THE WONDER BOWL: Ten Spring and Summer Nature Activities for Kids and Adults

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

Got dirt? “In South Carolina, a truckload of dirt is the same price as a video game!” reports Norman McGee, a father in that state who bought a small pickup-load of dirt for his daughter and friends.

As McGee’s photo shows, the dirt was a great success. I told his story a few years ago in this space. The story is worth repeating. So is Liz Baird’s idea — along with a few others.

Liz keeps a “wonder bowl” available for her children. When she was a little girl she would fill her pockets with natural wonders—acorns, rocks, mushrooms. “My Mom got tired of washing clothes and finding these treasures in the bottom of the washer or disintegrated through the dryer,” Liz recalls.

got dirt?
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“So she came up with ‘Liz’s Wonder Bowl,’ and the idea was that I could empty my pockets into the bowl. I could still enjoy my treasures, and try to find out what things were, and not cause trouble with the laundry.”

What’s your family doing in the coming months, not only to help your kids be healthier, happier and smarter — but to help you too? Here are ten suggestions. Please share your own in the comments section below:

1. Think simple: Create a wonder bowl like Liz’s, or buy a pickup load of dirt, like Norman did. Some of the best places to play, and toys, are the simplest and least expensive. Did you know that the National Toy Hall of Fame has inducted the cardboard box and the stick?

2. Invite native flora and fauna into your life. Maintain a birdbath. Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Build a bat house. For backyard suggestions, plus links to information about attracting wildlife to apartments and townhouses, see the National Audubon Society’s Invitation to a Healthy Yard.

3. Start a Family Nature Club. Download C&NN’s guide to creating a network of like-minded families who want to get their kids outside, but need the support of others to help make that happen. It’s a new form of social networking! New: The Family Nature Guide is now also available in Spanish.

4. Encourage your kids to build a tree house, fort, or hut. But don’t do it for them. You can provide the raw materials, including sticks, boards, blankets, boxes, ropes, and nails, but it’s best if kids are the architects and builders. The older the kids, the more complex the construction can be. For understanding and inspiration, read “Children’s Special Places” by David Sobel. And here’s a column from a few weeks ago on that topic.

5. Suggest  camping in the backyard. Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up all summer. Join the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout.

6. Become a Natural Leader. Being a nature mentor isn’t just a job for parents and grandparents. Young people helping other young people get outside is catching on. For example, in Mississippi, teenager Josh Morrison founded Geeks in the Woods with his friends. He defines ” geek” as a ” gaming environmentally educated kid,” and says he and his friends—” tired of being labeled” tech addicts—can have their PlayStations and their outdoor time too.

7. Find a guide book. Consider “I Love Dirt” or Joseph Cornell’s classic “Sharing Nature With Children” or “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature” or “The Nature Connection.” (More suggestions here.)

8. Go online. Take a look at the growing number of good online guides for parents. Among them: the free online Parents’ Guide to Nature Play offered by the Green Hearts Institute. The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Rocks, created in alliance with C&NN, ecoAmerica, REI, the American Camp Association, and other groups, offers a “family fun nature planner” plus tools to help guide and plan your adventures, including a Family Nature Staycation guide. Also, a “Find Nature” feature — plug in your ZIP code and find out about nature activities near your home.

9. Join the movement. C&NN’s partners and initiatives encourage people of all ages to get outside. Please see C&NN’s directory of programs and activities.

10. Relieve your stress. All the health benefits that come to a child come to the adult who takes that child into nature. Children feel better after spending time in the natural world, even if it’s in their own backyard. So do adults, who have Nature-Deficit Disorder, too.

Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” which includes an appendix of 100 Actions for families and communities.

Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter

 More Reading

In Defense of Boredom

Be a Hummingbird Parent

Here’s to the Parents Who Get Their Kids Outdoors

Don’t Tear Down that Fort!

Child-Friendly Lawns and Gardens: Ten Things You Can Do to Reduce Hidden Chemical Risks

Mud is Good!




  1. If I were to add an 11th option: take your kids on a nature walk with a nearby nonprofit. There are TONS of great people all around you just hoping that someone will join them for an adventure in nearby nature…

    Side story…I saw a recent church sign (of all places) that said, “In the spring you should come home everyday smelling like dirt.” Unconsciously, I nodded in agreement…my own little “Amen.”

    Elliott Wright

  2. Great ideas, and I’d like to add #11: Take your kids fishing!

  3. I adore the term wonder bowl. My children have had a nature table and found collection box since they were tiny, but I’m officially going to rename it a wonder bowl from now on. x

  4. Ken Finch

    Thanks for the link, Rich!

  5. and #12 ……bring back outdoor games of the fifties era (kick the can, tag, hide and seek- yes adults CAN hide)
    start and WATCH a compost pile or vermicompost
    follow the Firefly Project
    lift up rocks and get busy naming what you see
    nature scavenger hunt or egg hunt (without eggs)

  6. Continued…
    ~Have the kids make a list of everything they see- leaves, trees, bugs and the they type…then you’ll have things to choose from when creating the hunt. For the NON egg hunt, I’ve used paint sticks, baseballs, and other stuff that doesn’t belong (like when you want the yard picked up:) ).
    ~create their own nature journal and spend a few minutes each day, once per week? working on it, and nature can be found at the pool, park, or baseball diamond
    ~my favorite —-photographs—–depending on circumstances, child can take the camera with or without a friend and 1. take photos of particular category 2. macro (close up) 3. things that don’t belong 4. things with lines and numbers 5. things with bright colors 6. things that make up happy 6. mailboxes 7. trees, flowers, weeds ..8. find letters in nature, for example, a tree branch might look like a V or small r, OR 9. do whatever you want. All of these can be expanded to make homemade nature scrapbooks, slideshows (kids can record their voices, too), online galleries, art projects, homemade how-to guides, and homemade books. So many things to do with the pictures. Use of camera, age, computer, printer, etc. are all issues but some variation may be possible.

  7. My wonder bowls have followed me into adulthood – I still have them at my house and in my office. Luckily I work in a science museum, so having a bowl with shells, shark teeth, empty egg cases and fossil coral on my desk is not considered unusual!

  8. I love the Wonder Bowl idea and am going to set up a bowl for each of my children. Can’t wait to see what goes in the bowl. This morning a tiny snail caught my five year old’s interest, it was so small I’m surprised he could see it.
    Thanks for all 10 ideas.

  9. Love the idea of a nature list. I teach second grade and I encourage my students to start a journal of their memories, ideas and discoveries and then continue it throughout the summer. Those little moments and the details that they notice are priceless.

    Great conversation starter Mr. Louv!

  10. Wonderful tips, Richard! Of course, even the best of ideas for getting a kid INTO the outdoors need the proper context for those seeds to take root and become part of that child’s soul.
    We parents and grandparents must teach, by example at the very least, that stretches of time with nothing planned, and periods of silence, are the fertile ground on which all discovery and wonder depend for their germination.
    Keep up the great work!!

  11. My daughter and I have been photographing “letters in nature” now for over a year. I’m hoping to have the whole alphabet soon so we can print out notecards with monograms or quotes on them. She loves exploring for the letters we need!

  12. Keep up the great work! SOLE looks forward to continuing to support reconnecting youth and adults to natural playgrounds, and appreciates the work that you do to support our efforts!

  13. Awesome article, Richard! Thank you for these great tips! I love your books, your message and the “I love dirt” book is awesome, too!

  14. I love this! I think I’ll make my own “wonder bowl”.

    And I’d add another to the list–set the kids loose with a camera and have them create their own guidebooks. Or write their own nature story. Photos books are easy to make and not too expensive, or you can print it out yourself!

  15. We enjoying taking our kids to sit by a pond, lake, or stream, and observe the many interactions of different organisms such as birds, insects, fish, plants, and turtles. There is something very calming about water!

  16. I grew up in a town where 100F+ temps in August were usual and our house rarely got below 90 indoors at night, so we’d sleep outside a lot in the summer, just toss canvas tarps down and big zipped-together cotton sleeping bags with pictures of spaniels or mallards or deer on the inside. My big family would divide itself up between the bags, little kids in the middles, and Mom would tell stories about constellations and we’d watch shooting stars. Then suddenly morning would happen.

    It was magic born of necessity.

  17. I loved reading the wonderful Wonder Bowl article and all the comments that follow! These are great ideas to connect us with nature as well as an inspiration for us to connect and share with each other. Along these lines is another idea I learned of through the C&NN Natural Families Forum. A fellow member, Stephen Bradley, created a website that seems to incorporate elements of nature lists, journals and guide books. Our family has tried it, likes it and shares in the excitement, but I’m sure Stephen can explain it best. Here’s a link to his post on this site.
    Thank you again to Stephen Bradley and to everyone for sharing!

  18. Thank Julie.

    If anyone’s interested in trying it, please feel free. The website has been set up as a non-for-profit venture and is 100% free. I find it’s a great way of connecting with nature whatever age you are!

  19. I like letting kids be creative with what is already out in nature – sticks, logs, etc. But adding in a few elements to get them thinking creatively like curtains, tires, wood planks, tree cookies, and kitchenware. You’d be surprised at what they come up with when given the time and the space — especially if they have a few friends over.

  20. Hi,

    I love the wonder bowl idea! Wonderful! The nature alphabet picture also sounds very fun.

    In my small back yard we have set up a nature building area complete with a variety of sticks, string, of course, duck tape. When we go hiking we like to play nature colors and challenge each other to find all the colors of the rainbow.

    Thank you for the CNN. A great resource!

  21. These all are great tips Richard. Thanks for putting these together. With all tech that is keeping kids indoors, it’s nice to have plenty of options for outdoor activities. I myself am a huge fan of hiking or heading to a lake or river for swimming or a picnic.


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