How to get back to nature as a family — and why it matters
When you think back on your childhood, what memories come up? Maybe you remember riding your bike until dinnertime, or spending the day soaking up sun at the community pool, or playing T-ball in the park.
Of course, times have drastically changed. And now that you’re parenting in a tech-obsessed world, you may struggle more with pulling your kid off of TikTok than getting them to come inside before dark.
That’s why I want to talk about the importance of getting back to nature as a family and how you can actually make it happen. Let’s start by diving into why adding a little more time in nature can have a huge impact on how we feel.
Why nature matters
Throughout evolutionary history our ancestors lived in close contact with the natural world. Many of our ancestors' main priorities were hunting, gathering, farming, and providing for their families.
Over time, technological advancements have made life easier in many ways, but our digitally-dependent lifestyles have also pulled us further and further away from nature. We can certainly appreciate the combination of Netflix and a comfy couch, but the key is not to binge so much that we miss out on the pretty incredible health benefits that come with spending time outdoors.
By intentionally bringing regular outdoor time back into your family’s rhythms and routines, you can tap into the powerful impacts a little fresh air can have on both your brain and body.
Let’s talk about three compelling reasons to engage in some nature therapy:
The power of soaking up the sun
There is nothing quite like finding a sunny spot and feeling the warmth on your skin. When it comes to our biology, the sun is a highly powerful force. And when it comes to light, not getting the right light at the right time can get us out of sync.
Over time, we’ve evolved to “tell time” from our environment and sync our biological activities accordingly. Light is the most powerful signal that helps our body know what time it is. There is an area in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. When light comes in through our eyes, this area sends signals to our body about whether we should be awake or asleep.
That’s why you’ve likely heard about the not-so-great impact of over-exposure to blue light from our devices at night. When we look at our devices after sunset, blue light suppresses our body’s production of the hormone, melatonin, which is crucial for healthy sleep.
Here are a couple of ways you can soak up more sun as a family (just don’t forget your SPF!):
- Start your day with sunlight. If possible, try getting outside first thing for a few minutes of morning sunlight. This one habit can make a big difference in how you feel and can be especially beneficial for those who experience depression. Sunlight first thing in the morning essentially signals to our body that, “Hey! It’s morning. It’s time to be awake and take on the day!” Sunlight activates our body’s production of the hormone cortisol and sets up our cortisol levels to peak earlier in the day, which gives us a jumpstart in energy and sense of alertness. Fun fact — cortisol is often known as “the stress hormone” but it’s also known as an “awakening and alerting" hormone. So encourage your family to go on a walk first thing, enjoy a cup of coffee in the great outdoors, or take the dog out for a spin to start your day off right.
- Take indoor activities outside. Indoor lights are nowhere near as powerful as natural light. In fact, outdoor environments tend to be 8x brighter than indoor environments. Going out in nature, even on a cloudy day, will provide more biological benefits than being in a well-lit office or classroom. Try moving mealtime outdoors picnic-style, setting up a comfy reading spot in the yard, doing homework assignments outside, or taking calls while strolling the neighborhood.
Nature changes thought patterns
Have you ever felt less anxious after taking a hike or noticed your child calming down while joining you for a walk around the block? WHY do we get that glowy feeling? Simply put, there are big changes happening in your brain when you spend time in nature.
Studies have shown that walking in nature, and noticing things like the trees and grass, changes your brain and thought patterns. One particular study compared people who walked for 90 minutes in nature vs. a group who walked for 90 minutes in the city, with little nature in sight. The results showed that those who walked in nature experienced decreased rumination (the repeated dwelling on negative thoughts), whereas those that simply walked around the city had no change.
Still not convinced? What if I told you they also scanned the brains of the participants in the study and those who walked in nature saw a decrease in activity (or blood flow) in the area of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that is responsible for rumination, self-criticism, and sadness. People who have depression tend to show more activity in this part of the brain at baseline than those who are not depressed. Pretty fascinating stuff, right? No wonder taking a walk outside sometimes feels like one big internal sigh!
Nature can be incredibly restorative
In a world that asks a lot of us, whether it be school demands, social engagements, or deadlines, it’s easy to feel depleted and overwhelmed. But the cool thing is that nature has the ability to refill our cup and restore a sense of balance in us.
There is a fascinating theory called attention restorative theory (ART). In a nutshell, a lot of our day-to-day life requires what is known as “directed attention.” This is when we focus on something specific in our environment and includes tasks like answering emails or completing homework.
Focusing on a task for an extended period of time can make us feel tired, but this theory asserts that nature refills our attentional tank and allows us to start fresh. In one study, children responded faster on attention-intensive tasks after walking in nature, compared to walking in an urban area.
When we are in nature, passively observing our surroundings, we engage what is known as “involuntary attention.” When this type of attention is activated, it allows our more task-oriented, “directed attention” a chance to be restored. So, next time you notice your kid’s eyes glossed over from hours of homework, maybe suggest a 10-minute nature break to regroup.
Now that we’ve talked through the benefits of getting outside, let’s look at some more ways to really make it happen for your family:
- Prioritize outdoor hobbies. Does your family like time at the beach or playing basketball? Find any nature-based family hobby and enjoy the outdoors together.
- Walk it out. Walks are a great way to get kids to open up about whatever is going on with them, so try incorporating one into your regular routine. If possible, consider walking your child to school. Getting that early morning sunlight will positively impact both sleep and mood.
- Get curious. Invite your child to notice how they are feeling in their body and mind before going outside and ask them the same questions after being outside. Just observing the positive shifts can be really motivating!
- Make an “if/then” plan with your child. Get creative when it comes to reaping the benefits of nature. An example of this could be, “IF I’m feeling like I can’t focus on my homework, THEN I will go for a five minute walk around the block with my mom.”
- Be more mindful together. Practice taking a mindfulness walk with your child to improve their mood and focus. You can practice observing the world together in silence or you can make it a nature treasure hunt and try to find specific shapes, colors, animals, or plants.
Finding time to bask in the sunlight isn’t always easy, but even spending 10 minutes outside, especially on more difficult days, can make a huge difference in how you feel. So the next time you find yourself in a funk, power off the screens and rally the family to get outdoors for a little fresh air.
Gregory N. Bratman et al., “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 112, no.28 (2015): 8567-72.
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