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Getting your kids to enjoy nature

On a hike with my kids there can be a lot of complaining; as well as tears, whining and maybe some moaning added in for good measure.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother; what kind of evil mother am I to make my kids trudge through the woods, despite the bugs and the hot sun and the….gasp, snakes!!!

Here’s why: North American children now spend an hour or less outside each day. Researchers have linked this so-called “nature deficit” to rising trends of obesity, mental health issues and attention deficit disorders. Children who lack time in nature tend to have difficulty paying attention, and often struggle to interact well with their peers. In contrast, kids who spend a lot of time outdoors score higher on academic tests and demonstrate better emotional regulation.

As I child I spent quite a bit of time in the outdoors. My parents enjoyed camping, and we had a rustic family cottage where we spent many weeks in the woods and on the lake. Although we lived in Suburbia, we were a short distance from a beautiful urban park and the Toronto Zoo was just down the road. I went to “Zoo Camp,” and learned all about conservation and sustainability.

Although I inherited my parents’ love of the outdoors, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever found it easy to be in the wilderness. I’m terrified of bears, I don’t like all the bugs, and I’d much rather curl up on the couch with a good book. But once I brave it all and get outside, I can feel the tension releasing from my shoulders. As a child I felt stronger, more focused and less anxious after spending time outside and I still notice those benefits in my adult life.

And so I have persevered with my own children, making as much effort as possible to connect our daily lives to the rhythms of nature. We’re not out in the wilderness on a daily basis, but we’re connecting to the outdoors in so many simple ways. 

Gardening

As suburbanites, gardening can be a fabulous way to introduce your child to nature without ever leaving your backyard. We tend to focus on vegetable gardening, as I love teaching my children where our food comes from – there’s nothing more satisfying than eating something you have planted and tended to over the course of the summer. And to let you in on a little secret – kids will eat their vegetables if they get to pick them right off the bush or out of the ground. Serve them veggies on a plate for dinner? Forget about it!!

Neighbourhood walks

Nature is all around us! You don’t have to go far to find bugs, a birds nest, sticks or rocks. Kids LOVE “natural” toys, and they’ll find anything at the nearby park to play with (just maybe avoid the garbage!) We’re lucky to back onto a ravine, where we can find wild raspberries and apples, and observe busy beavers, foxes and bunny rabbits. 

If it feels impossible to get your kids out on a walk, try to entice them with games or songs. A scavenger hunt is great for the summer. In the winter we do “flashlight” walks – they bring their flashlights or glow sticks out and we explore the dark.

Camping

OK, OK, camping is not really easy. But it definitely doesn’t have to be super hard! If you want to ease into things, consider borrowing or renting a tent trailer so that you’re not directly on the ground in a tent. Another great option is a rustic cabin – I’ve always preferred having four walls and a roof (as well as a bathroom,) but I still want my kids to get away from electronics. We go to a cottage each summer where the Wifi totally sucks, but the lake is divine.

I found camping really easy when my kids were tiny. It feels a bit more difficult now that they’re at the complaining age (alright confession…it’s me complaining!! I’m older and less enamoured sleeping on a blow up mattress.) We have our girls participate in Girl Guides, where we both get the chance to go camping at least once a year. Some day we might find energy to take the whole family on a canoe portage trip – I’ll keep you posted on that one.

Nature Camp or Forest School

There are SO many great options out there for outdoor summer camps and even forest schools. Our daughter is currently in her first summer of nature camp, and she is in love – she spends her days climbing trees, whittling with knives, making fires, and rolling in dirt. The stories she comes home with are amazing for dinner table conversation.

Many families are choosing alternative schools, where there is a much greater focus on outdoor education. We aren’t at that stage yet, but it’s certainly a dream of mine to have my kids in forest school one day per week.

When looking to build up the time that your children spend in the outdoors, remember that every little bit counts – and children will always seek it out, wherever you go. If you take them to that new fancy splash pad, they’ll spend their time in the muddy part where the water drains over a rocky bed. Children are both fascinated and soothed by nature, and so are adults when we give ourselves the time! Because of this sense of relaxation, I’ve always find that parenting is way easier in the outdoors.

Except maybe when you’re hiking up that mountain – I can’t guarantee there won’t be a lot of whining along the way.

This post is part of The Whole Family Happiness Project, in partnership with Social Currents and the Low Carbon Economy Narrative Initiative. The Whole Family Happiness Project poses the question, “What is the connection between our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us?”

To learn more or get involved, visit Whole Family Happiness on Facebook. #wholefamilyhappiness