Spring is a perfect season to get outdoors. It’s not too hot, not too cold, not too much rain – perfect. What’s even better is that the great outdoors is everywhere, all around us. All you need to do is open the front door and step outside leaving the television, computer, and housework behind. All of those things can wait while you take your child outdoors for some quality family time.
According to the Children and Nature Network report, Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family, “unplugging from outside media and taking a child into the backyard, a park, or a nearby natural area can eliminate those distractions, making it easier for parents to be emotionally available to the child – one of the most important factors in building attachment.”
Being in nature together creates opportunities for affective sharing as you and your child wonder together at colorful flowers, bright stars, and delicate butterflies. Responding together to a shared experience creates tighter bonds between a parent and child. As you explore follow your child’s lead and delight in their own discoveries and experiences. Or simply enjoy the calm of a warm breeze as you share a quiet moment of connection.
Today children spend more time indoors than ever playing video games, watching television, or interacting with smart phones and tablets. Technology is good and has many benefits, but like many things in life it’s best to consume with moderation. Back in the 1980’s I remember seeing kids riding bikes, building forts and tree houses, even catching frogs, or playing hide and seek outside. My brother and I didn’t have an iPad or even a video game console to keep us occupied while we were growing up - we had to use our imagination to play outside. Our parents weren’t afraid to let us play in the dirt making mud pies, encouraged us to play sports, and even taught us to ride a bike.
Getting kids to play outside is truly up to the parents. Adults need to step in and offer activities for kids to do outdoors, and be good role models that enjoying being outside too. Pre-scheduling a weekly visit to a local park or hiking trail may be needed to get in the habit of making the outdoors a part of what your family enjoys. It’s no secret that sedentary parents tend to have sedentary children, and active parents have more active children. Parents should be gracious and allow their kids to get dirty sometimes and be prepared to listen as their child recounts their outdoor adventure. Did they build a fort, figure out how to redirect a stream of water coming from the gutter, did they start to build a fort with materials they found right in their back yard?
Families making time to connect their children to nature, and increase family bonds in the process is only one aspect of the benefits of being outdoors. According to the same report “researchers have discovered many fascinating connections between nature play and children’s cognitive, physical, and emotional development. Time outdoors – especially unstructured time in more nature settings – can reduce children’s stress, increase their curiosity and creativity, improve their physical coordination, and reduce symptoms associated with attention deficit disorder and other conditions.”
No matter what age your child is you can follow these tips to ensure you have quality family time next time you step outside. Follow the lead of the child – you may have planned to explore a long trail, but if your kids find a place to settle down and play within the first few minutes of arriving let them play. It’s about being there, not getting there. Nature is everywhere – you don’t need to travel to a national park to reap the benefits of the great outdoors. A small flower pot on the front porch, the tree across the street, and the frequent siting of birds flying over the back yard are all points of connection with nature.
Make your next outdoor adventure go more smoothly by planning ahead. Take water, snacks, sunscreen, and even extra clothes incase you get wet or cold. Dress children with appropriate clothes for the weather, such as a rain coat during a light shower or mittens in the winter. At home, make the backyard an expansion of your living area. Have lunch or dinner together outside, set up a cozy reading area, have children do their homework or even play board games outdoors.
At the end of the day invite your children to talk about their favorite part about their time outside. You’ll find that together you are developing family stories and memories that support the wonderful bonds you’ve built by being outdoors in nature.
Liz Swafford is the Recycling and Education Program Coordinator for the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority. Contact her at 706-278-5001, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.