Each year, I dread winter. Especially January.
I know what January holds: cold days, long nights, and little to be desired. Anxiety, which, for me, stems out of fear of illness and feeling trapped, simmers endlessly on the back-burner of my mind. My children, who are blessed with energy I will never have, seem to bounce off the walls; the same walls that seem to be closing in on me in the heart of winter. Traditionally, I suffer through the month, feeling a bit relieved when February comes around, even though it’s not much better.
But this past January was entirely different. I have a pretty good idea as to why.
I spent at least twenty minutes outside with my kids every day, regardless of weather. Despite wind chills of -1 degree, snow, clouds, and cold, we enjoyed a total of 34.25 hours outdoors this month. And it has changed my perspective on winter.
How It Started
I had just finished reflecting on my goals for the new year, when I was scrolling through Instagram. It was New Year’s day, and I saw one woman’s post about how she and her family had clocked in hundreds of hours outdoor during 2018. She even had the monthly breakdown. I read it with mouth agape, amazed. The least amount of time spent outside was in March, and it was still twenty-something hours.
I felt a strange mixture of inspiration, guilt, and anger. I know the importance of being outside with my kids, and we spend countless hours outdoors when the weather is pleasant. But in the winter? We live in Pennsylvania, where Old Man Winter is melancholy; the cold seeps through your clothes, the wind slaps you in the face.
But January 1st had happened to be a warm winter day, 45 degrees and party cloudy. We had already gone for a walk in the morning and after, the kids played on the deck while we talked with a neighbor. Without even realizing it, we had spent two hours outside together, and I thought to myself: Well, we already put in two hours of outdoor time today. Maybe we can at least try to get outside more this winter and see what happens.
So I opened a Google spreadsheet and documented the day, time, and weather. When the kids asked to go out and play later in the afternoon, I agreed, and entered another half-hour of outdoor time on the spreadsheet.
It didn’t start out as a commitment; it wasn’t out of a feeling of inadequacy or competition that I ended up bundling up myself and my little ones every day. If I would have known that there would be two days in January with a forecasted high of fifteen degrees, I certainly would not have committed to it.
But I started doing it for the same reason I’m continuing to do it: because I know it’s good for us. I just needed to be challenged to do it.
“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.”
What I’ve Read
Four to seven minutes. That is the average amount of time American children spend playing outdoors each day, according to Scott D Sampson, author of How to Raise a Wild Child.
While I’ve read a lot on the issue of kids and nature, that statistic really alarmed me. As did the statistic that the average American child spends seven hours per day on screens, despite the AAP’s recommendation of “consistently limited” screen times for those over the age of five, and one hour of “high-quality” programs for those ages two to five.
Sampson is concerned that kids are “replacing reality with virtual alternatives” and are, subsequently, disconnected from nature and themselves. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, has written an entire book about this generation’s struggle with what he has coined “nature deficit disorder” (you can read my post about it here).
Our children’s generation is on track to spend the least amount of time in nature in human history. They are also on track to be the first generation in the modern age with a shorter life expectancy than their parents (HtRaWC 6).
According to Sampson, giving our children the freedom to play in natural settings is “essential for children’s healthy growth” (37). The benefits are far more than just physical well-being, too: children who play outdoors have better motor control, play more creatively, have greater reasoning and problem-solving skills, are more independent and interdependent. They also have many more opportunities for “cognitive, emotional, and moral development” than they would indoors in front of a screen.
The benefits of being in nature are endless for children, and for adults. Unfortunately, many children are not given access to them.
“The capacity to fall in love with nature lies dormant within all of us, waiting to be reawakened.”
Nature vs Nurture
Little ones love being outside. Even in winter.
Over the course of this month, my three-year old asked me at 6:30 in the morning if he could go outside and ride his bike. My seventeen month old stood by the door, reaching for the doorknob crying out, “Walk!” The cold, the wind, the clouds never seemed to bother them. It was me who was always asking first, “Can we go inside now?” and when I did, I was often greeted with smiles and a definitive, “No.”
The time we spent outdoors this month has reinforced in my mind that God made us to be outdoors, and in our natural, uninfluenced state, we are drawn to it. My kids want to be out in it, and they are kinder, happier, and healthier when they are.
It is convicting to acknowledge that the main reason children are not spending enough time outside is because of the adults in their lives.
I know this is true of myself. On the very hot days, I’ve suggested reading books indoors instead of sweating outside. On rainy days, I’ve groaned when the kids asked to go outside and redirected them to play-dough or trains. On the endless winter days, our screen time would accumulate like the falling snow.
And it was because of my influence.
Some Do it Different
Before this month-long experiment, I’d heard of other cultures that do it differently. I’d heard of Nordic folk that let their babies and toddlers nap outside in freezing temperatures for their health and well-being. I’d heard of the forest kindergartens that conduct their learning outside in any weather, allowing their students the privilege of outdoor learning all day long. I’d heard the Norwegian saying: “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”
But I considered it all well-and-good for them, but not right for me.
I’d read the articles that said our kids need more time outside, and thought, “Well, we’re getting more time outside than the average kid, so that’s good enough.” I’d heard of expert Angela Hanscomb’s recommendation that the average child should have three hours (yes, you read that right) of outdoor play per day and thought, “That’s an unrealistic goal, and I don’t know of any child that meets that.”
In other words, I’ve made a lot of excuses.
“The more you demonstrate the value of nature through your own actions, the more kids will tend to adopt the same value.”
Mentoring a Love of Nature
I’m only a few chapters into How to Raise a Wild Child, but an obvious theme is emerging: if we want our children to connect to nature, if we want them to reap the benefits of creation’s influence, if we want them to care about the world in which we live, we need to model it.
We need to go out there with them. We need to observe with them. We need to wonder and delight in nature alongside of them.
How terrifying it is to think that my selfishness, busyness, or preoccupation with other things could slowly snuff out their love of nature; that by saying “no” to their requests to go outdoors is, in a way, denying them the experience of what it means to be human in the most basic sense.
But here’s the thing: we, too, are human. We need to be in nature, too.
Here’s the good news: our time in nature with our children will benefit us as well.
Being outside every day in January has greatly improved my quality of life. I actually began to look forward to our outdoor time, because I knew that I would come inside flushed-cheeked, but feeling calm, feeling well. This is the first winter in a long time that I’ve felt my anxiety has stayed in check, that I haven’t feel sluggish and unproductive daily.
And I have seen firsthand the benefits it has had for the kids. They have stayed healthy all month, without even as much as a runny nose. If they started getting grumpy or mean to each other, I said, “Who wants to go outside?” and almost immediately, their moods improved. They were more kind to each other when they were outside, more content.
And, of course, there are the benefits that cannot be measured. The delight at watching a flock of geese soar overhead. The joy of throwing rocks into the creek. The thrill of sliding across ice without falling. The peace of feeling a warm touch of sunshine break through the clouds. The exhilaration of throwing a snowball.
Connecting children with nature demands that kids play freely and frequently in wild nature close to home.
A Little Goes a Long Way
We didn’t put in three hours a day outside this month. I’m not there. But we did spend at least twenty minutes outside each day, and I’m very proud of that. I didn’t push it on the very cold or windy days, but when the weather was gentler and above freezing, we put in up to two hours.
We didn’t do crazy things; we simply took walks, played on the deck, jumped on the neighbor’s trampoline. We even had a picnic lunch (something Levi suggested), bundled up in layers in the backyard while the robins flew about overhead.
But we discovered the sound of a rock dancing across a frozen lake. We marveled at the intricate spikes of freshly fallen snowflakes. We grew to appreciate the warmth and shelter of our home in a new way. And we all grown in our love of nature and, yes, even winter.
In retrospect, the sacrifice seemed so simple, so menial: all it truly cost me was some body heat and time, time that probably would have been spent watching a show or negotiating with pent-up toddlers.
So my challenge to you, dear reader, is give it a try. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, or even every day. But if you’re feeling anxious or glum, if your kids seem wild or glassy-eyed, put on your warm boots and mittens and head outside together. Don’t lock yourself into a commitment, just get out there and see what happens.
I think you may be surprised at how good it will be for your kids, and for you, too.
Looking for another way to make winter more enjoyable? Check out my post: How Hygge can Help your Family.