There is a lot of talk these days about the time kids spend attached to screens and electronic devices rather than playing outside like older generations used to. I’ve spent more than a decade working in environmental education. I helped to create Wisconsin’s No Child Left Inside Coalition and developed a “Go Outside (G.O.) Fund” to enable kids (and teachers) to get outdoors more during the school day. It is critically important for children to spend time playing and learning outside. Still, after all these years, I’ve come to a singular and not all that surprising conclusion about why they’re not. It’s not kids, it’s us. Adults are spending less time than ever outdoors and more time connected to screens and electronic devices. We don’t have the same level of data to prove it, but really, do we need it? How much time do you spend at your work computer? At home, how much time do you spend in front of the television, scrolling through social media on your phone, or even on your kindle (yes, that counts as screen time too)? How often do you go outside? Maybe kids are easier to focus on because we think we have more control over them (hahahaha, any parent, teacher or former kid should get this joke:). Or, perhaps more likely, we focus on kids because we know it’s easier for them to change their behavior than it is for us set-in-our-ways adults. But, still, the truth remains the same. Kids are mirroring what they see, not what we say. So, here’s a set of “rules” for YOU to follow if you really do want to make a difference in the lives of the kids around you.
1. You first! Yes, you. Go outside. Do something. Play in your yard. Sit on your stoop and watch the birds and bugs around you. Feel the wind. Smell the air. If your kids are young, they’ll likely join you immediately without being asked. If they’re older, they might come check on you to find out why you’re being so weird. In any case, the old adage, “you can’t give what you don’t have”, applies here in a big way. For now, don’t focus on them or force it before you can do it too. Just go.
2. Go now! Don’t wait for the perfect time, the perfect weather, or some super cool activity. Just go. Spend 15 minutes today, 20 minutes tomorrow, 30 minutes by next week. Take a short walk around your neighborhood. Notice things. Say hi to your neighbors. Take deep breaths and be present. Be outside wherever you happen to be. That sounds simple enough, but it’s a pretty common misconception that to really enjoy being outside, you need to go somewhere dramatically beautiful. I do highly recommend visiting all the parks and nature centers you possibly can – but don’t let that stop you from appreciating what is literally right outside your door. Start there. You’ll be amazed at the cool stuff you see when you take the time to look. You might also be surprised by how much better you’ll feel with just a few minutes of fresh air.
3. Go often. Commit to spending some time outdoors every day no matter what. This may mean getting an umbrella, a rain jacket, or a proper coat. But for now, remember it’s okay to get wet too. You won’t melt. And, again, this is a great thing about just stepping outside your door. You can always come back in and change or dive under a warm blanket. I’m constantly surprised by even my own aversion to going outside in “weather,” and then doubly surprised to learn that it’s usually more fun if there’s an opportunity to splash in puddles or feel snowflakes melting on my face as they land. If you’re truly uncomfortable, cut it short and wear more layers next time. Just go regularly and plan to get better at it each time.
4. Dress for success. Although I stand by my advice above, I also know you’re going to have more fun and be more successful at getting outside regularly if you’re comfortable. I reaaaaallly don’t like to be cold. So, I often layer up and overdress so I can adjust to my preferred level of comfort by removing layers as needed. You definitely don’t need expensive or specialized gear to get started. You may have to get over caring what your neighbors think of you, but a garbage bag with holes cut out works great to keep you dry in most weather. Likewise, you can tie plastic grocery bags around your feet to keep them protected from the elements. Then, browse second-hand stores for rain coats, or down if you live in cold weather climates. And, again, layers are your friend. By all means, invest in better coats if and when you can, but don’t let that stop you from starting now with whatever you have.
5. Have fun! This really is the most important rule for establishing a new and lasting routine. If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to stick with it. And you shouldn’t. Life is too short. Luckily, it is ridiculously easy to have fun outside if you try. And, yes, sitting peacefully in the sunshine after a chaotic day definitely counts as fun in my book. But again, if we want to circle back and think about how we’re going to influence the kids around us to want to join in our fun – well, you’re going to have to have some first. You can’t fake it. They’ll know. So get creative and use what you already have. We love to play basketball with actual baskets or buckets set up in the yard and any ball-like object we can find. You can also play golf by tipping the baskets on their side and using a stick or bat for a club. Another favorite if it’s not too windy is balloon ball; which is kind of like volleyball but without a net. Trust me, it’s awesome, and hilarious, and fun for all ages. Anyway, you get the point. Try things, fail, and try again until you land on activities that are right for you. You’ll know because you’ll be smiling, and laughing, and maybe, just maybe, you’re kids will ask to play too.
Once you’ve mastered these five steps, you’re on a roll! I promise your kids are going to notice, and in all likelihood, they will have joined you somewhere along the way. You’ll all feel happier, healthier, and more connected to the world around you, to each other, and to yourselves. Being outside is magic. That may sound silly or overblown, but you’ll soon see, it’s true. Nature is extraordinary and it’s everywhere. You are a part of it and it is a part of you. You are extraordinary too; connected to everything and everyone in more ways than you can ever know, whether you take the time to notice or not.
Once being outdoors becomes a part of who you are again, a whole world of opportunity opens to you. When you’re comfortable outdoors at home, you should most definitely expand your circle and explore new places, near and far. Visit every park. Have adventures, find interesting and beautiful places you love. Find teachers and mentors that can help you understand even more about what you’re seeing and how to enjoy it all in new and different ways.
But for now, all there is to do is begin. Go now. Go often. And have fun!
Have questions? Need encouragement? Want to share success stories – or not so successful stories? Comment below.