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The most meaningful and formative moments in my life have been spent outdoors. I grew up having outdoor adventures nearly every day on the quiet, rocky coast of Long Island Sound in Southeastern Connecticut. During spring and summer, I’d wake up, walk the few hundred yards down to the beach and spend all day fishing and crabbing. In fall and winter, I’d hike into the thick woods behind my house exploring the maze of trails, catching bugs and chasing birds along the way.
These days, safety concerns and urban sprawl have created fewer opportunities for kids to explore the wild and open space like I did. But as a father of one, I want my kid to have the chance to make a connection with nature. In particular, as the father of a daughter I want her to have the chance to learn all the wonderful lessons the wild can teach.
Here are the five big reasons it’s important to me to raise an adventure-loving outdoors girl.
First, the selfish one. Hiking, camping and exploring in the outdoors
gives me the chance to strengthen my relationship with my daughter. I call it “Dadventure time.” OK, so maybe it’s not totally selfish. Getting outside is a healthy activity for us to share with each other. It gets her outside breathing fresh air and exercising her body. It also gives my daughter and me the chance to create healthy habits and powerful memories.
We hear so much about the importance of fathers being role models to sons. But, we’re only just now beginning to fully appreciate the positive role fathers can have with daughters.
Starting at infancy, a girl begins to develop expectations about men from her father. And just as my relationship with my wife is a template for my daughter’s relationship with a partner when she grows up, my relationship with nature sets a standard for how my daughter will view it…which leads me to reason #2.
For starters, spending time in nature is good for my daughter mentally and physically. It increases her creativity, improves her ability to concentrate, and decreases her chances of becoming obese. It’s no surprise. Even the very conservative American Academy of Pediatrics says 60 minutes of daily unstructured free play is “essential to children’s physical and mental health.”
Research conducted by the U.S.’s State Education and Environment Roundtable showed that schools using “outdoor classrooms and nature-based experiential education were associated with significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math.”
Unfortunately, kids are spending less time in nature. In her book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams notes that participation in outdoor sports including hiking, camping, and cycling declined 15% between 2006 to 2014 among six to twelve-year-olds. She squarely points a finger at the rise of mobile device usage. So, ditch the digital stuff whenever you can. I always find that when I leave the TV off and keep the tablets out of view my daughter naturally chooses to play outside or reach for art supplies.
I love the outdoors. So does my wife. We spend vacations camping, hiking, and exploring deserts, wilderness, and quiet coastlines. I mean, we got married deep in the woods near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. So, it breaks my heart to see our wild places shrinking. Research performed by conservation biologist Jeremy Kerr of the University of Ottawa recently found that only 23% of Earth’s land can be classified as wilderness anymore. That’s a 10% drop from just 20 years ago.
As parents, you and I have a secret weapon. One of the best ways to protect the environment is by educating our kids on its importance. And that’s easy. Just get your kids outside and they immediately get it. Dylan Tomine, author of Closer To The Ground, talks about living in the Pacific Northwest and teaching his two kids to fish for salmon, catch dungeness crab, and pick wild mushrooms from the time they were toddlers.
Through it all, his kids come to appreciate the rhythms of seasons, learn about the fragility of nature, and the rewarding work involved in sustainable living. I’m not much of a hunter and gatherer, but I’m finding that just getting my daughter outside is helping her develop her own relationship with nature and understanding the importance of protecting the environment. Starting at age 4, she began identifying plants, flowers, and birds. She already talks about the interconnectedness of things in nature—how bees need flowers to make honey, and flowers need bees to pollenate, and how humans need plants for oxygen and plants need humans for carbon dioxide. It amazes me sometimes that a kid has a better understanding of how the environment works than many adults.
By the time American women reach middle age, 25% of them will be on, or will have taken anti-depressants. Today, five times more kids take prescribed drugs for emotional or behavioral problems than they did 20 years ago. Simply spending time outdoors has been shown to be an effective form of treatment for these issues.
Research performed through Chiba University in Japan and published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, shows that hiking through the woods decreases blood pressure by 1.4% and resting heart rate by 6%. I also see that when my daughter spends time hiking and exploring wild places it makes her more confident in herself. Nature can be a little scary and every time my daughter faces a new fear of, say, crossing a cold stream, or hiking a steep hill, or even just getting a little too cold, she comes out the other side with new knowledge that makes her stronger and more confident that she can take on the next challenge.
If she didn’t love the outdoors I wouldn’t push it on her. I think that’s important. One of our jobs as parents is to listen to our kids. Listen to what they’re interested in and help them explore their subjects of choice safely. I’m thrilled that my daughter loves camping and hiking and playing in the dirt. But, if she didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t push it on her.
That’s not to say that some days it’s not difficult to get her out the door and on the trail. Or that we don’t have tears on the trail. Sometimes she just wants to have an inside day (so do I!). She’s got plenty of other interests too, like school. Now in first grade, she’s become a wiz in math and loves art class. But, she really comes alive in the wild.
In fact, she reminds me to stop and smell the flowers. Literally. She’ll stop for minutes at a time on the trail just smelling or admiring a patch of butter and eggs, shooting stars, or Indian paintbrush. She’ll get close to the ground and ask me to do the same. I’m happy to do it because in those moments when both of us have hands and knees covered in dirt I remember the real lesson in nature is to slow down and enjoy the journey. Forget about the destination, don’t worry about reaching the end of the trail, and be in the moment. Just like when I was a kid.