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Have Fun, Play Hard, Get Dirty: 12 Books to Encourage Kids Outside

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Ann-Marie Cahill

Contributor

Ann-Marie Cahill will read anything and everything. From novels to trading cards to the inside of CD covers (they’re still a thing, right?). A good day is when her kids bring notes home from school. A bad day is when she has to pry a book from her kids’ hands. And then realizes where they get it from. The only thing Ann-Marie loves more than reading is travelling. She has expensive hobbies.

It’s been our family motto since our eldest started preschool many years ago: Have Fun. Play Hard. Get Dirty. They often take it seriously. I have subsequently learned kids (and almost everything else) wash. As frustrating as the mess may be, this is a good thing and can be loads of fun. Kids need to spend time outdoors to build their confidence in the world around them. They need to take risks and stretch that creative thinking. Get their hands dirty (and clean up the mess afterward). All of these factors can encourage their resilience for whatever the future throws at them next.

However, this isn’t always easy, and kids may resist the outdoors for a number of reasons. Some may fear trying something new or dealing with unknown situations. Some may feel uncomfortable with sounds and textures. There are significant differences between the outdoors in urban areas and the outdoors in regional areas; your backyard may not match the photogenic vistas you see in parenting magazines (if you have a backyard). And there are some kids who may simply have no idea where to start. Books can elicit a sense of adventure and soothe the very real worries of these young minds. This is the list for all of those kids: a shortlist of books to inspire any kid to get outside and see what the fuss is about.

Or as we say: Have Fun. Play Hard. And Get Dirty. 

Books to Help Guide Kids Outside

cover of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: My Adventure Field Guide

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: An Adventure Field Guide by Hannah Pang, inspired by Michael Rosen

Let’s start with the well-loved children’s book: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. The book and illustrations are famous, and I don’t know about you, but I spent a large chunk of the last 10 years singing the song with my children. It was always one of the most imagination-inspiring books to motivate our kids! Pang has taken the original work and made it even better. It is a general how-to-prepare guide for kids, with plenty of information about the world around us. There are tips on how to read the weather, bake bear-feet cookies for the hunt, and watch the wildlife. After reading this, you will want to squelch through the grass, splish-splosh through the water, and swish through long wavy grass.

cover of Lonely Planet Kids: Wild Things by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield

Lonely Planet Kids: Wild Things by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield

Staying with the guidebooks, I can’t get enough of the Lonely Planet Kids range. The traditional guides have always been about exploring and asking questions; the Kids range takes it further by encouraging your imagination with every step. Wild Things is precisely that: a fantastical guidebook to take outside and look for magic everywhere you go. Want to track dragons? Chat with trolls under the bridge? My fave is creating tree monsters from sticks and leaves we find on the way to school (tip: mud helps it stick together). It’s a great conversation starter for kids — and big kids who need to remember to touch grass occasionally.

cover of The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World by Temple Grandin

The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World by Temple Grandin

For a less whimsical and more scientific approach, some kids may prefer the straightforward style of Temple Grandin. This book feels very much like a “how to do fieldwork” guide without losing itself in the specifics of fieldwork. It includes 40 projects for kids (and carers) to do outside while guiding them with enough science to carry the conversation afterward. Grandin has often talked about her childhood, with her intense focus on the nature around us. This is an excellent example of how different kids need different styles of books to encourage them outside.

cover of Backpack Explorer: Rock Hunt: What Will You Find

Backpack Explorer: Rock Hunt: What Will You Find, edited by Storey Publishing, illustrated by Oana Befort

This is a new book in the Backpack Explorer series, designed for anyone who has ever seen a rock and — for even the briefest moments — stopped to think, “Cool.” Rocks are everywhere, so this book is accessible to almost anyone. From the science of the rock cycle to fun crafty activities with rocks, I loved how this book sparked a new interest in my everyday walks outside. While the book is aimed at 4 to 10-year-olds, our 17-year-old has picked it up a few times as a conversation starter for his Earth Science studies, and for bonding with his younger siblings. Remember to check ALL POCKETS before washing clothes.

image of three large rocks, white, grey, and green
Fortunately, these rocks were too big for their pockets / Image by B Cahill
cover of Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime by Lisa Harvey-Smith, illustrated by Mel Matthews

Under the Stars: Astrophysics for Bedtime by Lisa Harvey-Smith, illustrated by Mel Matthews

This one is a little different because it is a book to get your kids outside at night. This is the perfect book for budding astronomers and astrophysicists to stir up some thinking. The book is a collection of short but fact-filled essays to help kids with the big astro-questions. Like, why is the sky blue? Could we fly around a black hole? And is that a shooting star or astronaut poo? The more you read this book, the more often you will find yourself lying under the night sky and thinking about the world around you. For older kids, Harvey-Smith also wrote The Secret Life of Stars: Astrophysics for Everyone, illustrated by Eirian Chapman. There is also a new book in the series, scheduled for Feb 2024: Universal Guide to the Night Sky, illustrated by Sophie Beer. I’m super excited about it!

cover of Finding Calm in Nature: A Guide for Mindful Kids by Jennifer Grant, illustrated by Erin Brown

Finding Calm in Nature: A Guide for Mindful Kids by Jennifer Grant, illustrated by Erin Brown

Sometimes, it’s not a lack of interest that stops us from exploring the great outdoors: it’s the unsettled feeling of the unknown. And that’s okay — that’s something we can work with. Grant and Brown have produced a beautiful book from a place of calm and joy. Every chapter explores a different part of nature, slowly building up to its place in the bigger picture. There are breathing exercises, stretches, and a nature notebook for observations and ideas. The book shows kids how to find a safe space outside and bring a little of nature’s calm into them. It is everything about why “touching grass” is so good for us.

Inspiring Fiction to Encourage You Outside

cover of The Nature Journal: A Backyard Adventure by Savannah Allen

The Nature Journal: A Backyard Adventure by Savannah Allen

I’m sorry to say this, but sometimes kids don’t go outside because they don’t see adults doing it. It’s not as simple as that, and it’s a complex issue that Allen captures well with her storytelling. Tim is a young kid who has always loved nature. His dad taught him to explore their backyard and to keep a nature journal. But one day, Tim’s dad is too busy for Tim’s discoveries. After looking at his dad’s old nature journals, Tim dreams of new adventures to have with his dad and new ways to bring his dad outside again.

cover of Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Gobnait Ni hAilpin)

Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Gobnait Ni hAilpin)

This is a picture book about two kids exploring outside their urban home and discovering the natural world around them — the wild. For many kids living in cities (including mine), the outside can still feel very urbanised and constructed. However, nature exists in even the most drab environments. This book shows kids they can find “wild” on their own doorstep; Nature has a beautiful way of reclaiming its territory, even in the most subtle ways.

cover of Moonlight Crab Count

Moonlight Crab Count by Dr Neeti Bathala, Jennifer Keats Curtis, illustrated by Veronica Jones

This is a fictional book based on real citizen science experiences. It is also available in Spanish, Contando los cangrejos herradura a la luz de la luna, and includes a four-page narrative nonfiction section for further science. The story follows the adventures of Leena and her mum, who volunteer each summer to count the horseshoe crabs that visit their beach. It may not be the book that gets your kids outside to play, but it may be the book to inspire your next holiday to include some volunteer citizen science!

cover of How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Fun, illustrated by Sara Palacios

How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk, illustrated by Sara Palacios

Here’s a book to keep your computer-loving kids at the beach for a little longer! All summer, Pearl tries to build the perfect sandcastle but is thwarted every time. Pearl and her robot friend Pascal have one last opportunity — and this time, they will code it! The key is to break it down into smaller steps, solving each issue as they arise. The book comes from the nonprofit group, Girls Who Code, and fans love how it encourages kids to explore coding. However, it also works in the other direction: showing an excellent way for computer-loving kids to take their passion outside and apply their tech skills to outdoor activities.

cover of Maybe, Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly

A middle grade novel to encourage our kids outside? Yes, please! Young kids can easily relate to 8-year-old Marisol Rainey. She has a big imagination, especially for the world around her. For example, Marisol named the tree in her backyard “Peppina” — it looks like the perfect climbing tree, but Marisol is too scared to climb it. Many things scare Marisol, but over the summer, Marisol suddenly realises she wants to overcome her fears. For sensitive kids, the outside world can be overwhelming. Finding a story they can associate with can help them see opportunities to grow outdoors, and Marisol is perfect for this.

cover of I’m Not Sydney by Marie-Louise Gay

I’m Not Sydney! by Marie-Louise Gay

Sometimes the best way to get your kids outside is not by showing them what’s outside but by letting them re-imagine it! I’m Not Sydney! is a cute book to feed children’s imaginations. It starts with Sydney, hanging upside down in a tree. I’m not Sydney! I’m a sloth! When his friend Sami finds him, she joins in: “I’m a spider monkey.” As more children join the game, their imaginations merge with the world around them. They climb trees, they run around, and naturally, they get dirty. I love this book for its loud encouragement for kids to play outside and the touch of quiet wishful thinking at the end. This is an inclusive book to encourage outdoor play with friends.

image of feather sitting in the grass
Image by A Cahill

Summer hasn’t quite ended yet (at least for our northern hemisphere readers). There is still plenty of time for kids to play outside and soak up the good vibes — not just the young kids but the young at heart as well. If the grownups are still feeling a little nervous, Jaime has a list of books to show that the Outdoors is for Everyone

Have fun. Play hard. And most importantly: Get Dirty.