Y- Learn About YOURSELF

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I can’t believe the end of the 2016 Blogging from A-Z Challenge is almost here. Admittedly, I’ll be glad to see the end of April so I can focus on something other than my blog for a change! That having been said, my first attempt at the challenge has been a great one. I’ve interacted with so many interesting people, and I’ve learned a lot about so many topics. I also learned a lot about my own topic—and about myself.

It’s useful to take a moment to focus on what you learn about yourself through challenges like this one. The definition of a challenge is something that isn’t easy—so why do it? What do you get from it? My guess is that you learn a lot about yourself through challenges. You learn your strengths and weaknesses as well as your stamina. You learn what you’re willing to put up with and what sends you over the edge. You learn that you’re capable of much more than you imagined.

Taking your family outdoors presents similar challenges. It’s not always easy to get everyone off of the couch and out of the house. You quite likely have to set aside other important things in order to make outdoor adventures happen. You could even face the wrath of kids who’d much rather be playing video games or texting their friends than tromping through the woods. I’d like to hope that the rewards—intangible though they may be—make the challenge worthwhile.

At the end of every challenge, it’s beneficial to consider your accomplishments. In the spirit of that sort of self-evaluation and since we’re so near the end of this blogging challenge, I’d like to challenge you to evaluate what you’ve learned about yourself through your most recent challenge—whether it’s an outdoor one, the A-Z Blogging Challenge, or something else.

Five Questions to Learn About Yourself

  • What was my goal in this challenge?
  • How was I challenged?
  • What did I learn through this challenge?
  • How did I grow through this challenge?
  • What can I share with others about this experience?

To be fair, I’ll take up my own challenge and answer these questions:

My goal in the 2016 Blogging From A to Z Challenge was twofold. First, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write 26 posts in a month. Second, I hoped to assert the importance of getting outdoors, something that is rapidly falling out of favor with families these days. I found that writing the actual posts wasn’t tough, but coming up with ideas sometimes was. I didn’t want to be repetitive, and sometimes I couldn’t come up with anything to say on a topic. This challenge definitely taught me to be creative; avoiding repetition meant I had to think about topics from different angles. I learned a lot about the reasons people avoid going outside (myself included). Even more interestingly, I learned so much about topics I knew little about, from printing presses to Queen Victoria and even frogs during the A-Z Challenge. In terms of growth, I definitely got into a consistent habit of writing this month. I tend to procrastinate about writing, doing it when “I have time,” which means it doesn’t happen often enough. The A-Z Challenge added the pressure I needed to be consistent about my writing goals. If I break my writing into achievable goals and stick with them, I can succeed. Finally, I really hope I’ve encouraged people to get outside—just a bit. I know the logistics of getting outdoors present a challenge some days, but the rewards in terms of physical and mental health are great, as I’ve explored this month.

Thank you to all who’ve stopped by and said hello during this challenge. I couldn’t have made it to Y without YOU!

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X – X Marks the Spot

26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside - X Marks the Spot

What is it about the idea of treasure hunting that interests us? Countless books have been written about pirates searching for an elusive treasure. Thanks to their maps, the phrase“X marks the spot” has become synonymous with an advantageous find. Modern-day treasure hunters often use high-tech equipment like metal detectors and sonar to aid them in their quest, but the aim is the same as the pirates of yore. Gold, right? Money, jewels, and long-lost coins top the list of things people are hunting for. Have you ever noticed, though, that even when these treasure hunters find what they’re looking for, they aren’t satisfied? No matter how big or impressive the treasure, the hunters are right back out there trying to find the next big haul.

I think it’s safe to say that while the treasure is great, it’s the HUNT itself that is the best part. Just a couple of weeks ago I read a Huffington Post article about a man in Oregon who found a rare gold coin with his metal detector. When asked about his find, the man responded, “Finding it is better than keeping it.”

If you’re a modern-day treasure hunter and haven’t yet tried out geocaching, it’s time you get your family outside to try out a new hobby. Simply put, geocaching is an international treasure hunt using GPS coordinates to locate geocaches, hidden containers or points of interest. Once you find a geocache, you log your success on a written log within the container and/or on the website geocaching.com (you can create an account on the site for free and even download a free app so you can find your first cache today).

No, you won’t find gold, jewels, or money in these geocaches, but you’ll have the fun of the find.

How to Begin Your Geocaching “X Marks the Spot” Adventure

Now get outside and get hunting! 

W – Wildlife Knowledge

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The headline caught my attention the moment I saw it last month:

Prairie Dogs Are Serial Killers That Murder Their Competition

What?! I used to live in Colorado, and I fell in love with the cute, social prairie dogs scurrying here and there along the side of the road. I understand that property owners and ranchers out west are not a fan of these critters because of the damage they do by burrowing. They’re just so fun to watch, though! That’s why when I saw that headline on my morning news feed, I had to read more.

Apparently, those adorable creatures are pretty brutal to ground squirrels. They kill them so they don’t have to compete with the squirrels for food. This is particularly interesting because prairie dogs aren’t killing the squirrels to eat them. On the contrary, prairie dogs are herbivores. The fact that they kill ground squirrels not for sustenance but to decrease competition for food caught scientists off guard. That’s not what they expected to find when they studied these animals.

I know the prairie dog example is a gruesome one, but it shows that we’re constantly learning more and more about the wildlife with which we share the earth. Wildlife knowledge is useful in many ways, from pest control to protecting endangered species, from economic advantages to aesthetic ones. The more we learn about wildlife, the more we learn about our own species, too.

There are many ways to introduce our families to wildlife knowledge and wildlife conservation. The following activities come from the National Wildlife Federation:

Wildlife education group Black Snake Productions highlights well the importance of sharpening our wildlife knowledge:

Teaching wildlife conservation through fun and interactive education can be an amazing experience for children. It teaches a child about the awareness on sustainability and the damage to native animals and the environment. As well, teaching kids about wildlife conservation ensures that our beautiful country and its matchless wildlife will be preserved for future generations.

Fortunately, improving our wildlife knowledge isn’t difficult. How many different birds, animals, and insects will you see today? Take a few minutes to Google that bird sitting in the tree or learn more about your family cat. Can you imagine our world without these creatures?

V – Vitamin D

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We’ve all been told we need to get plenty of Vitamin D, so our bodies can absorb calcium and phosphorous. Jack Charles wrote an excellent article for Eureka Tents in 2014 that clarified some other lesser known benefits of this hormone (yes, I just read that Vitamin D is actually a hormone—who knew?). Zach at All Things Appalachian Trail added a few more benefits to my list:

Vitamin D may…

  • Decrease your risk for heart disease and some cancers
  • Decrease the severity of asthma
  • Decrease your likelihood of depression
  • Decrease high blood pressure
  • Decrease your likelihood for multiple sclerosis (women)
  • Decrease your likelihood of Alzheimer’s
  • Decrease your likelihood of diabetes
  • Boost your immune system

As we’ve all been told, the easiest way to get Vitamin D is to expose ourselves to sunlight—and no, sunlight through a window isn’t the same as direct exposure. Our bodies are designed to function best when we get outside. Yes, it’s true that you can also get Vitamin D from other sources like some fish and even mushrooms, but these sources aren’t as efficient as sunlight.

One of the biggest challenges to the idea of stimulating our Vitamin D production from sunlight is skin cancer. Sunscreen blocks UV rays, which are needed for Vitamin D production. If we don’t wear sunscreen, we risk skin cancer; if we do wear sunscreen, we aren’t able to get our Vitamin D boost from the sun.

Clearly, this is a valid concern—and one we don’t discuss often enough. There are risks to being outside—but there are also risks to staying inside and inactive. Stephen Honig, MD, director of the Osteoporosis Center at the Hospital for Joint Diseases, in New York City, says just 20 to 25 minutes in the sunshine [without sunscreen] is helpful each day. Likewise, Australian epidemiologist Robyn Lucas argued that compared to the severity of problems associated with vitamin D deficiency, some sun exposure is the better option. I’ve read in places that 5-10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure is helpful. HOWEVER, the Skin Cancer Foundation says any unprotected sun exposure is too risky.

I am obviously not an expert in this topic. I like the idea of getting that Vitamin D boost from a natural source like the sun rather than from supplements, but I understand the risks involved. Sunscreen is an important part of any outdoor adventure. Fortunately, even if you avoid any unprotected sun exposure, getting outside will surely result in some Vitamin N(ature), as Richard Louv calls it.

T – Teamwork

26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside

Photo adapted from Love To Take Photos @ pixabay.com

Happy belated Earth Day!

People who appreciate the outdoors know that we don’t keep the world a beautiful place all by ourselves. It takes a team. It took a team of people to create the National Park System, and it takes teams of people all over the world like the International Union for Conversation of Nature to protect our natural resources.

Today, I could talk about how being outside teaches teamwork—and it does—but instead I want to focus on a handful of the many organizations that ensure we have beautiful parks, pristine waterways, and natural spaces to explore. I want to write a thank you, of sorts, to those whose teamwork ensures all of us the chance to take our families outside.

In no particular order, here are just a few of the organizations acting as part of Earth’s team:

Thank goodness, Earth’s got a pretty big team! That having been said, there’s always room for more people. I hope you’ll join the team to make the outdoors a place we can all enjoy for years to come.

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!

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…

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?

 

G – GOOD Food

hot dog campfire A-Z challenge

Adapted from sausage-662049_1920_Pezibear @ Pixabay.com

By now, everyone knows food cooked outside tastes better, right? Honestly, I think the food is the main reason I go camping sometimes. Yes, it takes a bit more effort to cook over the campfire, but there’s something about the relaxed pace of campfire cooking coupled with being hungry from exertion and fresh air that makes food cooked over a fire taste amazing.

Interestingly, the *taste* of the food isn’t the only good thing about cooking outside. According to an H.E. Remus on Medium, “When you cook for yourself, you consume 50% less calories.” That makes sense since when you’re camping, you’re probably meal planning more carefully and are conscious of portion control since storage of food is an issue. Further, you’re less likely to just randomly grab a snack from the pantry, and if you do stock your camping pantry with junk food (s’mores, anyone?), you’re more likely to have exercised setting up camp to burn more calories than you would sitting in front of the TV. As an added bonus, if you’re participating in activities like fishing or foraging (yes, people do that!), you’re probably eating the freshest protein around sans preservatives of any kind.

Finally, if you’re camping, you just have to try one of the incredibly creative recipes you can find in the array of camping recipe books or on Pinterest. In case you need some incentive, here’s my Pinterest camping recipe list:

How is it that the lowly hot dog can taste so GOOD when cooked outside over an open fire? What are your favorite recipes for cooking outdoors? I’m always looking for new things to try on this summer’s adventures!

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