The woods behind the house where I grew up went on forever and I knew every inch of them. A thick layer of amber-colored pine needles littered the woodland floor and I can easily conjure the warm, damp, composty smell of the spongy blackness I’d unearth by digging beneath the carpet. Through the trees, across the dirt road, was a swamp where we spent hours attempting to sail across in the old baby bathtub or upon makeshift plywood rafts. We’d bring armloads of stuff – old sheets, tea sets, baby dolls, matchbox cars, favorite books, and pitchers of Kool-Aid – and arrange branches and rocks and boards into myriad configurations until our houses were just as we wanted. And then we’d lay, on our backs in the cool shade of those huge pines and visit until the mosquitoes chased us inside for supper.
Think about your woods. The special spot where you spent endless childhood hours, basking in the freedom of your play. Think of the spaces children have today. Do places like ours exist for them?
Our kids don’t play the way we did. They spend far more time doing homework, being shuttled to and from soccer or gymnastics, or consumed by screens than exploring nature. The impact of this disconnect from the natural world paired with the over-consumption of electronic media creates a laundry list of problems for children’s physical and psychological health. So what can we do, as parents, to give our kids the outdoor experiences we enjoyed? Here are five ways to help your kids slow down, unplug, and connect with nature.
Get Them Outside
My family is fortunate to live in a neighborhood where the kids play outside. They ride their bikes, play ball in the street, and run back and forth between one another’s yards. But not everyone has the luxury to just push their kids out the back door. Our perceptions of stranger-danger, oftentimes fed by the media, are disproportionately high. Couple this with increased fears of the real and imagined dangers residing within nature—disease-carrying insects, traumatic falls from tree limbs, over-exposure to the sun, the psychopath lurking in the woods—and you have an unfortunate recipe for keeping kids indoors.
All of this leaves it up to the adults to get their kids out, and that takes a bit of planning and commitment. But it doesn’t need to be complicated and there are plenty of resources to help you get started. The Nature Conservancy’s site Nature Rocks offers all kinds of suggestions for outdoor adventures you can share with your kids. Clicking on the ‘location’ tab at the top of the page takes you to a map that immediately lists everything from parks to aquariums within a 30-mile radius of your zip code. The U.S. Forest Service has a great campaign called Discover the Forest providing families with activities and tips for nature exploration as well as an interactive map to help you locate nearby outdoor spaces.
Allow Them to Explore
Be careful! Don’t get dirty! Wait for Mommy! How often do you find yourself shouting these commands at your kids when you’re outside? It’s natural for parents to want to protect our kids–trust me, I’ve been known to be the biggest worry wart of them all–but constantly hovering over them, squashing their intrinsic motivation to jump, splash, run, dig, throw rocks, whatever, limits their capacity to actually have an authentic experience outside.
Think back to when you were a kid. Where were all the grownups? In all likelihood, they weren’t watching over you every second to see that you were safe. Half the time when I was off on my bike, my parents didn’t even know where I was. Give your kids the space to take some risks. Curb the urge to shout out a warning when they start to climb a little higher than you’re comfortable having them climb. Lots of life lessons are learned when kids test their own limits, when they figure out what their own comfort levels are. They’re more resilient than we think. And mud cleans up with soap and water.
Find Some Company
One of the biggest obstacles I think parents face in getting kids outdoors is the resistance the kids put up when an outing is suggested. “I don’t waaant to go for a hiiiike!” the kids whine, despite the fact that once they’re out on the trail they have a ball. A solution to this is to plan these outings with other families. When kids know that their friends are going to be there, they are far less likely to put up a fight. Having other kids around changes the dynamic too, and encourages all sorts of creative play to happen outdoors that might not happen if it’s just your own family. Finally, it’s more fun for the adults when there are other grown ups to chat with. That was one of the things I used to love about the Kids Unplugged activities. The parents just hung back and chatted while the kids romped and played and explored. Joining a family nature club is a great way to find other like-minded folks–plus, you can hold each other accountable for making outdoor time a priority.
Be a Role Model
If you love nature and the outdoors, so will your kids. It’s pretty simple. Model for your kids what it looks like to have a passion for the world around you. Get excited about what you see. Choose a bird species and go for a walk to see how many of them you can spot. Sleep in your yard in a tent. Collect tiny nature treasures on your next hike. Lie on your back and look at the clouds. Search through the grass for a four-leaf clover. Catch snowflakes on your tongue. And be aware of the things you say–bite your tongue if you’re about to complain about the weather, the rock in your shoe, the mud–conditions aren’t supposed to be perfect. It’s called outside.
Go on a Trip
As our kids have gotten older and busier with school and activities, after school hikes have grown more and more rare. Sure they still play outside in the afternoons, but it’s been harder to find time when everyone’s around to hit the trails together. This is where travel comes into play. Long weekends, spring break, staff development days, summer vacation–all of these are times to plan an unplugged getaway.
Obviously, based on what I write about here, our travels focus on being outdoors as much as possible. So use this site as a resource to plan your next family adventure. Explore a national park, paddle a kayak, take a family bike trip, find a cabin in the woods. Get out there and explore the world.