Kids take to the woods.
Starting off carefully.
Nature reduces stress. We saw it in action at Winding Pathways on an early April Sunday morning.
About 15 kids from the Faith Formation Group of Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist visited. Most were five to ten years old. After collecting eggs and scattering treats for the hens, we took them to Faulke’s Heritage Woods. It’s a 110-acre woodland protected from development by a conservation easement held by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
It wasn’t a guided walk. It was a kid adventure. As we distantly watched, the kids scampered into the oaks where they discovered a huge fallen tree spanning a ravine. A natural bridge. They couldn’t resist making the crossing and then raced from fallen log to fallen log, traversing each. Laughter entertained the many standing trees as the kids were enveloped in nature, inventing games and having fun. No constructed playground in a city park or schoolyard matches the wonder and fun of ponds, prairies, and tiny streams.
Learning to navigate a log.
Exploring the log
Lots of research has been conducted on nature’s ability to relieve stress in both adults and children. Experts call time spent in beautiful places the nature pill and even 20 minutes spent walking in the woods reduces stress.
Mary Carol Hunter recently completed a nature pill study and said, “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
We’re lucky to have Faulke’s Woods adjacent to Winding Pathways, but most of our time outdoors is spent close to our home on our own property. Often, it’s simply sitting in the yard enjoying a cup of coffee as we watch chickadees flit around.
Hunter’s words, “sense of nature” are powerful. Although visits to national and state parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are wonderful stress relievers, anyone’s yard or balcony can do the same. We created Winding Pathways several years ago to encourage people to enjoy their yard, even if that’s a tiny apartment balcony in a big city. Structuring the yard or balcony to create natural beauty attracts interesting wildlife while giving people easy and free access to the “nature pill.”
Go outside and have fun, just like the kids did in Faulke’s Woods.
Kids get creative outside
“Let’s play outside!” For baby boomers, that was something we said and did every day. Driving slowly through neighborhoods was a must in those days because the yards and streets were literally full of kids. We played outside after school and on weekends, 365 days a year. Every day was a “play date.” No need for mom or dad to arrange one.
In today’s world, you can drive for miles through town and not see a single child. What changed? Three main factors are frequently cited as the reasons for this retreat from outdoors to indoors:
- High profile child abductions in the 80s and 90s.
- Video gaming and screen time.
- Organized sports and activities.
In the 80s and 90s, there was a handful of child abductions that became a part of the 24-hour news cycles, such as the Jacob Wetterling case. They gave parents the impression that these abductions were becoming more frequent, even epidemic So parents became reluctant to let their kids play outside. We now know, however, that for decades the number of stranger abductions of children has remained unchanged, according to readily available statistics, such as those from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Video gaming and screen time are obvious to us all. When we do see kids in public, their noses are glued to their phones.
Organized sports and activities are great for keeping kids busy and healthy, and, at least for a short time, away from their phones. But there is a negative side. Kids and parents are overscheduled, driving from school to sports/lessons to fast food to more sports/lessons. Stress and burn out are among the many negative results.
So, what can be gained by having kids go outside and play?
Solving the problem of squirrels raiding the feeder.
Henry adds to his squirrel-proof wall.
- Development of creativity. Kids have to be imaginative to come up with their own games and play outside. A fallen tree becomes an airplane flying to China. A pile of snow becomes a fort. A rope tied between trees becomes a bridge over burning lava.
- The more the merrier and playing outside means kids learn, by trial and error, how to be friends, share ideas, solve problems and resolve conflict.
- Discovery and appreciation of the environment. Kids learn best through experience and an iPad doesn’t come close to helping a child learn about the outdoors like living in it does.
- Attention span. The Wiley Online Library reports that studies show that green outdoor spaces reduce ADHD symptoms in children.
How can we get our kids to play outside? We can’t just open the door and tell them to go outside and play. In two minutes, they’ll be coming back in saying they’re bored and want to do their screens and games.
So, here’s how to start:
- Go outside and play with them. Get them an idea (making a stick fort, playing touch football) and get them started. After a while, leave them to it and go back inside.
- Limit screen time. If they know they only have 30 minutes per day of screen time (phone, iPad, TV) and they’ve already burned that up, that eliminates the desire for screen time instead of playing outside.
- Let them get dirty and tell them it’s perfectly OK to do so.
- Give them tools for playing. A rope, an old bucket, a frisbee, a glider, a jar. Be creative yourself!
- Invite neighborhood friends over. The more the merrier.
- Let them use the hose on a hot day. Give them a watering can and have them “water the trees.”
- Don’t let the weather stop outside play. We live in the Upper Midwest and we know how to dress for cold weather. Playing outside in winter is a blast for kids, and it leads to things like hot chocolate and hot baths – which mean more socialization, family time and less screen time.
- Teach your kids “new” games – the kind we used to play all the time outside: Kick the can, tug of rope, flashlight tag, frozen tag.
- Set a limit. Not a maximum limit, a minimum. It was the other way around when we were kids. We’d head out to play on a Saturday and mom would say to be back before dark. (I’m not making this up). But for kids who are learning how to play on their own outside, try setting the minimum time – thirty minutes or so to start. They’ll come back to the door after five minutes saying they don’t know what to do. Send ‘em back out and let them know that only they can solve that problem. And guess what? They will!
Go outside and play with the kids for a while.
Kids can learn to exuberantly embrace the outdoors.
Savannah taps a homemade spile into a backyard maple.
Kids’ imaginations are powerful and given the chance, they will use them to create their own outside adventures. Pretty soon you may just find yourself yelling out the door that it’s time to come in for dinner and hearing, “Aw, Mom!! Just five more minutes!”
Children learn by exploring.
Walking to and from school in the 1950s and ‘60s yielded exercise, adventure, learning and fond memories.
Rich walked or bicycled about a mile to and from school down one road, along a woodsy path, across the Rockaway River, and around a wetland to school. Along the way were frogs to catch, stones to toss in the river, and little melted snow streams to dam with rocks and watch the water flow. The trek to school may have been as educational as the classroom topics and lots more fun.
On her way to a friend’s house in Florida, Marion balanced along logs and stopped to talk with the friendly horse in a pasture. In New Hampshire she and friend, Pete Martell, opted for the hypotenuse route to school. They had just learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line! Instead of following the road through the village and down School Street, they crossed the Piscataquog River on a large pipe above the dam and jagged rocks connecting two factories. Half way across the pipe, the consequences of a fall dawned on her. This one-time “adventure” became a lifelong lesson in thinking through actions.
At a recent conference Blue Zones Director of Innovation and Inspiration, Dan Burden, told us the odds of a child being abducted by strangers has been dropping for years and is lower today than in the 50’s. Ironically, modern parents fear abduction and drive their kids to school, robbing them of exercise, fun, and learning.
Cedar Rapids Community School administrator, Steve Graham, told us that most school districts built schools in residential neighborhoods so children could walk. Nearby streets were never designed for the heavy traffic that now occurs each morning and afternoon when parents drop off or pick up kids, even when they live just a block or two away.
We were free range kids. Mom and Dad expected us to get to and from destinations and to exercise good judgment. We made mistakes, got skinned knees and mosquito bites, but we learned. In those delicious walks after school and on weekend rambles we invented games played in vacant lots with other kids, chased butterflies, stomped in the snow, climbed trees and experienced the world first hand. We learned.
We’re thankful our parents raised us as free range kids. Mom and Dad set some limits, but we were free to explore our world. We raised our two children the same way and were delighted when they returned from the woods tired and dirty but full of tales of their afternoon adventure shared around the dinner table.
We’re concerned that few of today’s kids have the freedom to explore that we had. Too many of today’s yards are boring, sprayed monocultures that don’t inspire kids to go outside and play. Keep visiting our Winding Pathways Website and we’ll share tips on how to make your yard a magical place for kids…..and their parents…….to play.