The first thing you need to know is that at least one child will become ravenously hungry the instant you’re out of sight of the parking lot. Be prepared to fuel a four hour adventure in the wilderness, even if you are only taking a 30 minute walk in the park. Also, don’t imagine that anyone but you will eat that Luna bar flavored with lemon zest. The second thing you need to know is that however far you think you’ll be able to walk, you won’t. In fact, you should count yourself lucky if you even make it beyond sight of the parking lot. Many families don’t.
Exploring the outdoors with children can be wonderfully rewarding, and in our modern society it is also increasingly important. A 2018 study by UK based National Trust showed that English children on average spend just 4 hours a week playing outside. Studies in the U.S. reveal similar statistics. The average American spends just 5% of their day outside, and that is usually little more than the time spent walking to and from our cars before and after work and while running errands. Meanwhile, American children spend an average of 5-8 hours a day in front of digital screens.
In his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” as a way to describe the problems facing many modern children whose lives have become too busy for unstructured play time outdoors, sit-down family meals, and physical activity. Louv noted that a number of childhood problems seem to be on the rise as a result, including obesity, attention disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Teaching children how to spend time outside and enjoy nature can improve their (and your) physical and mental health, but it can also be stressful if you don’t plan ahead and start the experience in a proper frame of mind. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Let go of the idea that you need to travel a certain distance to enjoy your time in nature. In my experience, children will usually walk a short distance down a trail until they find a fun place to play and then park themselves there and play for hours until you beg them to leave. Instead of fighting against their natural desire to stay and play, relax and enjoy a moment of peace for yourself. Bring a book along to read or help them build that fairy hut out of sticks and dandelions.
- Don’t be afraid to step off the trail. Some outdoor destinations request that visitors stay on the trail, but in most places it’s ok to wander off a ways into the prairie or woods. Stepping off trail allows little feet more time to wander without being trampled by horses and hikers, and can give you a much more immersive experience.
- Go to the bathroom ahead of time. Seriously – I can’t stress this one enough. Go to the bathroom before you leave the house. Go to the bathroom at the trailhead before you begin hiking, biking or canoeing, and bring some toilet paper with you in case they need to go to the bathroom again while you’re out in the woods (and they will).
- Almost any weather is good weather to explore outdoors if you’re properly dressed. Like most people, I most love the outdoors when it is 70°, sunny and bug-free. However, I have also had memorable (though not always enjoyable) experiences in nature when it is raining, snowing or sweltering. The key is to dress appropriately – whether that means rain boots and an umbrella; a winter hat, scarf and snowpants; or a tank top and sun hat – and to think strategically about which outdoor destinations to visit at different times of the year. For example, head to the woods on a blustery winter day, as the trees will help to shield you from the wind. On a hot summer day, pick a trail near a stream or lake so that you can play in the water to cool off. You don’t need to go outside every day, but you’ll be amazed by how much better you feel after spending even a little time outdoors during a long winter or rainy spring.
- Plan an activity…or not. There are any number of kid-friendly outdoor activities you can plan if you feel uncomfortable stepping outside without a little structure. Some of my favorite simple activities include: bringing along a butterfly net to catch and release bugs; collecting fall leaves to take home and press; or looking for animal tracks in snow and mud. On the other hand, nature tends to inspire creativity, so don’t be afraid to walk out the door empty-handed and let the prairie, woods and water be your inspiration.
If you’re interested in trying out a new outdoor activity but don’t know how to get started, check out the Minnesota DNR’s “I can!” program, which is designed to give families hands-on experience with camping, paddling, fishing, mountain biking, and archery. The programs are low-cost or free and include all the necessary gear. Learn more at www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/ican.
Grab a snack, grab some toilet paper, and step outside into the great outdoors!