories I probably burned when learning how to rollerblade (aka, how to successfully fling myself into some fluffy curbside bushes when I forgot how to brake), but the only thing on my mind was racing around the neighborhood as fast as my legs would take me. Here are my favorite active things for an only child to do outside in the sun:
- Play in the water: The obvious answer is to take your kid to the beach or public pool so they can swim until sundown. But, no pool, no ocean—no problem! Sprinklers are the great equalizer when it comes to cooling off outdoors. Get a selection of sprinklers for your kid, including the classic ring, waterfall, and the model that’s the inspiration for that cheesy, but always fun, dance move. Challenge your kid to come up with the ultimate sprinkler system cooling complex or a waterway obstacle course to run through. Their laughter will be proof that you don’t have to be next to the beach to enjoy the water on a hot day.
- Ride a bike: My bike was my whole life when I was a kid, both a toy that could be used to have fun rolling through my neighborhood, and a tool that could take me to friends’ houses and the ice cream shop in less time than it took to beg a ride from my parents. Giving your kid a bicycle and teaching them to ride is also the perfect opportunity to start teaching them about the rules of the road long before you have to worry about them getting behind the wheel of a car.
- Go hiking: Best for older kids (or younger kids accompanied by a parent), getting up into the mountains or deep into the forest is a great way for kids to connect to the world outside of their smartphones (and depending on where you live, increased elevation and shade trees can be a nice break from the heat of summer). For experienced hikers, try working in some rock climbing, or an overnight camping trip so they can see what the stars look like in the wild. For younger kids, find a trail or walking path at your local park; even if the trees are strategically planted by the city, they still offer more soul-food for your kid than a TV screen.
Whether it’s the jars of purple seashells that line my window sill, or the scent of a freshly manicured lawn floating in through the screen door, I’m often overcome with the memories of my childhood outside, spending time getting to know myself and exploring nature. Even as an adult, they’re reminder enough to get me out from behind my computer and into the great outdoors whenever I have some downtime.
This summer, help your only child create the same sort of lasting memories by immersing them in activities out in the summer sun. Even if they’re just doing their favorite arts and crafts while sitting at a table under clear blue skies, their senses will be engaged far more than they would be sitting inside alone. It’s planting a small seed that will help cultivate a lifelong love of the outdoors: I may have been initially resistant to heading outside during break when I was a kid, but now I’m a kayaking, hiking, bird-watching fiend—and I wouldn’t change a thing about my summer adventures.
Get more summer vacation inspiration for your kiddo with our Outdoor Games Gift Guide. You can keep up with all things Elfster on Facebook, and don’t forget to visit us on Twitter @Elfster and Instagram @Elfster.