With all the pressures on modern families, it’s hard enough to find time to sit down to dinner, let alone get outside. But research has shown that spending time together in nature can create closer bonds and contribute to healthy child brain development. Here are five fun and easy tips for getting your family outside – and enjoying it once you’re there.
1. START CLOSE TO HOME
Our national park system is a national treasure. But before you plan a trip to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, why not check out what you have close by? What truly fosters a love of nature is consistency: going to the same place again and again to allow your child to come to see it as an extension of themselves. And the internet is an invaluable resource for finding what’s close by. Sites like AllTrails, for example, can help you find the best local hiking trails – wherever you are.
2. TOSS YOUR PLAN AWAY.
Although our tendency today is to structure everything from little league to play dates, children need time just to be in nature. Start local. Although you may encounter an initial “I’m bored” phase, you will soon find them setting off on a myriad of discoveries and adventures. Then all you have to do is follow their lead, taking interest without taking over. The object of interest may be anything from a frog on a lily pad to a mud puddle – it doesn’t matter. The point is the time spent together on a mutual outdoors endeavor. And hey, it takes all the planning pressure off of you!
3. PLANT – OR HARVEST.
Want to turn a passive interest into an active love? From backyard or community gardens to tree-planting campaigns designed to combat global warming, planting will encourage your children to experience nature’s magic firsthand, while meeting other people who share the same vision. And if you don’t have time to plant, you can always harvest: the PickYourOwn site will help you find the farm or orchard closest to you where you can pick your own fruit and vegetables.
We can’t be outside all the time – bad weather and short winter days will always be there to conspire against us. But if you can’t bring your child to nature, you can bring nature to your child by reading to them about it. Besides fostering another fundamental habit, reading together will fire your child’s imagination, imbuing the outdoors with stories that will bring nature alive for a lifetime. For a list of great children’s books focusing on nature, check here.
5. PLAY BY THE SAME RULES.
Nothing undermines quality nature time more than ducking out of sight to send texts or check Facebook. So try setting ground rules that are common for big folks and little folks alike. When it’s nature time, phones go off. Your children will appreciate the fairness of the rules, and the quality of your time together will be exponentially enhanced. And with the average American child spending seven minutes a day in unstructured outside play compared to seven hours on screens, switching the electronics off may prove to be the best thing you can do for you child – and for you.
It is said that by raising children, we get back into contact with our own inner child. And sometimes, it’s just a question of dragging out the sleeping bags and spending a night under the stars to rekindle a love of nature in children of all ages. After all, we’re part of nature ourselves – even if we sometimes forget.