It’s easy to equate the dreary season that hits the Pacific Northwest each fall with frizzy hair, soggy leaves and too much time spent cooped up indoors with stir-crazy kids.
But while parents may look outside and see a muddy yard and gray skies, for a child, a rainy landscape offers a novel way to explore a familiar landscape.
Plus, as Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, reminds us, nature is the ultimate sensory experience. “We tend to block off many of our senses when we're staring at a screen,” he writes. “Nature time can literally bring us to our senses.”
Here are some creative ways to encourage your family to unplug from electronics and get out and explore.
Experiment with rain and junk
According to famous Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen, whose work was recently featured in Carnegie Museum’s exhibit on the evolution of playgrounds, "Children are happiest when playing with junk." Any parent who has witnessed the hours of play generated by an empty appliance box can attest to this.
Put junk to great use outside by making a vertical water wall to help kids explore the physics of water, like this one from Pre-School Play. Attach plastic containers, bottles and tubes to a wall or railing to create a course for water to flow through. (You can drill them in, use zip ties and chicken wire, or just string and nails.) Then start experimenting: Add food coloring and see what happens when colors are mixed together. Track the rainfall by measuring the amount of rain in each bottle. Explore how water levels change with the shape of each container. The possibilities are endless.
Build a gutter course
A fun twist on the water wall is a gutter course, like this one by Play at Home Mom. Use old gutters or halved PVC pipes to create a course, propping it over lawn chairs, bricks or rocks. Add leaves or paper boats and make a race out of it.
Have a hootenanny
Hang up muffin tins, old pots and lids outside to make a terrific instrument wall, like this one featured on Pre-K and Sharing. Fill bottles with beans to make a rattle. Collect some sticks or use kitchen utensils to bang on pans with. The sound of raindrops falling onto pots and bottles will complement the music.
Gather 'round the fire
A crackling fire in a DIY fire pit is a great tool for creating community and warming up chilly noses and hands. On any given night in my own neighborhood, a group of people can be found roasting marshmallows and chit-chatting over a portable fire in front of one of the houses.
Fire pits can easily be made from reclaimed bricks or concrete pavers, or even an old metal wheelbarrow — search Craigslist’s “free” section and you’ll find a bounty of leftover material from remodels and construction sites. The most rustic design requires only a few stones and a dirt patch. More elaborate designs and DIY instructions can be found online.
Another option is a free-standing outdoor pit, which start around $130 on Amazon.
Propane fire pits are as easy as they come, usually requiring the mere flip of a switch or twist of a knob to have a fire going.
Be sure to build fire pits at least 10 feet away from any structures, trees or combustible surfaces and foliage. Plan to keep water on hand and have a hose nearby in case you need it. (Burn bans aren’t usually in effect at the peak of rainy season, but check with your local county to be sure.)
While summer sandboxes can become litter boxes for neighborhood animals as the drizzle rolls in, mud is the perfect rainy-season medium. To make a mud pit, simply fill a plastic storage bin or a plastic lidded sandbox with pesticide-free topsoil and let the rain do its magic. Check out this adorable mud bin from Adventures at Home with Mum.
As mud dries and rehydrates, kids can experiment with an array of textures and explore the laws of physics. Pop the lid back on when not in use to keep the mud “clean” and free of bugs and other contaminants.
If mud is too messy for your liking, rice- or bean-filled sensory bins — keep them in air-tight containers —are a clean option and a perfect sandbox substitute for the rainy season.
Investigate bugs and worms
A fun project for the budding entomologist is a bug mansion or worm farm. To make a bug mansion, simply stack a few pallets and fill the space between the pallets with different materials to serve as a breeding ground for different bug species.
Dead wood is perfect for beetles and their larvae. Dead leaves or hay are an ideal environment for invertebrates, and centipedes, spiders, woodlice and beetles love loose bark.
Worm bins simply require compost, a lidded container of some sort with ventilation, a starter crop of red wiggler worms (often found at pet stores) and a steady supply of kitchen scraps. Seattle Tilth offers free worm bin designs.
Kids can bury compost in the worm bin as an ongoing task, exploring the different stages of decomposition and worm population.
As a child, my grandpa built my brother and me a treehouse at their countryside cabin. It was just a small platform, but I still remember the peacefulness and wonder I felt, sitting high above the ground in a place made just for me.
Not every kid is blessed with a climbing tree or a yard, for that matter. But you don’t even need a yard to create a fort that will beckon to kids throughout the winter months.. An outdoor shelter can be as simple as a waterproof shower curtain strung from a hula hoop or a tarp draped over a few chairs.
If you are handy with a hammer, you can make a simple structure from reclaimed materials like pallets and scrap wood, similar to this one from Vintage Revivals . An outdoor reading nook can be the perfect place for a young reader to listen to the pitter patter of the rain while cozying up beneath a favorite blanket. With the added touch of a tarp stapled to the roof to make it water-tight, it’s a perfect outdoor space for the rainy season.
Another easy option is to break out your camping gear. Pull out the sleeping bags and flashlights and have a mock-campout. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Pacific Northwest native who isn’t accustomed to camping in the rain. Break them in while they’re young!
Create a garden hideout
Gardeners can create an aesthetically-pleasing addition to their garden that also serves as a fort by making a willow dome or living teepee structure, like this one from Outdoor Theme, made from sticks and interwoven branches. Climbing plants grow over the structure, creating a lush space curtained by greenery and flowers. It’s easy and affordable, requiring only twine, branches and a little patience. They may not keep the rain completely out, but climbing plants do well in rainy climates, so these shelters will be especially lush when the wet season is in full swing.
Make rain art
Try this fun idea from Housing a Forest. Place dots of food coloring or bits of powdered paint onto pieces of paper or paper plates and set outside. Watch as rain drops splatter into a colorful work of art. Hang to dry.
Many species of birds thrive in the winter months of the Pacific Northwest and are easier to spot, given barer winter trees. Put up a feeder outside, have a bird book at the ready, and see who comes to visit. Pacific Northwest Birds has some great resources for fledgling birdwatchers.
Another terrific resource is the National Wildlife Federation’s “Be Out There” website packed with ideas on exploring nature, designing your outdoor space to maximize exploration, gardening with kids and more.
Next time you find yourself listening to the drum of raindrops on your rooftop, just think of it as Mother Nature applauding you for all of the outdoor adventures you’ve planned. The murky bath water at the end of the day will be well worth the fun.