If you dream of relaxing hikes through picturesque mountains, viewing wildlife in its natural habitat or cooking over an open fire, you’re not alone. More families than ever before are choosing to explore the great outdoors during vacations, on weekend getaways and through everyday play.
Today’s families can find a variety of outdoor activities to suit. Whether you’re planning an outdoor experience in the backyard or the backwoods, the time will be well spent and well worth whatever juggling of schedules that must be done.
The benefits of outdoor play
In his book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. asserts that playing helps children learn important skills such as resourcefulness, optimism, “people skills, a can-do attitude” and creativity. These skills, says Dr. Hallowell, correlate with happiness as an adult.
Outdoor play adds even more benefits to the list, says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv explains that outdoor play is especially important in developing children’s imaginations. To maximize imaginative growth, he says, parents must protect and encourage outdoor play each and every day. “Parents or other adults need to be there for their kids to limit the time they play video games or watch TV,” Louv writes. It is the parents’ responsibility, he argues, to help their children “detach from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in.”
A more active imagination is only one benefit. The American Academy of Pediatrics noted in a recent report that outdoor play results in an increased level of creativity. Ultimately, that creativity can help children discover their interests, solve problems, relate to others and adjust to school settings.
Time outdoors also boosts exercise levels to help children reach or maintain healthy weight, build stronger muscles and bones, and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Other studies directly link the advantages of unstructured outdoor play to lower stress levels, stronger immune systems, and fewer symptoms of ADD and ADHD.
Making outdoor play a priority
With greater emotional and physical health on the line, it’s no surprise that more parents are making outdoor time a priority — for every member of the family. For many a harried parent, the unplugging and slowing down is a welcome change.
Recent estimates indicate that children spend an estimated two to six hours a day in front of electronic screens. Six hours is almost a full-time job and certainly longer than most children spend in a classroom every day. Parents, concerned about the lack of physical activity in their children’s lives, are choosing to set limits on television, computers and video games. TV or other electronic devices can be available to kids after they finish their homework and spend time outside.
With frenzied family schedules, setting limits on electronics may not be enough. Reducing children’s schedules, rearranging work hours and postponing errands and household chores are other ways families are making more time for outdoor play and exploration. Once family priorities are determined and schedules adjusted, it’s easy to make outdoor time part of your child’s day.
Exploring your own backyard
Your backyard or a nearby park is the perfect setting. The trees, rocks, grass, and flowers provide an unending supply of interactive, natural fun. Simple activities — identifying wildflowers, watching ants and studying leaves — are all it takes to inspire a sense of wonder in most children.
At home, parents can encourage outdoor play by keeping shovels, nets, binoculars and other inexpensive toys and containers where children can grab them to fuel their own ideas and experiments. Playdates in the neighborhood allow them to explore the yards of other families.
As children get older and gain more confidence outdoors, parents can introduce camping in the backyard, nature scavenger hunts, journaling, bird viewing, nature photography and other activities. Parents can also plan trips to area parks to take advantage of the trails, ponds and greenways they offer.
Expanding your outdoor horizons
Some families will be satisfied staying close to home; others will move on to more advanced adventures. These may include bicycling, canoeing, hiking, camping, fishing and outdoor vacations. Before heading off on an outdoor vacation, some research is recommended.
Camping, for example, is now the number one outdoor family vacation. Federal and state parks are among the top family vacation destinations. As a result of its popularity, many sources of information are available. The Internet offers numerous resources for locations, equipment, and trip planning.
Local camping clubs, scouting organizations and even family and friends are sources of information. Online discussions and networking websites where members share special interests are also good places to find recommendations for good campsites or other outdoor destinations.
Whether playing in the backyard or climbing the nearest mountain, enjoying time in natural surroundings offers significant benefits to all family members — especially children. And the best part is, all you need to do to get started is step outside your door. From there, just follow your family’s interests as you take on the outdoors.
JENNIFER WOODFORD works with Dehavilland Associates, an educational consulting firm.