By Maggie Homer
The idea for the 30-day outdoor challenge emerged from a place of desperation. It was fall, and I was anxiously anticipating the arrival of the rain and cold. Our children, ages 2 and 4, were fighting, agitated, and seemingly always frustrated. I felt stuck. Our family needed a new rhythm, a new focus.
Inspired by the philosophy of Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook, a nature-centered program for children, I set a goal to get the kids and myself outdoors for at least three total hours every day for 30 days, and observe the results.
Fitting in the three hours daily wasn’t always easy. To make it work between school, extracurricular activities, nap times and play dates, I had to intentionally schedule outdoor time. On a typical day, we did one hour after breakfast, one hour after nap, and one hour after dinner.
The balancing act paid off. After 30 days, we felt a renewed sense of wonder in the world around us.
There was a new sensory depth to our daily experiences that simply did not exist before. Instead of hearing sirens and honking horns, our ears tuned in to the birds twittering. Our eyes searched for pill bugs under rocks instead of watching television screens. Our feet wandered around muddy trails and grassy fields in place of flat concrete and carpet. We now notice the tiny winter buds on the trees. We throw away stray pieces of trash. We move earthworms from the concrete to the dirt. We feel more connected to nature, to each other, and to our community because of the quality time we spend investing in each.
I plan to continue this journey through the Seattle winter, and invite you to join me. I find that even the simplest of plans improves the likelihood of success, so I prepared for winter with a few ideas that encourage outdoor exploration. It’s important to realize that each family rhythm is different, and I challenge you to play around until you find one that fits.
Quality time outdoors is one of our family values. We work to communicate this value to our children through our words and actions. Our words usually go something like this: “We’re going outside because outdoor play is important to our family. It helps us grow strong and healthy. Plus we get to spend time exploring with each other!” Our actions reflect our goal, because we go outside even with bad weather, complaints or a busy schedule. Nothing deters us from getting fresh air. Communicating our purpose allows our children to understand the change in our family rhythm, and it helps connect us to work together toward our family goal.
There are days our children don’t want to go outside, so we get creative. Maybe we race to see who can run around the outside of the house the fastest. Maybe I need help finding pine cones for table decorations.
And if all else fails, I set the timer for five minutes and promise that when it goes off, we’ll go inside. Each time we go outside, I add length to the time, until eventually they forget they’re waiting for a timer to go off. Breaking it down into smaller increments helps our children slowly acclimate to larger chunks of unstructured outdoor play. Our bedtime routine is no longer a battleground, but is now a welcome end to the day. The fighting has lessened, and I feel more calm, controlled, patient and healthy.
This year we invested in proper outdoor gear for the whole family. We set up a bin of handwarmers, readily available whenever someone’s fingers or toes start to get too cold. On particularly chilly days, we play in our yard so we have the option to pop back in the house for a quick thaw. And at the end of the day, we cuddle up and read books with a strong nature presence. We love The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor, and The Mitten by Jan Brett.
Light the darkness
The long-awaited morning sun and the early afternoon darkness is a barrier to getting outdoors. To combat this, each member of our family has a handheld flashlight, and we leave them by the front door as an open invitation to play under the dark sky. Together we strung up outdoor lights, and it adds magic to our yard. There is excitement in venturing out when it seems like the whole world is sleeping.
We enjoy weekly winter tree-bud walks. The small intention of noticing tree buds focuses the children, and they observe more intently the changes in the trees as the season shifts. We slowly wander through the evergreen trees at Redmond’s Farrel-McWhirter Park that give our beautiful state its nickname. We breathe in the signature smell of the pine trees at Coal Creek Park in Bellevue; we even bite into evergreen needles. Whenever we go on these walks, we pack a warm thermos of hot chocolate to sip on as we explore St. Edward State Park on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, Kirkland’s O.O. Denny Park, our neighborhood, or wherever we end up.
Cook up warmth
Happiness to me is entering my front door to the smells of good food and the warmth of a crackling fire. Using whole foods and cooking homemade meals with your children brings nature into your kitchen, while also creating time for outdoor exploration while it cooks. This winter, we’re exploring Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food cookbook. Nothing reminds children that inside is warm like a long stretch of time spent outdoors in the cold. The hope of a warm meal and a glowing fire gets me through the coldest of days outside.
What would happen if we raised a generation of children who never experienced the beauty of sleeping beneath the stars, or digging deep down into the earth with their hands? Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy reflects: “We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection with ourselves.”
Children need ample outdoor play experiences to understand who they are and what their place is in the world. They need a space to run free, climb, dig, and build without restriction. I challenge you to join me in a winter 30-day outdoor challenge and to observe what happens in your own family. I’d be thrilled to connect with you on Instagram @graciouslygrown. See you outside soon!
30-day outdoor challenge resources:
For more inspiration for your 30-day outdoor challenge, Maggie Homer recommends the following books on exploring nature with kids:
The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You, by Clare Walker Leslie
Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown
The Rhythm of Family: Discovering a Sense of Wonder through the Seasons, by Amanda Blake Soule and Stephen Soule
How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott Sampson
Curious Kids Nature Guide: Explore the Amazing Outdoors of the Pacific Northwest by Fiona Cohen
Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv