Tapping into the gifts of nature this summer

By Ben Klasky

Spending time in nature is good for our families. We know this intuitively as well as from a growing body of scientific research. Time spent being active outdoors has been demonstrated to decrease stress and depression, while also increasing concentration, memory, creativity and well-being. Nature time has been linked to lower obesity and a reduction in a number of diseases.

Yet if we all know that nature time is so good for us, then why aren’t we spending more time outside? A recent survey commissioned by Nature Valley confirmed a trend of which you are likely aware: today’s children are spending significantly less time outdoors than their parents did as kids. The survey showed kids are actually spending three times longer staring at screens than outside. But why is this the case?

For some of us, an obstacle to getting outside is that we view the outdoors as physically uncomfortable. Extreme temperatures or excessive precipitation make it less inviting to venture out. Canada boasts some of the most daunting winters in the world, so it’s not surprising that 43 per cent of Canadians surveyed said the cold keeps them inside. And during the warmer months, the reputation of Canada’s aggressive mosquitos and black flies provide an equally ready excuse (for those lacking the fortitude of a lumberjack) to stay confined to the relative safety of a couch. A fact almost a quarter of those surveyed (24 per cent) admitted to.

Of course, I’m reminded of one of my mother’s favourite phrases from when I was growing up. She was fond of telling me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Although there are certainly some horrific weather days during which are best spent inside, the truth is that proper clothing (combined with sunscreen and/or bug repellent) can make it comfortable to be outside most of the time.

Another excuse we make for ourselves is that we’re too busy for the outdoors. It can just feel like too much effort to get the family outside after a long day of work. As we prepare an evening meal, for example, it can be easy to default toward letting our kids play video games or watch TV. When we do get our kids outside, it’s often through highly structured after school programs and sports. Although such activity can be great for physical fitness, team sports lack some of the benefits that less structured outdoor play can provide for our children like increased creativity.

So – as parents who want to get our kids outside more, how can we overcome these perceived barriers? It’s easier than you think. First, I recommend thinking back to your own childhood. Whether you grew up in the city or country, chances are you spent a fair amount of time playing outside. When I came home from school as a kid, my friends and I would jump on our bikes and explore our neighbourhood without a particular destination. For many parents, providing outdoor time for their kids can be as simple as arranging a time for your children to be home for dinner and allowing free play between school and dinner.

Getting our families outside more often also requires us to shift our mindset, in part because of current societal pressures. I work at a nature center where we teach children about the outdoors; and my family lives in a low-crime and woodsy setting. I know better than most people about the importance, and relative safety of spending time outdoors. Yet my wife and I also face concerns that we may not be “good parents” if we let our kids explore outside without our full supervision. When we finally did let our school-aged boys venture a few hundred meters from our house to build a fort with some neighbouring children, we received a phone call from a concerned neighbour within minutes. Did we realize that our kids were outside unattended? The call was meant to be helpful, but her tone made it clear that she did not approve.  For those living in urban neighbourhoods, consider joining a local parent group, which can be a great way to socialize and share the responsibility of watching kids while they play outside.

It’s really quite simple to get your family outdoors once you set your mind to it. If you’re at a loss for what to do out there, the folks at Nature Valley have recently launched a 100 #NatureMoments campaign, offering 100 outdoor activities you can do with your kids this summer on their website. The list offers ideas ranging from flying a kite, to counting stars, to collecting shells on a beach. And while the list can be a helpful starting point, don’t stop there – use your imagination to come up with your own ways to rediscover the joys of nature. In doing so, you’ll not only be creating some family fun, but you will also be giving your kids the gift of decreased stress and boosted health and energy.

Ben Klasky is president and CEO of IslandWood, an innovative nonprofit organization that introduces thousands of children to the outdoors each year.