Fasten Your Seatbelts

Summer in Wisconsin wins. We know instinctively that there is something good and healthy about splashing in a lake on a hot day, about laying on a blanket and looking up at the stars. Summer in Wisconsin pulls us to cook our food outside, to head to the park for a concert, to walk along the beach.

Studies corroborate what we know is true — nature is good for the body, mind and soul.  A study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that people who walked in a park for 90 minutes had increased neural activity in the part of the brain associated with attention. According to the journal Science Advances, a University of Washington study showed evidence that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, along with a decrease in mental distress.

Past generations of parents took for granted that their children would spend time outdoors in the summer and could not have imagined how intentional today’s parents need to be in order to ensure children have time outside without screens. Parents of children who grew up as recently as the 1970s, 80s and 90s could not have imagined the complexity facing families today who need to manage screen time in all its forms, as well as dawn-to-dusk summer programming for children, which is often indoors.

Here are some ideas from families who recognize the importance of giving kids time and space to be outside, in nature:

Keep it simple, walk to the park: “At least once a week after work during the summer, we throw some sandwiches and drinks into a cooler for dinner, and head to the local park,” said Jessica, a mother of three. “Even though we have a patio and room in our backyard to play Frisbee or toss a ball around, my husband and I are better able to engage with the kids at the park. Maybe it’s because we can’t see all the chores around the house that we need to do.”

Camping: “My wife and I didn’t grow up in families that camped, but we wanted to give that to our kids, so we started by renting equipment and then we eventually bought our own tents and everything,” said Kevin, a father of two teens. “It’s given us the opportunity to explore state parks we would have otherwise never gone to. We limit phone use for the weekend. Around the fire, somehow, we have better conversations than we ever do at home.”

Biking: “Our kids are of varied ages, but we have found that biking together is the great equalizer,” said Jon, a father of four. “We have a great system of bike paths in Milwaukee and biking allows the kids to get exercise and enjoy nature at the same time. We can stop for lunch along the way and make the trip as long or short as we have time for that day.”

Programming: “I’m a full-time working single mom, and because of that, I need to have the kids in activities and camps all summer long,” said Kim. “Scheduling the kids for the summer is daunting, but my first priority is to make sure that they are spending a big section of the day outside, doing something fun. They have plenty of time to be in a gym or a classroom nine months out of the year, so in summer, I try to find the outdoor, active opportunities. I also include a week at a sleep-away camp each summer.”

Prayer: “On a few of our vacations, we have taken some time to pray as a family outside, when we are in an especially beautiful spot,” said Amy, a mother of three. “I’ll pull up a reading on my phone and we’ll all go around and say something we are thankful for. Often, the kids will give thanks for not only the beauty of our surroundings but also for our family — mentioning things they might not ordinarily say. I think vacations can bring out children’s gratitude for our relationships.”