We Know Why Nature is Good for our Health but How Do We Get Outside More? An OT’s perspective

My kids exploring the trails at Woodend Conservation Area, Niagara on the Lake.

My kids exploring the trails at Woodend Conservation Area, Niagara on the Lake.

The positive impact of nature on health has been getting its fair share of media coverage this year. Articles describing the role of doctors in “prescribing” outdoor time, and research exploring the most effective amount of time to spend in nature all contribute to a clear message: more time outside in healthy environments is healthy for us and for our kids.

There are many benefits to spending time in nature. One of these is that nature is important for reducing stress. Reducing stress means lowering cortisol. And lower cortisol levels can improve sleep —Cortisol is usually highest in the morning, and lowest late at night naturally, whereas melatonin, the ‘sleepiness’ hormone, is the opposite.

However, most articles that talk about the importance of nature for health stop there and forget that we sometimes need really practical ways for getting out there. Designing your life to be oriented towards more outside time is a work in progress. But little changes add up.

Here are a few ways to gradually move to more of an outdoor life:

1. Make it easy. Think of the hurdles that make it hard to get outside: can't find everyone's boots? Simplify your closet, or create a shoe rack in the garage where boots can be seen easily. Throw out extra foot wear or boots that are too small. Hate the cold? Check the forecast to find the warmest and sunniest time of day: often in winter this is late afternoon. Too busy? Schedule in outdoor time a few times a week at a time when you are least likely to “bump” it because of baby’s nap, or other daily events. Have young babies? Invest in a baby carrier for baby-wearing. Seems obvious, right? But sometimes it's looking at what exactly is the bottle neck in your family routine that can help you focus your problem solving on the actual problem. What gets in your way may be entirely different than what gets in another family’s way. And it may be easier than you think to solve.

2. Make it fun. Start small --don't plan a three hour hike if your family currently spends most of the day inside. Just take snack out to the backyard on a tray. Or pack up a book and a thermos of tea, and bring it to your front porch or lawn. Small steps add up. Other fun ways to get outdoors is to start geocaching (geocaching.com), or creating a usable play space in your back yard (again, think small: some scrap lumber, a tire, and a fairy house made of twigs). You’d be surprised by how much one idea can change things: we bought a tiny sandbox this summer for our four year old, after remembering how much our older two kids used to spend in it. Now our four year old enjoys playing outside before breakfast is even on the table.

3. Make it routine. Set a regular routine of getting outside, so that it becomes a welcome habit. Make Saturday afternoons "family park day". Get out a map of your area and get your children (even the really really young ones) to pick a green space, then go explore it! When my first two were very young, I made it my mission to walk with them to the mailbox every morning after breakfast. Whether we had a letter to mail or not (or wrote up a quick note for someone we knew and stuck it in an envelope while putting on coats!), having this plan every day made it easier to implement.

4. Go All-Natural. Pay attention to the outdoor spaces that make you feel good. You can pay attention to what makes your kids feel good too, but by tapping into your own response to the outdoors, you’re honing an important skill and are modeling it too. Aim to try out different green spaces near your home. Venture further away when you have the energy and the time without it feeling stressful. More effort does not make it “worth more”. (See suggestion #1!). My favourites for “feel good” local parks for my family are Woodend Conservation Area in Niagara, Baillie Bridge in Jordan, and Paletta Park in Burlington.

So if accessing nature is something you value, get outside in small ways that let you live your day to day life in line with your priority. There are going to be hurdles and conflicts -- our children can throw a wrench in the best laid plans. But with a sense of its value and a curiosity to problem solve the barriers, more time in nature may have you resting easy sooner than you think.

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For more on the research of “twenty minutes a day” outside see https://neurosciencenews.com/nature-cortisol-stress-11001/

For an article on “prescribing” outdoor time, read https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/05/health/nature-prescriptions-shetland-intl/index.html

For perspectives on the value of nature for child well-being, see https://www.rootsofaction.com/benefits-of-nature/