It seems like an obvious suggestion, but getting outside more frequently during the day can have significant positive impacts on our physical and mental health, and specifically on our sleep.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that, collectively, we are spending far too much time indoors. This is not a new problem, but it has certainly been compounded by the effects of COVID-19, which have kept us all confined, if not to our property lines, then certainly our neighbourhoods.
Moreover, a recent study also suggested that people tend to think they are getting outside more frequently than they are. Because of this, there tends to be less emphasis on planning outdoor time.
This lack of outdoor time also has a significant effect on our children, who need this time to expel enough energy to build up their sleep pressure, and to help regulate their circadian rhythms.
In a recent article in USA Today, Steven Lockley, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, stated that exposure to light-dark cycles is “crucial” part of human biology. “That’s due to the role of light in resetting our circadian clock each and every day,” he said. “It resets our clocks to be in tune with environmental time, and light is the primary time-cue.”
The trouble is that it is often difficult to find ways to draw our children outside, and to push ourselves out as well. Here are a few ways to engage your toddler or preschooler in outdoor time, unstructured play (more to come on this in a future blog post!), and exploration while getting some much needed fresh air yourself:
▪️ Create a ‘nature bowl’: have your child collect outdoor items, and add them to a bowl outdoors that they can sort through and play with. This will allow them to continually explore their surroundings, while keeping the dirt and critters out of their pockets and your home!
▪️ Make an activity out of gathering rocks, shells, or fossils and turn them into something new. Paint them, purchase a rock tumbler to shine them, or arrange them to create an ‘enchanted garden’ in your yard (this is what my kids – 15 months, 3.5 years, and almost 6 years old – are currently working on!)
▪️ Plant a garden – even though it is late in the season, use an outdoor planter at a height accessible to your child, and start a fresh herb garden that can be moved inside for the winter. Have your child plant, water, smell and taste the herbs!
▪️ Have your child build an outdoor structure – be it a hut small enough for toys, or a fort or treehouse for themselves. Provide them with supplies and let your child be the architect. Allowing space for this kind of independent creativity is an excellent avenue for emergent play.
▪️ Go on a family “hike” (even if it’s just a short walk in a tree covered area), and engage younger kids by playing games like “name that sound”, “eye spy” or “find 10 critters”. If you have a baby, babywearing is a great way to allow your child to have a different sensory experience too. You can also try going on a family walk at an unusual time of day – if you have an early riser, for example, take advantage one morning and go for a walk before they would usually get ready for the day.
▪️ Be a cloud spotter – this is a great way to have an outdoor break for yourself too! Encourage your child to lie down on the grass or a blanket and find shapes in the clouds.
▪️ If you are struggling with naps, rather than fighting them, try an outdoor motion nap in the stroller or baby carrier. The fresh air may help relax your baby to sleep, and will give you a much needed break and some stress relief from forcing a nap that just isn’t working.
Viewing nature as a powerful antidote to stress can help both parents and children feel better and more relaxed for sleep. And, getting used to having more outdoor time before the weather changes might make it easier to get outside when it’s cold out as well!
What do you do to get your kids outside? Let me know your tips!