Most parents know it in their bones: Kids spend way too much time plopped in front of screens. We know that time outside and in nature is so important for growing brains and bodies, and yet, we all struggle with the question (that is ever-more-pressing as the years go by and the digital distractions increase): How do we get our kids outside? And how do we motivate them to actually want to put down the screens and take a walk?
Preventive Medicine Reports published a population-based study last year that found links between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents when screen time equals seven hours or more per day. Loss of curiosity, self-control and emotional stability are just a few of the issues plaguing these young folks. Moderation, of course, is key — but the fact is, children are plugged in more than what’s healthy. Common Sense Media reports that teens fritter nine hours per day online, while kids ages eight to 12 devote six hours per day. Adults — you know, the role models for all those kids — have been sucked into the Matrix too: CNN Health reported that Americans spend more than 10 hours per day online.
There’s hope, however: Just turn off that Fortnite and get the hell outside.
Science has plenty to say about the health benefits of spending time in the great outdoors. In a report published in Science Daily, Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett of University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.”
How’s that for motivation to take your kids for a hike — to hear the crunch of earth and gravel under your shoes? Read on for more inspiration on how to get your kids to actually want to be outside in the open air.
Go forest bathing
Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, is a popular meditative practice in Japan. It’s believed that phytoncides, organic compounds with antibacterial properties, are released from trees, providing vital health benefits. So leave your digital devices at home and wander in the woods or throughout a green space, paying attention to the environment with all of your senses.
Kids are total naturals at this practice. When you take children into the forest, they immediately immerse themselves within their surroundings — picking up sticks, smelling flowers and weeds, letting dirt get under their nails. In this way, children can actually teach adults to re-wild themselves (and let go of stress and to-do lists).
Pitch a tent
Whether you go backpacking in a national park, car-camping in a forest preserve, or you simply pitch a tent in your own backyard, your kids will love falling asleep to the settling sounds of insects and wind — and waking up to the cacophony of clatters that birds and squirrels make in the morning. It’s a thing of wonder to set your circadian rhythm to the sunlight and the natural world around you — even if that world is in a suburb or at a camp site.
Forage for food
Have you ever noticed that peanuts that are in the shell taste better than the ones that are naked? Sometimes, a little work can pay off in spades (and flavor). Enter: foraging. Connect your kids to their environment, teach them about the seasons and plant identification, and engage them in healthy living by picking wild berries, dandelions, tubers and herbs. If you’re not sure what is 100% safe and edible, reach out to a naturalist or foraging mentor to lead the way. Or, simply take your kids to an apple orchard or a strawberry farm or go cherry-picking. The point is: Opt for the outdoors and connect the dots between what grows in the soil and what we put in our bodies.
Do good, be good: volunteer
Hook up with a volunteer agency or reach out to your local community to see what your family can do to help the organic ecosystems near your home. Clean up a forest preserve, plant trees and native species, remove invasive plants, mulch trails and help preserve biodiversity. An in-depth experience that nurtures the environment will not only teach your kids to appreciate all of the green spaces they have access to; it will also help them think globally about the natural world we live in. Plus, they’ll be in the daylight, breathing fresh air. Always a bonus.
Organize an outdoor playdate
Hanging with friends is an optimal motivator for getting kids to spend time outside. Bring along a couple of your kids’ besties and find some trees. After taking your kids for a hike or just wandering in the woods, settle down for an al fresco picnic — complete with blanket, snacks and a thermos full of hot chocolate. Look up and identify shapes in the clouds. Send the kids off on a woodsy scavenger hunt. Have them find certain easy-to-identify tree leaves, such as maple or oak. Use the leaves to make rubbings with crayons and paper. Help kids collect a bouquet of wildflowers for pressing and crafts, or fill a bag with acorns and forest-floor treasures. Hone kids’ listening skills by pointing out birds, squirrels and woodland animals; encourage them to mimic what they hear. Build a tree fort out of sticks and leaves, and crawl inside. Make a tiny fairy home with organic materials at the base of a tree.
Spending time in nature, with friends, will create inquisitiveness, engagement and awe.
Join the world’s largest treasure hunt by finding buried treasure, with a map; there are over three million geocaching sites worldwide. Okay, we know we said to unplug and explore nature without any devices but… here’s one way where you can be outside, engaging with nature, with the help of a cell phone or GPS. After downloading the app and creating an account, go on a treasure-seeking quest. Once you find the cache, you can trade trinkets and write your name and the date in the logbook (you can also write about your experiences online). You’ll connect with a global community of nature-loving adventurers.
Travel with expert nature buffs
Loads of travel companies will help you plan a trip for your family — but one of the best outfitters in terms of getting your kids outside and inspiring a real long-term love of nature is REI. Travel to destinations all over the globe, such as Sri Lanka or Costa Rica, or stay close to home; you’ll be in good hands, with local guides, on an adventure of a lifetime. Pick a well-thought-out, family-focused itinerary that challenges your body as much as your resolve and learn about the natural world in a way you never thought possible.Perhaps you want to check out the Family Zion Hiking Weekend or the Yosemite Family Adventure or the Yellowstone Family Adventure in the U.S. — REI makes nature accessible to kids and, more importantly, fun.
Bring Fido or visit an animal farm
A common trait among dogs is that they love being outdoors. Bring your pooch on a nature walk or, better yet, to a dog park or dog beach where she can romp around with other canines. Even the oldest and laziest of dogs will perk up with some fresh air and time spent outdoors. If you don’t have a dog or know anyone who does (well, you need better friends, for one thing), you can volunteer at an animal shelter. There are even some places — such as Grace Bay’s Potcake Place in the Turks and Caicos Islands — where you can walk shelter dogs while you’re on vacation.
Or, visit an animal farm. Feed chickens, pet cows, learn about llamas and horses. Even most urban environments have farm museums or animal exhibits where city kids can connect with furry friends. (Queens County Farm Museum, for example, sits on the largest remaining parcel of farmland in New York City.)
Whether you go on a weeks-long dirtbag adventure, camping or backpacking, or just fit in a few hours of sunshine-laden time on a Saturday, everyone in your family will benefit from time spent in nature — and remember it far longer than they will that Fortnite session.