1. It fires up your children’s imagination.
Too often, we find ourselves stuck in the known, the comfortable, the familiar. The physical spaces of most everyday urban and suburban life — houses, classrooms, offices, sidewalks, roads (or worse: roads with no sidewalks) — all reinforce this.
They’re designed around longstanding norms, regulations, zoning, and a plethora of laws which, without our being fully conscious of them, govern the way we move, the way we interact with place; they deeply entrench our everyday sense of normality, of possibility.
But whether it’s science or sports or relationships or art, discoveries and innovation come through the unknown, and nature is a direct route. Take your closest natural area, possibly a park or lake or national forest. What’s under the water there? What does it look like at dawn, or at night? What animals inhabit the region or migrate through? Who were the area’s original inhabitants? What is the oldest tree there? The simple but profound act of just being there, in nature, opens up lines of investigation that can fire children’s (and adults’) imagination.
2. It puts everyone on an equal ground.
An extension of the above, the physical spaces and parameters all around us tend to segregate children and adults. Check any park or playground: Kids in the sandbox, moms and dads sitting on benches looking at smartphones. Check school lunchrooms: kids at one table, teachers at the other. From school to after-school to extracurricular activities to weekend soccer games, the entire structure implies adults and kids occupy two different worlds. Thus kids grow up imitating, reinforcing the pattern: Power struggles center on who gets to do what, and in what order.
But nature — especially wilderness where there’s no furniture, no benches, doors, steps, gates, fences — suddenly removes these structures. It may be a subtle psychological effect, but after years teaching both in and out of the classroom, I’ve seen over and over how getting adults and kids onto the “neutral” ground of nature changes the group dynamic, makes children more responsive, appreciative, and adults less distracted.
3. It lets children and parents burn off energy and emotions in a healthy way.
As mangroves absorb the energy and damage from flood tides and storm surges, so too does just being out in the woods as a family allow everyone to run around and explore, burning off energy without limitations.
In our household, we use “indoor voices” and play “indoor games.” These can be fun, but once we’re in the woods, all bets are off! Racing up hills, exploring creeks, being as exuberant as we want. That’s the time. That’s the space for it. It’s something our family needs and cherishes, to the point that when people are starting to get cranky, bickering at each other, we know we’re overdue for more “river time.”
4. It teaches empathy, compassion, and connection.
Over the last several decades, people have become increasingly distanced from the sources of their most basic necessities, everything from water to food to clothing to the energy that powers their homes. With this disconnection comes disengagement, a dwindling sense of responsibility, of community. Engaging as a family with nature can make lasting impressions on a child in terms of where she or he comes from and how it’s connected to the rest of the world. One of the simplest ways to teach this is through the simple concept of one’s “watershed address.”
As a family, study the contours of the land around your house, your neighborhood, your streets. When it rains, where does the water go? Into what lakes, what rivers? Where does it go from there? Everyone in the world has a watershed address. Our water comes from somewhere and our wastewater goes somewhere. There’s an upstream and a downstream.
Find your watershed address down to the closest creek or river; look at Google Earth to help find the names, and plot the course all the way out to the ocean. How many other towns are above yours, or downstream?
Build a model outside in the dirt, have your kids carve the riverbeds. Let them feel it with their hands.
5. It teaches that outcomes aren’t always predictable.
Too many activities, exhibits, and amusement parks like Disneyworld are structured around predictable outcomes. You pay for a ticket, take the ride, and then it’s over. You press a button, hear a recording explain what an exhibit is about, and then move on. All of this parallels the expectation of immediate gratification that families already experience via screen-time: You press a button, change the channel, and another show / game / app comes up. Being in nature reminds us that the world isn’t stop-start, binary, predictable. Nature is constantly changing, always in movement, at its own pace. The obvious teaching here is patience.
A great exercise is constructing a “blind.” Choose a familiar woods where you can create a small fort (kids will love this) of brush, sticks, leaf-cover. Leave one side open, facing as open of an area as you can find: hollows, valleys, a body of water. After constructing it, come back another day either early morning (pre-dawn is best) or late-afternoon, staying till evening. Bring binoculars. What animals do you observe? What changes to the landscape? The more you observe — and prompt kids to observe, turning it into a game, a challenge — the more you’ll get into it.
6. It creates opportunities for children to be inventive.
An extension of the above, the medium through which children (and families) interact in nature, whether it’s mud puddles, balls of clay scooped from a riverbank, or shells picked up along shoreline, are tactile and “interactive” in a way that a touchscreen can never be. Kids are given toys, apps, etc. with the idea that having numbers and letters makes them “educational,” when they’re actually deprived of the kind of play where they’re able to be most imaginative.
7. It’s instructive about the circle of life.
Guiding your family through experiences in nature can be a primary way to introduce concepts around life and death, especially to young children.
From encountering dead animals, to walking along the beach and looking at shells (“What happened to all the animals that used to live in the shells?”), or even something as simple as stopping by a fallen tree in the forest, examining how the material decays and enriches the soil, nature reminds us that we are connected to the circle of life, and it isn’t something to shelter oneself from, but embrace.
8. Lots of outdoor play is proving to have specific health benefits.
The Center for Disease Control has studied childhood obesity over the last two decades, and their findings are ugly: Obesity in school-age children has more than doubled, and the rate of clinically obese adolescents has tripled. The CDC points to the trend of children spending more and more time indoors over the past two decades, and has concluded that at least an hour a day of physical activity outside is beneficial for all children’s physical well-being.
Additionally, science has found linkage between the downward trend of children’s outdoor play-time, and emotional problems that can occur throughout life.
9. It’s the only place to learn so many life skills.
There is no classroom like nature. When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to go to schools and camps where the teachers were experts at what they referred to as “life skills.” This included practices like building proper fires, constructing shelters, navigating terrain via map and compass, negotiating creeks and rivers, identifying plants, trees, animals, constellations, knowing how to obtain potable water, and so much more.
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t these skills in and of themselves which were the real “lesson,” but the cumulative effect they had in making me more aware and appreciative of nature. In a surprisingly profound way, simply spending time in nature with your family, learning the most basic skills and knowledge that every man, woman, and child for thousands of years knew (example: where the moon rises) can help lead towards a deeper appreciation or understanding of the places you live and travel. To be able to move through places without simply blundering through half-asleep.
10. It could one day save people’s lives.
And an extension of the above: In a very real, direct way, learning these kinds of life skills can actually save someone’s life, or help avoid or alleviate a potentially dangerous situation. From understanding where along a river is safe to play, swim, explore, to feeling comfortable in the woods and able to find one’s way, there is an important sensibility possessed by those who’ve grown up close to nature: respect.