April 13, 2022

Raising kids who love nature

Two parents smiling, one with a small child on their shoulders

For thousands of years, humans have recognized the soul-calming effect of time spent in nature. But between the lure of screen time and frenzied schedules packed with organized sports and other activities, it can be difficult to get kids outside to just be.

Only 51 percent of preschool kids go out outside once a day to walk or play, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends outdoor playtime in its recent report titled "The Power of Play." Even short periods of outdoor time can help kids get more active, reduce anxiety, improve mood and concentration and sleep better at night.

"There is something very magical when you get to be outside, breathing fresh air and hearing wind rustling through leaves, and we have the neuroscience to back it up," says Ellen Houston, an exercise physiologist with the UW Health Kids Pediatric Fitness Clinic.

So how can you inject a little more green into your kids' lives? Houston offers these ideas:

Head to the woods

In Japan, many city dwellers practice the art of "forest bathing" — basically, spending deliberate time surrounded by trees to renew oneself physically and mentally. "Just being in nature and hearing the sounds of nature can have a soothing, healing effect on your mind and emotions," Houston said. It's also thought that the oxygen-rich environment of forests and the chemicals released by trees can reduce stress and boost the immune system.

Look for water

Research shows that access to "blue spaces" such as lakes, oceans, streams and other water sources can have positive effects on mental health and physical activity. "There's something about the soothing effects of the sounds of water and the timelessness of it," Houston said. "You can think about how many generations have walked in that same place. Nature gives us that sense of timelessness."

Start small

"If you get to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, that's fantastic. But you don't have to go far to take advantage of nature," Houston said. "Ask yourself: Where is there nature in your life? If you want an adventure, take a look at your local parks." As your kids start to enjoy more small-scale nature outings, you can build up to bigger adventures.

Appreciate your everyday surroundings

You can find nature even in the most urban of neighborhoods. When walking to school or hanging out in the backyard, encourage your children to collect bouquets of leaves in different shades, study the clouds or look for mushrooms and insects. "It's taking advantage of your day, just appreciating the space around you," Houston said. "It gets you out of your head."

Make it a game

If your kid is more goal-oriented, a game can re-energize his or her interest in the outdoors. You might create your own nature scavenger hunt or make a maze out of leaves while raking. Check out the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Wisconsin Explorer Program, which offers age-specific activities and patches that children can earn as they explore state parks and recreation areas. At the same time, "don't feel like you have to have an agenda, unless your kid needs one," Houston said.

Show an interest yourself

"Because of the modeling that kids do, if it's uncomfortable for the parents, it'll be uncomfortable for the kids," Houston notes. Instead, show enthusiasm and ask questions to spark your kids' curiosity about the world around you. "Let's say you're splashing in a puddle. Pause and notice the mixing of mud and water or look for who lives in the water," Houston said.

Don't let weather deter you

Is it raining? So what. Go outside anyway and see how that changes the sights, sounds and scents around you. "One of the things about Wisconsin is we have four seasons and the weather changes. It helps if we can approach weather with a little bit more wonder instead of disdain," Houston said.

Don't stress about it

"Don't feel like getting out in nature is one more thing you have to do to be a good parent," Houston said. "Anytime kids aren't sitting down and staring at screens is a good thing, and every little bit helps."