The other night I was distracted in an elegant restaurant by a preschool child watching a movie – at the table, on a portable DVD player. True, this eatery wasn’t a kid-friendly place with paper tablecloths and crayons, and the kid wasn’t making a ruckus; but neither was he engaged with his surroundings – or with his parents, who in turn were missing (or ignoring) any “teachable moments” that are so precious to a young child’s development.

Shoe garden

Don’t give old shoes the boot – let the kids turn them into containers!

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Easy to make scarecrows

These scarecrows are easy and fun to make.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Can wind chimes

A few empty cans, colorful paint and some string can make for creative wind chimes.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Yucca with egg carton flowers

With a few foam egg cartons, yucca plants can “bloom” a dozen times over…

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Flower arranging in potatoes

And you thought kids only liked their potatoes fried…

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Maybe I’m being too critical. But without getting into all that “when I was a kid” blather, I would at least have had the kid play with the rosemary garnish; who knows – maybe he would’ve been inspired by the smell, texture and flavor and would someday want to grow his own!

Now contrast this with what I saw at a well-designed children’s garden in a prestigious botanical garden: The kids were having the time of their lives, playing in a whimsical fort carved from sturdy cardboard refrigerator boxes – without a lot of bells and whistles.

Kids are like that. Give ’em a play area outside, provide a few essential tools, and just let ’em go.

Try these easy, memorable, late summer outdoor activities that can give fingers and minds something to do besides text messaging and opening pizza boxes:

  • Scarecrow made from a broomstick. Tape a coat hanger near the end of the handle, use a quart milk jug for the head and the child’s own long-sleeved shirt or dress (no need for legs). Accessorize with beads, ribbons and a hat.
  • Bird feeder made from a scooped-out grapefruit, half-suspended with strings run through holes around the edge.
  • A garden made with stacked-up tires and painted with flowers, bugs or handprints.
  • Grass seed in a pot for a pet dog or cat to chew on.
  • Something painted on the wall of an out-of-sight garage or tool shed.
  • Flower arrangement using colorful plastic drinking straws stuck in a potato (with the bottom of the potato shaved a little, so it doesn’t roll around). Insert flowers, weeds and grasses into the straws – including something tall and spiky; some short, round-shaped flowers; and frilly filler of small flowers, seed heads or grasses.
  • Fun with words and designs (like a flag, heart, etc.) using plastic cups stuck in a chain-link fence.
  • Wind chimes made from painted tin cans.
  • Water garden in a big bucket – or even a series of several small buckets clustered together. Add a few water plants and cheap goldfish or minnows caught in a nearby pond.
  • Unique containers for succulent plants: Stick plants in old shoes, cups or bowls (with a hole drilled in the bottom for drainage).
  • Weather station: Use an outdoor thermometer, rain gauge and plastic ribbon or flag to show wind direction. (Have the child keep track of measurements.)
  • “Flowers” made from foam egg cartons stuck on a yucca plant, or tie CDs or plastic eggs to branches (like garden earrings).

If nothing else, take a group of children on a “safari” around a pond and some woods to pick up leaves and small flowers, and to watch a few animals or birds. The main thing is to just get the kids outside – and at least temporarily away from those darn keypads and screens!