The skies are depressingly grey, it’s freezing and, to top it off, it’s starting to drizzle. All you want to do is crawl back under the bed covers, turn on a movie and wait for summer. That’s understandable. Unless you’re in an area with consistent snowfall, winter doesn’t always inspire outdoor recreation, and even then, the bitter cold often triggers an impulse to hibernate. But as anybody who has children can testify, there’s a downside to staying indoors for any extended period: your kids are literally bouncing off the walls.
When I had my first daughter, nearly nine years ago, I vowed that I would get outside with her every day, regardless of the weather. I guess I could blame it on my upbringing in Sweden, where people live by the old saying “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” and children are expected to play outside for hours daily. In Scandinavia, the idea that fresh air and spending time in nature is good for you has been around for generations, and in recent decades it has received solid scientific support. Studies on adults have shown that being in nature can help lower blood pressure, alleviate depression and reduce stress. Meanwhile, children who play outside often have better motor skills, are sick less often, play more creatively and have higher levels of vitamin D, which helps them grow strong bones.
Maybe even more importantly, getting outside in nature gives us a chance to connect with our children in an environment that is stimulating yet calming. The outdoors engages all the senses and gives us a buffer against stress, screens and other pressures of modern life. For me it was nothing short of a lifesaver during the sometimes-rough infant and toddler years.
That’s not to say the road there has always been easy. In fact, at times it’s been lined by tantrums, botched outings and mittens that refuse to stay on. But now that my children have reached school age, going outside is a well-established part of our daily rhythm, and we’re all better off for it. It is the time of the day when we shut off all distractions and focus solely on connecting with each other and nature.
Finding the motivation and time to get outside every day as a family can be a challenge, so the first step is to make it a priority. Set a goal for how much time you will spend outside daily and stick with it. Start with as little as 15 minutes if needed. Once you’re out, chances are both you and the kids will want to stay out longer! Little kids need free, unstructured play outdoors and usually don’t have any trouble coming up with things to do, so don’t worry about having a set agenda for your outing. If you find that they need a little more motivation, try starting out with some of the prompts below. These nature activities are easy and require no extra equipment.
If you have 15 minutes:
- Watch the clouds and see what animals you can make out of them.
- Hug some trees and try to find one that your arms fit perfectly around.
- Turn over a rock and see what is hiding underneath.
If you have 30 minutes:
- Do a backyard/nature treasure hunt.
- Try your hand at rock stacking.
- Grab some leaves or pieces of bark and race them down a creek.
If you have an hour:
- Go for a walk and make note of all the sounds you hear.
- Try some beginning wildlife tracking.
- Pack some food and have a picnic.
Chances are you and the kids will still be tempted to crawl up in front of the TV the next time the weather turns to depressing, and that’s OK. But challenge yourselves to get outside for a while first. You might be surprised at the difference it will make – both for your kids’ health and your own sanity.
For more thoughts on the benefits of outdoor play, check out 5 Reasons Why My Kids Play Outside in (Almost) Any Weather;
About Linda: Linda Åkeson McGurk is a Swedish-American journalist and author of There Is No Such Thing As Bad Weather, Only Bad Clothes, a parenting memoir due out in the fall of 2017. She believes that the best childhood memories are created outside, while jumping in puddles, digging in dirt, catching frogs and climbing trees. She blogs about connecting children and nature at Rain or Shine Mamma, and hopes to inspire families to get outside every day, regardless of the weather. Follow her adventures on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.