Go Outside! A How-To Guide for the Urban Family

By Cayla Samano

As we shiver out of another Michigan winter and into warmer weather, I am building my usual short list of activities to keep myself sane. This list has become shorter than usual due to pandemic safety precautions. Ordinarily it would include more frequent visits with extended family and more friend get-togethers. My sticky note sanity plan has become heavier on more practical reminders like “Sleep more regular hours!” “Take Vitamin D!” and “GO OUTSIDE” which is written in all caps.  

While most of the items in my sanity plan have health benefits, only going outside offers me the powerful all-in-one package of a fresh perspective, easy exercise, and the potential for some dopamine-boosting delight, such as my view last week of a coyote frolicking through fresh snow. Making time to enjoy nature can have such a huge impact on human well-being that the lack of it has been labeled as a nonmedical disorder.

I experienced Nature Deficit Disorder for the first time at fourteen. My small, rural community was rich in land but poor in access to anything else. Consequently, I was used to spending four to six hours a day outside. (This was also before every child had a smartphone, tablet or even steady internet access, but I digress.) When I moved into high school, I discovered that students spent most of the eight-hour day inside with little exposure to natural light. While I’d always loved school, I immediately began to experience what I can only describe as mild and constant cabin fever. I became moodier, gained weight, and had less energy.

Many of my symptoms were classic signs of a condition which the journalist and author Richard Louv introduced as the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods, published in 2005. It describes how a lack of time spent in nature can have negative effects on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. Louv’s theories strongly suggest that spending so much of our time inside, indoors, and in virtually constructed realities is unnatural and unhealthy. Is it possible that we have become too disconnected from a natural world that should feel more like our native habitat? Have we lost a deep biological connection with the ecosystems that we share?

The Japanese became the first to develop a modern nature immersion practice as a response to urban stress. They call it shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Studies done since the early 2000s by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at the University of Chiba and Qing Li from Nippon Medical School in Tokyo use field tests, hormone analysis, and brain imaging technology to uncover the molecular effects nature has on human bodies. They found that even twenty minutes of walking among trees lowered blood pressure, improved mood and concentration, and could possibly boost the immune system. This study corroborated similar studies done by the environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan in the 1970s. The Kaplans observed that spending time in nature improved cognition, memory, and reversed the effects of “Cognitive Burnout,” a modern urban phenomenon they named for its fatal effects on attention, mood, memory, and mental stamina. (Interestingly, the Japanese observed a similar phenomenon, Karoshi, which means “death by overwork.”)

As city-dwelling becomes more prevalent and the pandemic continues to limit opportunities to interact outside of our bubbles, parents with children are faced with increasingly desperate conditions. There is a double-edged problem here; how to engage our children in physical and tactile exploration among increasingly virtual options, and how to incorporate a love of the outside when the outside is what we’ve been taught to fear. We may know what’s good for us, but how do we convince our children away from screens and get them interested in an experience (playing outside) that is increasingly foreign to so many. Fortunately, you don’t need access to the Grand Canyon to be able to build a nature connection practice with your kids.  Here are some easy-access ideas to enhance nature connection wherever you live.

Inside:

Pet Plants: Safe herbs or easy to care for tropical plants can be great ways to teach kids about plant life cycles. (Read plant labels for varieties that might be toxic for pets or toddlers.) 

Fishbowl or Fairy Terrarium: Watching fish is incredibly relaxing, and creating a terrarium is an excellent way to learn about soil and plant relationships! Top it off by creating an ecosystem for fairies or miniature dinosaurs. (Matthaei Botanical Garden has quite a variety of fairy garden accessories.)

Chia Pets: A reoccurring fad, these fun ceramic pots have anthropomorphized the chia plant for kids of many generations. Look online for options, from dogs to cartoon characters.

Front Porches and Windows:

Install a bird bath or bird feeder by a window.  Be prepared for a possible war with the squirrels! Look for bird feeders that are squirrel-proof.

Plant a porch or balcony veggie or flower garden in small pots. Tomatoes and peppers tend to be easily accessible and fun to watch as they develop. Zinnias are fast and colorful growers.

Install a porch swing! There’s nothing more fun than sitting outside to observe all the weird wildlife that can be found in neighborhoods. From my tiny front porch in the middle of town I’ve seen skunks, foxes, rabbits, red tail hawks, and voles (what?).

Around the Neighborhood:

Tree Scavenger Hunt: Find an easy tree guide from the library and help your kids point out and identify trees as you walk around the block. (I’m sure there are also apps for this, but you run the risk of technology taking over the experience.)

Adopt a corner: There might be a place in a nearby park where you can get access to a community garden, or an abandoned corner of a park where you can make it your business to clean up trash. This is sometimes called wild tending.

Adopt a Park: Find a park you and your kids love. Make it one that you can get to in under twenty minutes. Make it part of your weekly schedule to go and play for at least an hour, as many times as you can in all seasons, and at different times of day when possible. Creating a tradition like this builds a deep connection to place.

 Find a Sit Spot/ Do Some Grounding: Adopting a particular place to sit regularly and be still has roots in Japanese Forest Bathing as well as other mindfulness practices.  Find a place where you can put down a big blanket, or an easy-to-carry chair. You could bring a picnic, or lie down in the shade in the park, or read a book. Now relax. Try it! 

Where to Go?

Washtenaw County is rich in parks and nature preserves. Here are a few of my favorites.

County Farm Park: Great playground, easy access nature trails

Matthai Botanical Garden: Indoor conservatory open all year, an interactive children’s garden, and easy access nature trails

Leslie Science and Nature Center: Excellent rescue raptors programs, children’s camps, and wooded nature trails

Bird Hills Nature Area: Wilder exploration and views of the Huron River

Barton Nature Area: Can be connected to Bird Hills, beautiful and easy terrain, and a variety of ecosystems along the Huron River

Gallup Park: Playground, picnic sites and tables, river-side paved trails, and canoe and paddle boat rental

 Lillie Park: Playground, nature trails, disc golf course, easy wooded trails

 Nichols Arboretum: A variety of ecosystems, easy trails and more difficult wooded ones, river views, a picnic valley and lots of places to explore

Going outside is such a vital part of feeling human that whole organizations have been formed just to help us remember what it’s like. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy offers adult programs for those interested in deepening their nature connection practice and sharing it with others. Nature connection practices may be a crucial step in the rebalancing of our relationship with the universe—and one blue-green planet in particular. Perhaps if we can teach our children how to play in the dirt, they will become adults who respect the ground they walk on, and better advocates for the natural world that supports us all.

Cayla Samano has been a certified Nature Immersion Guide since 2017, leading private and public nature immersion experiences throughout southeast Michigan. She is currently finishing her MFA in Drawing at Eastern Michigan University. Cayla’s first children’s book, How To Meet a Forest was published in 2020. For more information about Nature Immersion experiences, contact Cayla ata2shinrinyoku.com

Author: Jessica Thompson

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