As the new school year approaches, with all its newness and confusion, it’s time to take advantage of the last weeks of warm weather. Summer is the perfect opportunity to get your kids outside and swap online surfing for bodysurfing, screens for streams, and phones for fun.
Parks are one of the best places to find a mix of relaxation and fun for the whole family. There’s no need to convince kids, they are always ready to go to the park. One of my favorite memories was meeting with four other families for a day of celebration. The kids all of all ages explored and new friendships formed, even among the tiniest members. Whether dousing the days heat in splash pads, blowing bubbles or digging in the sand, it was sweet to see friendships quickly evolve and parents relax a bit and enjoy time together. Even with proper physical distancing, this is something you should try to make happen with your kids before the weather changes. During these tough times, families need friendships and being outdoors allows us to be together safely and bring a much-needed feeling of connection.
Here are some ideas to get your family outside:
- On the weekends, try to retreat to local state parks. Explore the trails and enjoy being outside away. These places always bring the best photo opportunities and greatest memories. For example, my daughter is a climber (maybe you have one of those too), any day on the trail you’ll find her half way up a tree.
- Bring birdseed and leave a trail of bird food. It’s fun to see the birds on the way back.
- Find a place to pick berries along the way (blackberries, mulberries are favorites for our family).
- If going to a local park isn’t possible, try to get outside and play after dinner each night. Old fashioned races, bike parades, frisbee and taking a walk are all fun and healthy options.
When you find the time to get your kids outside, you’ll not only be creating opportunities for your kids to use their imagination in nature, but you’ll be setting them up for a healthier life. As this study in Turkey shows, children whose families spend time with them in nature are healthier, more social, more successful and happier in their classrooms. Getting outdoors in nature promotes health by enhancing immune system function and, as this recent study shows, reducing acute and chronic pain for those who suffer with it.
The trends toward kids spending less time outdoors has been going on for sometime. Between 1997 and 2003 there has been a 50% decline in the amount of time 9-12 year-olds spend recreating outdoors1. There is even a name for it, called biophobia or nature deficit disorder. A loss of regular contact with nature has led to physical and emotional developmental issues among children.1
Families are not the only ones that struggle to get outdoors, in schools, teachers have little time for outdoor education because indoor classroom time takes up most of the day. Yet studies show that outdoor learning significantly increases student engagement in subsequent classroom lessons.
Being outdoors also helps children feel connected to the welfare of our planet. A lack of exposure to nature can lead to a disregard for the welfare of our planet and the environment and lead to a disconnect from place and community. There are countless costs associated with excess technology and lack of physical activity. Children who watch more TV have poorer sleep quality and duration, which leads to difficulties with behavior and energy. Furthermore, higher levels of screen time, and lower levels of outdoor play, are associated with poorer social skills in children.
Here are some fun summer activities that promote health and fosters a greater connection to nature and one other:
Adventuring – Look for trails in local neighborhoods and parks to build adventure and give kids time to simply roam. The joys of finding what’s around the next corner often distract from the level of physical difficulty and inspires curiosity in young and older minds alike. Children build strengths in leadership, teamwork and navigation through outdoor adventure activities.
Fun ideas include: hide-and-go seek outdoors, biking around the neighborhood and a walk with neighbors or family friends. Keep a list of all the places within a 10 mile of your home to explore and set a goal to visit all of them.
Engaging – Learn about the local plants and animals in your region. Look for local classes or guided walks or purchase a guide book dedicated to your region. As kids explore the outdoors, they become familiar with local wild berries, roots, plants and leaves. Bring a journal to record them by name and learn more about how they grow. This activity creates connection with nature and instills a sense of stewardship and appreciation for local plants. This also enhances a child’s vocabulary, language, and science skills, leads to greater confidence.
Fun ideas include: Find a sit spot – a safe and inviting place – to regularly visit. Bring art supplies for outdoor nature art. Collect leaves, flowers, play animal charades outdoors, observe insects and birds and talk about their role in the eco-system. As the season progresses, ask children to record the changes they see.
Creating – Spend time outdoors harvesting fruits, vegetables and flowers from your garden or a visit a neighborhood cooperative garden. Talk about a recipe and plan a meal. Learning to cook, measure and understand how to use different foods offers children a way to connect with their food, eat healthfully, and understand more about where foods come from. Flowers can be pressed for art or arranged in a bouquet as gifts or to beautify your home. Harvesting herbs is a fun way to talk about the value of natural medicine, its purpose, and understand how to care for our bodies.
Fun ideas include: Make a mud pie kitchen, create an obstacle course, collect seeds to plant next spring, use flowers and brightly colored foods for natural dye project, build a camping site in the back yard.
Giving — The places we live hold so much history. Explore the natural history of your neighborhood region and visit a specific site of interest. Look for ways to support the health of the natural environment, region, volunteer at a local watershed or cooperative garden farm or do trail maintenance. These community and place-based activities help foster a sense of community, greater awareness of our region and local history.
Fun ideas include: Call on friends to collect food and excess neighborhood produce for your community shelter and food bank. Donate time to a neighbor or local organization in need, leave a bouquet of flowers on a friend or stranger’s doorstep, participate in local museum programs.
Playing and doing – Chart the evening skies, learn about stars, planets and constellations. You may have to drive away from the light pollution. Phone apps are easy ways to track the names of the constellations.
Fun ideas include: Set up a telescope each night, light a bonfire and chart the stars. Find a comfy spot for a picnic, cloud watch and blow a million bubbles in the breeze.
Remember that doing most anything outdoors, including reading a book outdoors, hanging laundry to dry, having a dinner picnic at the park and relaxing in the evening light, can have a positive impact for your family’s health. Remember that natural spaces are a calming way to reduce stress and relieve the pressures of the day – kids are no exception.
BreAnna M. Guan, ND, is the owner of the fertility and women’s health practice, Balanced Natural Heal. Dr. Guan provides support virtually to families across the country. She served as the president of the Indiana Association of Naturopathic Physicians. In 2018, she created the first-ever Nourish Women’s Health Conference to raise awareness of naturopathic medicine and inspire women towards health. Dr. Guan’s mission is to empower women and families to thrive during fertility, pregnancy, and parenthood, to positively impact generations to come. For more information, contact: www.drbreannaguan.com.
This article is sponsored by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:
- Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
- Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
- Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine
- Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, 2005.
INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.