If you want your children to put down their tablets and spend time outdoors, do what Maurille de Smalen suggests, “Flip the rules.”
“In a society that lives in information overload, it’s the outdoors where the magic happens,” she said. “I found that getting kids excited about the outdoors is not hard when we give them the right rules, or ‘rebel rules,’ as I like to call them.”
A few of the rules she wants kids to break are not getting dirty, staying on the path, and being careful not to fall. “Kids love the outdoors by default,” she said, “but as adults we have taken away their possibilities to enjoy nature by giving them rules that take away all the magic.”
Let them get dirty and encourage curiosity.
“Kids get excited and you will not believe how fast they find ways to get themselves covered in mud,” she said.
If your child comes home with mud on his shoes, veers slightly off the path to study an insect or observe a bird, or even scrapes his knee, it’s all part of growing up and being curious.
Jeff Alt, author of Get Your Kids Hiking: Start them Young and Keep it Fun!, collaborates with National Park staff to present family programs. He agrees with de Smalen that kids should make some of the rules. “Let the kids lead,” he said. “Hike at your child’s pace and distance. Whatever your child takes interest in, stop and explore that bug, leaf, or rock with them. Tell them about the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers. Getting to the destination is less important than making sure your kids have so much fun; they will want to go again and again.”
He also suggests:
- Starting them young: Ergonomically designed baby carriers make it easy and fun to carry your infant and toddler with you whenever you hike. Walk to your favorite park or beach. Bring a friend. Stop often and let your little one explore. Make your hike a routine your kids will look forward to.
- Count down to the adventure: Psych the kids up with pictures, videos, and highlights of the places they will go and the things they will see. Use books, magazines, maps, and the Internet, especially park websites and videos showing the spectacular wildlife and locations they will see.
- Suit up in comfort, style, and the latest technology. Start with footwear. Until your kids are walking consistently on their own (birth-3), fit them with a comfortable pair of water resistant shoes. Make sure the three and older kids are wearing lightweight trail shoes or boots with a sturdy sole. Wear non-cotton, moisture wicking, synthetic or wool socks.
- Dress for the weather. Wear layers and multipurpose clothes like pants that zip off into shorts or shirts with role up sleeves. Pack a waterproof breathable rain parka.
- Get age and size appropriate backpacks that fit each hiker comfortably.
- Carry water, a first aid kit, sunscreen, insect repellent, a flashlight, energy bar or other snack, a map and compass, a whistle, and binoculars.
- Bring your cell phone, which can double as a camera.
- Play I Spy and pack a plant and animal identification guide for your older child.
Benefits of time outdoors
Several scientific studies prove that children who spend time in nature develop stronger awareness, reasoning, and observation skills. They’re also more physically active, which helps to prevent obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Children with ADHD have fewer symptoms after spending time in nature according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Studies also showed children who attend schools with outdoor spaces and outdoor classrooms are calmer and pay more attention in class than students who don’t spend time outdoors.
Providing access to nature for all
According to the American Center for Progress (ACP), “Nature is supposed to be the great equalizer whose services are free, universal, and accessible to all humans without discrimination.” Unfortunately, ACP points to a “nature gap” because there are many areas in America where green spaces don’t exist.
The National Wildlife Federation is trying to bring green spaces to a large number of communities through its Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) program. ECHO’s team of landscape designers and early childhood experts create nature-based outdoor play spaces and offer workshops for parents, caregivers, and educators so they can best use these spaces. An ECHO site has sensory gardens so children can touch and experience plants up close. Some spaces have looping paths for riding bicycles, a stage for acting, tree stumps and logs to walk across, and places to get a little dirty.
“Yes, they get to play in the mud and dirt, but it’s more than that,” Liz Houston, ECHO’s Partnerships Manager at the National Wildlife Federation, said.
“We help childcare workers and educators reimagine their outdoor spaces. These reimagined spaces are designed for all children and adults; those with special needs enjoy sensory gardens with leafy plants and ornamental grasses that feel soft to the touch and smell good.”Liz Houston
Outdoor spaces include sand, gardens, hanging pots and pans that children beat with sticks and wooden spoons. An outdoor stage for acting and readings, and places to sit in the sun and shade allow children to observe the sounds of birds and other critters. It’s multi-sensory and “children who spend time outdoors let their imaginations soar,” Houston said. “The adults enjoy the spaces, too, and everyone appreciates these surroundings, so much so that they learn about the environment and want to care for it.”
“The biggest barrier many parents face is not having access to a nearby park,” Houston said. “We work with parks, museums, preschools, elementary schools, and childcare centers to create these interactive centers.”
It’s a different kind of “interaction,” one without computers. “Children use their imaginations,” Houston said.
ECHO offers free online training workshops for parents, childcare workers, and educators. The programs cover a wide range of tips on how to engage young children to want to play outdoors and implement ways families, caregivers, and educators can bring nature into the home. ECHO can tailor their online programs to small groups.
“We’re trying to create this national movement to address the health of our society through our environment,” Houston said. “We want every young child every day to experience connecting with nature.”