S – Sensory Experience

26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside - Sensory Exposure

Happy Earth Day!

I read a book a couple of years ago titled Room by Emma Donoghue. If you haven’t read the book, perhaps you’ve seen the movie version that came out this year. Either way, the narrator of the story is a five-year-old boy named Jack who has spent his entire life trapped inside a small room with his mother. I won’t get into the details of the story itself, but for just a moment, try to put yourself into Jack’s position.

Imagine what it would be like to be born and raised entirely inside—with your only experiences of nature coming from TV and books (poor Jack doesn’t even have video games). What would it be like to then walk outside for the first time? Shocking, right? But why? Why aren’t those depictions of nature on TV and in books comparable to the real thing?

I wrote about how incredible video game and movie depictions of nature are earlier this month, but this idea has stuck in my head. As beautiful as the world in Avatar is, I’d rather take a swim in a real lake and tug gently on a real willow tree’s branches any day.

But again, I’m back to that question of WHY?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that no author’s description or computer rendition of nature is truly multi-sensory. Sure, movies engage our senses of sight and hearing. Video games try to go one better by adding in a touch component (although I’ll argue that hard plastic controller isn’t in the same tactile category as petting a rabbit or scooping up pebbles). And I know throughout the years, attempts have been made at creating smell-a-vision, but I can’t imagine a puff of artificially scented air will make me feel like I’m walking through a field of wildflowers. I don’t even want to think about how they’d recreate taste in artificial reality.

The point is, being outside is a 3-D multi-sensory experience that is often copied but can’t be replicated. Perhaps instead of spending time trying to perfect synthetic nature, we should just get outside and experience it firsthand. Remember, poor little Jack from the book Room was trapped indoors. What’s our excuse?

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R – Relaxing

26 Reasons to take your family outside: Relaxation

Photo adapted from Unsplash @ pixabay.com

I chose this lovely visual of a person hanging out in a hammock to exemplify how relaxing outside can be. However, if I’m being truthful, I’m rarely relaxing like this when I’m outside.

On the contrary, I tend to be doing something outside, whether it’s washing windows, mowing the law, going for a walk, pushing my sons on the swings, pulling weeds, or a million other things. This past weekend, for example, my husband and I spent two long days doing the yard version of “spring cleaning.” It was anything but relaxing.
I’ve spent most of the past month writing about being active outside, so this idea of relaxing feels a bit counter to that mission. A major reason we go outside is to get moving—not to relax.

With all that in mind, when those moments of outside relaxation do come along, there’s something really precious about them. We took a break from our yard work last weekend, for example, and sat on the swing my husband had just pulled out of the shed. We had a drink, ate a snack, and rested our tired muscles while listening to the birds singing in the trees around us. It was a glorious few minutes!

What is it about nature that allows us to relax and recharge—even if just for a few short minutes? I only have to watch the swans paddling on Lake Michigan or follow an autumn leaf tumbling in the breeze to improve my mood. Vancouver writer Tuija Siepell got it right when she wrote

We love gardens and parks, ponds and water features, playgrounds and sports fields, open plazas, avenues and boulevards. We want more of it because even the smallest green feature lifts our spirits, while the wide open spaces can change our lives

(By the way, you should check out the rest of Siepell’s article for some amazing nature photography.)

I’m not arguing that being outside is always relaxing. However, when those relaxing moments come along, they really are priceless. I hope you find some outdoor relaxing time today!

Q – Quality Time

poking campfire

Photo adapted from Unsplash @ pixabay.com

The kids had homework to do.

I needed to vacuum and wash windows.

My husband planned to clean out our cars after work.

We had all sorts of things we should have been doing yesterday evening, but when my boys got off the bus after school, I knew we needed some quality time as a family.

Do you ever have those weeks where you get focused on what needs to get done? On to-do lists and schedules? On obligations and necessities? Sometimes those things become the priorities instead of facilitating the priorities. These are the moments when I need to remind myself of a popular saying:

Work to live not live to work.

So, yesterday evening, we lived.

We set aside the work for a couple of hours and spent some quality time together. We tromped through the woods, found six geocaches, visited two lakes, discovered an abandoned boyscout camp and an old road, and walked something like three miles. Best of all, we spent time together as a family talking about our day and about the week to come. This wasn’t the kind of talking we do at home when we’re all busy doing our own things. This was quality conversation where we were listening to one another. I’d like to think that was much more important than vacuuming or homework (which did get done eventually, for the record).

I hope you’ll get to spend some quality time with your family this week—outside, inside, or wherever!

P – Pausing for Play

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Photo Adapted from Night Owl @ pixabay.com

I’m supposed to be writing about problem-solving skills today. That was what I told myself when I made my list for the A-Z Blogging Challenge. However, when I sat down to write this morning, all I could think of was watching my sons play outside this past weekend. So, today, I’m pushing the pause button and thinking instead about the value of unstructured play (which has a lot to do with improving problem-solving skills, too).

See, here in Michigan, spring *finally* arrived. After a winter and early spring of temps not getting above 40 degrees (F), the sun came out this weekend and the red in the thermometer shot above 70. We were like people who have been trapped in a dark, wet cave as we walked outside, shielding our eyes from the intense sun we haven’t seen in months. It was glorious!

My husband and I spent the weekend doing yard work—you know, the spring clean-up tasks that seem never-ending this time of year. My sons helped for a short time, but they they got bored (see my earlier post on Imagination for why I find this such a great moment). They went out to their play area, a wooden structure my dad built them surrounded by sand and woods. In a few minutes, they were digging holes (We’re making a mine, Mom!”) and leaning tree branches against a big oak (”Our fort!”). My oldest grabbed a rake to make the front yard of his fort tidy and then called excitedly to show me. Before the weekend was over, they’d played just about every backyard sport they could come up with (anyone for a game of badminton-softball-into a soccer goal?) and replanted some lovely flowers (weeds) into pots to decorate their fort.

At the end of both Saturday and Sunday nights, my sons were filthy, hungry, exhausted—and HAPPY. What more could a parent ask for? I didn’t entertain them or set up fancy games they could play. And neither one once asked to go inside to play with their electronics. They were having too much fun outside playing. They were solving problems with creative solutions.

The benefits of outdoor play have been well documented. This list comes from Head Start Body Start:

  • Become fitter and leaner
  • Develop stronger immune systems
  • Have more active imaginations
  • Have lower stress levels
  • Play more creatively
  • Have greater respect for themselves and others

If you’re into lengthy academic articles (sorry, my kind of thing!), I highly encourage these two articles on the value of outdoor play:

How will you get outside to play today? (And yes, adults need to get outside and play sometimes, too!)

O- Obesity Cure?

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Photo adapted from mcconmama @ pixabay.com

I feel a bit like the old snake oil salesmen with my title today. “Come one, come all! Get your obesity cure here!”

Unless you’ve been hiding under a bush out in the forest, you’ve heard that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S.and in many other countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have an entire section of their website dedicated to Overweight and Obesity because this is such a concern.Even Michelle Obama has gotten into the discussion by making the reduction of childhood obesity her White House platform. Although there is evidence to suggest that the obesity rates are stabilizing, far too many men, women, and children are negatively affected by weight issues.
As much as I’d like to argue that getting outside will cure obesity, the reality is that many factors contribute to our health. Going outside isn’t going to eliminate food deserts that drive families to fast food and convenience store meals. A walk in the park won’t make the pounds melt away. Curing obesity takes a dedicated effort—and a lot of support.
However, back to that “walk in the park” idea I mentioned a moment ago… If you take a listen to the experts, they all agree on two things:

Obviously, I could keep going, but I’m sure you get the point. While these experts all say reducing obesity is a challenge, they agree that at the heart of the obesity crisis lies a cure: eating well and exercising.
Conveniently enough, I wrote a post about the value of exercising outside a week or so ago…and one about GOOD food, although that was more about the fact that food tastes better when cooked outside.
I may not be able to cure obesity by taking my family outside, but I figure it can’t hurt, right?

 

N – Natural Beauty

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Photo adapted from Sara Juggernaut @ pixaby.com

When I sat down to write my “N” post for the Blogging From A-Z Challenge, I figured writing about nature would be easy. Gaining an appreciation of “natural beauty” seemed like something I could write about without thought. After all, barring a natural disaster, it’s not very often we hear people talk about how ugly nature is. Nature’s beauty is sort of a given. Everyone knows that already. So why would I need to convince people to experience this beauty for themselves. A no-brainer, right?

Then why do so few people get outside and experience nature firsthand?

After some thought, it occurred to me that nature’s beauty has some major competition these days. Check out these examples of what I mean:


What breathtaking scenery! In the 21st century, computers can create the details of the natural world with amazing accuracy. Computers generate rain, animate insects, illustrate the wind, and place viewers right in the midst of it all. Why would anyone bother to go outside when nature can be experienced on a television screen from the comfort of the couch?

Here’s why:

As good as those computers are, they can’t compete with the real thing.

True natural beauty can’t be computer generated. I’ll take hopping from one sun-warmed boulder to the next along Lake Superior over watching it on TV any day. I’d rather lie in the freshly cut grass and stare up through the leaves of an ancient oak tree than pick pixelated flowers in a video game. Take me to the ballpark where I can eat popcorn and come home with a slightly sunburned nose. I’ll take the real thing over the artificial substitute every time.

Now, the million dollar question: How do we get kids to pick the beauty of nature over the electronic version? I’m still working on that…

M – Mindfulness

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Photo adapted from Unsplash @ pixabay.com

  • That moment when the sun crests the horizon, making the sky blush
  • That moment when I stand beneath the Sable Dunes, with Lake Superior licking my toes
  • That moment when the ground gives away and the expanse of the Grand Canyon opens up in front of me
  • That moment when the car rounds a bend and the face of George Washington carved into stone looks down on me through the trees
  • That moment when the clouds part, revealing not just the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, but a rainbow, too
  • That moment when I’m sitting on a giant rock jutting out into Lake Huron, watching a thunderstorm approach
  • That moment when I lie on a blanket under elderly oak trees at the park, the sun trickling down between the leaves
  • That moment when I look back over my shoulder and realize what the Black Hills look like from above
  • That moment when we reach the summit of the mountain, with the baby sound asleep in the backpack
  • That moment when I look at my family across the campfire, their faces streaked with marshmallow and chocolate

These are the moments when I can’t think of anything other than where I am, who I’m with, and who I am. These are the moments when I understand what it means to be mindful of the moment. What are your moments of mindfulness?

 

L – Leadership Skills

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Photo adapted from klimkin @ pixabay.com

When you think of 21st century leaders, what characteristics come to mind? Organization perhaps? Maybe persistence. Quite possibly you think of dedication, ethics, or effective communications. There are many possibilities.
Whether a person is destined for leadership greatness on a political stage or wants to be better at helping others, leadership skills learned through interactions with the natural world translate well to the classroom, boardroom, and beyond. Child development expert Scott D. Krenz in the article “5 Steps to Helping Your Child Become a Leader” sums up the key leadership concepts in bold below. The connection to outside activities in this list is my addition to Krenz’s thoughts:

  • A “Leader” says “Yes, I Can!”It’s called the power of Positive Attitude. —> Anyone on a sports team knows the value of a positive attitude. My sons play soccer and will start practice for the season this week (let’s hope it stops snowing!). Neither are star players, but we reinforce that what makes them good members of the team is their attitudes, their support and empathy for other members of their team and the opposition, and their ability to listen to the coach (and execute instructions). Playing soccer teaches my kids that losing is a reality of playing the game, but that there are improvements they can make to do better the next time around. Leaders understand that a good attitude makes for a winning team—no matter the score.
  • A “Leader” says “It’s not a problem, it’s a Challenge!” It’s called Overcoming Adversity. —> As I’ve written about on this blog previously, my family does a lot of camping in the summer. One goal of mine for this season is to involve my oldest son in the trip planning more. What better opportunity is there for someone to learn about problems like budget, activities, and planning than to get involved? Further, when something goes wrong (as it inevitably does), this is an opportunity to learn how to be flexible and to seek solutions quickly. Even when things are well planned, the unexpected happens. These aren’t disasters; leaders take these opportunities and make the situation better.
  • A “Leader” says “Never give up, never give up, never give up!” It’s called Perseverance. —> Anyone who’s ever started a backyard garden understands that things don’t always go as planned. When we moved to a new house a few years ago, I got my family together one Saturday, and we rolled out fencing, tilled soil, and planted an array of tiny plants. The problem, I learned as summer wore on, was that the giant oak trees in our yard quickly filled the sky with their leaves, blocking sunlight from reaching my little plants. My garden was a spectacular disaster. I wasn’t daunted, though, and tried again the next year, being more careful to plant in areas where the sun might reach through the leaves. I’d like to say things were lots better, but my harvest wasn’t anything to brag about. This year, I’ve got a new plan—and a new location for the garden. Will I have better results? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to try until I succeed. That’s perseverance, an important leadership skill.
  • A “Leader” says “I may fail or make mistakes BUT I always learn and move ahead!” It’s called Commitment. —> My parents love to take my children fishing. My children, however, aren’t so good at the patience it often takes to catch fish. They expect the fish to bite the hook as soon as it’s dropped into the water. They don’t understand why the fish sometimes don’t bite at all—or bite and aren’t hooked. My soon-to-be eight-year-old son told me recently that he’s looking forward to fishing with Grandpa and Grandma this summer. He said he’s not going to cry if a fish steals the worm from his hook or if he has to sit quietly for a long time. He’s committed to doing what it takes to catch a fish. He’s learning how to be a good leader in the process.
  • A “Leader” says “I will always do my best!” It’s called Excellence. —> When my husband was a graduate student, he hiked in the Everest region. He tells the story of climbing to the summit of a mountain (much smaller than Everest but still pretty major in terms of elevation); many in his party gave up and turned back. Back at their base camp, those people were upset they didn’t reach the summit. The reality of the situation, though, was that they did their best; they hiked as far as they could and made a decision to turn back before they endangered themselves—or someone else who would have had to rescue them. A leader does his/her best in the situation—but doesn’t do so at the expense of others.

If you can’t tell already, I’m firmly in the camp who disagrees with the popular statement “Leaders are born, not made.” It has been my experience that while not everyone is born with strong leadership skills, they can be strengthened. Experiences in nature are a great way to grow those skills. What leadership skills have you gained from spending time outdoors?

 

K – Keeping it Simple

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Photo adapted from mother-1039765_1920 thedanw @ pixabay.com

You ever read something and just find yourself nodding, like “Yeah, I totally get what this person is saying”? I had one of those moments today. The article was titled “Keep it Simple When Introducing Kids to the Outdoors,” and it included a list of things people shouldn’t do when introducing kids to the outdoors (don’t let them play with leeches, for example). After the list, the article ends with this head-nodding gem:

Most of all, just keep it simple and fun.

Well, duh! Why didn’t I think of that? Keep it simple is a mantra for most everything, but for some reason, many of us (yup, I include myself here) overplan when it comes to outdoor activities. When you keep it simple, you’re open to interesting possibilities. You can be spontaneous.

When it comes to getting your family outdoors, keeping it simple should be your goal. If you need some inspiration, check out the ideas at the blogs No Time for Flashcards and Hands On As We Grow.

What simple activities have you used to introduce kids to the outdoors? 

Read more of my Blogging From A-Z Challenge posts: 26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside

J – Joy

jumping joy

Photo adapted from youth-570881_1920 Jill111 @ pixabay.com

 

Okay, pop quiz time! What do all of the children in the photos below have in common?

happy kids

Photos from pixabay.com

I suppose you could come up with any number of commonalities, but there are really just two I’m thinking about today:

  1. Outside
  2. Joy

I’ve spent the past two weeks writing about reasons for people to get outside, but it’s the joy on these kids’ faces that says much more than any of my words ever could. Being outdoors is natural for kids; they thrive there. I’ve seen it in my own family; when my kids are stuck inside during bad weather, they’re irritable and aimless. One afternoon outside, and that all changes.

I know there are always exceptions–kids who hate being outside and families who aren’t able to get outside due to geography, weather, violence, or illness. However, I can’t help but think about this quote from Stacey Loscalzos in the article “Why Playing Outdoors Makes Children Smarter“:

Outdoor play is fun. Children who are happy are successful learners. Children are naturally happy when they are moving, playing and creating outside. This joy opens them up for experimenting, learning and growing.

What brings you joy? What brings your family joy?