by Jamie Lynn Langley, LCSW, RPT-S
Hearing those words as a child meant a world of opportunity to explore, to chase, to enjoy and to have an adventure. I collected rocks, rode horses, climbed trees and went on walks in the woods as a few of my outdoor activities. Many favorite childhood memories are from going on camping trips with my Girl Scout troop where we would play games, do nature crafts, and make smores over an open fire.
Unfortunately, not as many children today are enjoying these opportunities to be outdoors and in nature. “Screen time” by children and adolescents is far outpacing the “green time”. Richard Louv, co-founder and chair of the Children and Nature Network, coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the growing epidemic of children not having access to nature. This has led to concerns related to children's physical and mental health including attention-deficit disorder and depression (Louv, 2008).
To tell parents to have their children “go outside and play” is not as easy as it once was. As a child and family therapist, I often hear concerns from parents who find themselves playing catch-up to meet all of the scheduling needs of their children as well as juggling their own responsibilities. There are increased demands for time with academics and athletics, as well as social activities. In addition, the time we live in has made us more aware of potential dangers to children “being outside all afternoon.”
So what is a parent to do? I encourage parents to become involved with their children in activities or programs that can be done together in nature. This “changing screen time for green time” is aimed to get them to unplug from devises and plug-in to each other. To begin, this can be as easy as taking a family nature walk. I suggest that they take time to stop, smell and listen to the nature around them, as well as touching and feeling items discovered along the way. A growing sense of wonder can develop when on a nature walk. Fun, playful opportunities often present as well, such as integrating a game of “I-Spy” for spotting unique things in nature along the walk.
Another favorite family outdoor activity is a nature scavenger hunt. Family members can take turns making lists for items to gather. I emphasize working together so that it is a cooperative yet enjoyable exercise. Families have often come back and reported the fun they had and the feelings of connection that occurred from such a simple pursuit.
Camping is a great family opportunity to explore nature for a longer period of time. Children and parents will find experiences like setting up a tent, planning a family hike, or even playing flashlight tag to be great bonding moments while practicing problem-solving skills. (Just don’t tell the kids the last part!) It is important for children to play with some abandon that they often do not get to do in more structured activities and to get a little dirty (Ward, 2008). Having free time to relax, renew and explore at their own pace adds to the experience (i.e. no schedules!) And the conversation in “tent-talks” can be priceless! If a nearby park or recreation space is not available, consider the back yard for fun camping adventures. Memories will be made while camping that can last a lifetime.
State and national parks are real treasures for families where nature activities can be found for a day, weekend or even vacation. Many state parks have programs promoting nature for health and wellness. In Tennessee, we have the Healthy Parks Healthy Person program where participating in outdoor activities can earn points which can be redeemed for free night stays at the park, camping gear and other rewards. As a practitioner participant in the program, I get to “prescribe nature” to my families!
Finally, involvement in groups which include nature activities as part of their programs are great resources for families. This can include scout programs, recreation groups and others. I mentioned earlier my fond memories of outdoor activities while I was in Girl Scouts. My husband is a former Boy Scout, and together with our two sons we have done many camping and hiking trips, some on our own and some with our Cub Scout pack when they were younger. Both of our sons became Eagle Scouts, and they share our passion for the outdoors. We continue to enjoy our “nature fix” whenever possible as an antidote for stress and busy schedules.
Choose one or more of these to try! Then gather the family and go outside and play!
Jamie Lynn Langley, LCSW, RPT-S is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Registered Play-Therapist Supervisor. After working with a community mental health center for twenty-seven years, she began her private practice in Smyrna, TN in late 2016 where she works exclusively with children and adolescents and their families. In addition Jamie supervises therapists working towards the Registered Play Therapist credential and teaches adjunct with Middle Tennessee State University in the Social Work Department and with Lipscomb University in the Play Therapy Specialization. She serves as Vice-Chair of the Registration and Continuing Education committee of the Association for Play Therapy. Jamie is co-founder and President of the Tennessee Association for Play Therapy where she is committed to bringing and providing play therapy training at the local level. She also presents regionally and nationally on Play Therapy and Sandtray and most recently on NaturePlay, her adaption of incorporating nature in play therapy. Jamie is a charter member of the Children and Nature Network and serves on the advisory board for the Tennessee Healthy Parks Healthy Person program. A Cub Scout leader for 15 years, Jamie thrives on family time and serenity in nature, especially at the beach and in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Visit: jamielynnlangley.com
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Ward, J. (2008). I love dirt!: 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature. Boston: Trumpeter.