The Nature Fix: Creating New Rituals, Outside

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The season of holiday rituals is upon us: a turkey or tofurky on the table, the post-prandial nap, the exchange of gifts, the lighting of candles, the baking of garish cookies. And with these come some inevitable, attendant pains in the neck. The ones that irk me: clogged freeways, weather delays at airports, moments of drudgery and guilt from too much time spent with some relatives and not enough time spent with others.

When I lived in Montana, we made it a regular habit to trudge up to the woods and cut down a scraggly, already-doomed fir tree. It was usually snowy and very cold by then, but it was a fun and unforgettable trek for the kids.

But aside from visits to the pumpkin patch and the requisite throwing of a football on the lawn, the outdoors doesn’t factor very strongly into many Americans’ holiday traditions. And with each passing year, as the shiny new devices keep us inside for longer, we likely spend even less time outside.

It’s time for some new nature-based rituals. We need them, and our kids need them.

Studies show that kids who play outside more often have stronger social skills, emotional regulation and are better problem solvers. Kids with ADHD exhibit fewer symptoms and better focus after time outside.

According to Tim Gill, a leading consultant on childhood and urban design, “natural places are singularly engaging, stimulating, life-enhancing environments where children can reach new depths of understanding about themselves, their abilities and their relationship with the world around them.”

It’s time for some new nature-based rituals. We need them, and our kids need them.

And the funny thing is, a lot of kids know, instinctively, about these benefits. Last year, a study led by conservation communications firm DJ Case and Associates asked 771 children ages 8 to 12 if they thought spending time in nature was good for them. Astoundingly, 90 percent of them said being outside made them happier and healthier, 79 percent said if improved their confidence and 77 percent it helped them learn getting along with others.

When kids build a relationship with the natural world, the connection can last them a lifetime. And when they build that connection within the context of family rituals, it’s more likely they’ll pass those rituals down to their kids. In families where the parents enjoy regular time in nature, 82 percent of kids will grow up to share the interest.

When kids build a relationship with the natural world, the connection can last them a lifetime.

Plus, when families share nature experiences that reduce stress and improve focus, family bonds may actually strengthen. “When your attention is restored, you’re able to pick up on social cues more easily, you feel less irritable, and you have more self-control. All of these are variables that can help you get along better with others,” said Dina Izenstark, a family studies researcher at the University of Illinois and lead author of a recent study published in the Journal of Family Theory and Review.

When thinking about rituals that might work for your family, consider your family culture, from spirituality to athleticism. Involve natural materials, like leaves, boughs and flowers. Consider moving the yuletide log outside for a bonfire, or collecting spectacular pinecones for the holiday table. Walk off big meals in a local park. Make gifts from the natural world or cards decorated with found sprigs or seeds. And share your experiences on Instagram with #OptOutside.

Remember, it’s all about fun. And if it helps digest those garish cookies, all the better.


Editor's Note: For the third year running, the REI co-op is closing our doors on Black Friday and paying our 12,000 employees to spend the day outside. Last year, millions of people and hundreds of organizations joined the movement. Will you #OptOutside with us?

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