We Need Outdoor Time More Than Ever. Here's How to Get It in Quarantine.

by Meghan Fitzgerald

In the pre-COVID days, I'd count the hours until work calls were done and the family could get out for our end-of-day reconnecting hike. Then the stay-at-home orders came and suddenly, the more than 100 million of us ordered to remain homebound found ourselves wondering how we’d get the outdoor time we need so badly. Between the sudden rigors of homeschooling, work obligations or financial struggles, and the inevitable stress that comes with it all—not to mention the safety concerns we see lots of people expressing —leaving the house has felt like a near-impossible task.

But the truth is that the emotional rollercoaster of pandemic life means we need the benefits of outdoor time more than ever. Research and experience tell us time outdoors is essential for kids’ well-being—and for ours, as well. When kids get outdoors, they’re more physically active and enjoy reduced anxiety, improved sleep and enhanced mood. The same goes for us adults. Outdoor settings also provide kids’ sensory systems with an ideal mix for learning, because the outdoors is both stimulating and calming at the same time.

“Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls.” — Erin K. Kenny

None of us need to give up on the dream of our kids running free, exploring open green spaces, and learning in a classroom “with no walls.” We will be back out there again soon — and it will be even sweeter for having to defer it a bit. For now, let’s figure out how to work as much nature into this temporary “new normal” as we can. 

Families have a wonderful range of habitats—from apartments in our biggest cities to remote mountaintop homesteads. And while some are more immediately conducive to outdoor play than others, it really is possible to work with what you’ve got. To do that, it helps to reconsider how we think about the term “outdoors.”

At Tinkergarten, we’ve always had an expansive definition of nature.

Nature /ˈnāCHər/ noun. 1. anywhere you can find earth, sky and other living things. 

This approach has allowed us to offer kids and families connection with outdoors in all kinds of spaces—not just pristine parks, but on rooftops, in city playgrounds and even, you guessed it, indoors. Nature is everywhere—even in the tiniest corners. It is there to be sensed, and it is there to inspire—especially for our kids. And when we have moved through this challenging and uncertain time, we can continue to encourage a more open definition of outdoors, increasing access to all families, regardless of location, environment or resources.

In the meantime, let’s not underestimate how exciting even the most subtle interactions with nature can be to kids. And let’s lean into that. Whether you move the craft table outside, turn on a recording of nature sounds during the day, or make a new habit of cuddling on the stoop each evening, just make it feel special, and kids will respond. 

No matter how big or small, the patch of space attached to home can become a nature wonderland. Here are some ways to make the most of it, whether it’s a city stoop, rooftop, sidewalk or fire escape or a full blown suburban yard.

Look closely and marvel. Behold all of the nature you’ve got right in front of you. It's marvelous to visit parks, but it’s easy to overlook the wonderland that is a flower bed or the world there is to discover in the small area surrounding the shrubs right next to your front door. We've enjoyed hours of discovery just by marking off a few square feet of the back yard with string and examining it really closely—you’ll be amazed at how many wonders a few square feet can hold!

Move indoor activities outdoors. As long as temperatures and clothing allow, your family can move the indoor fun outside. Got a game table? Move it to the roof, stoop, or yard and have the next family game session outdoors. Crafting at the kitchen table? Put your supplies in a laundry basket or box, take them outside, then flip the basket or box to make a table. Voila—crafts al fresco! Every little change is a lesson on how to adapt, too!

But I have to work! Yep, we hear you. So, if you can’t transport all of your kids’ activities outside, get creative about moving the outdoors in by letting in fresh air and natural light, playing nature sounds, or making nature treasures available for play. And, try to schedule in  pre- and post-work outdoor time for the whole family—it’ll help grownups stay calm and focused if they can  get out and play, too! 

Honestly, I just don’t feel comfortable going outside right now. While the benefits of outdoor time can go a long way in helping us weather this emotional storm, we also want to acknowledge that for some folks, it still doesn’t feel doable. If that’s the case for your family, we’d encourage you to do all you can to keep those benefits in your lives with our tips on bringing nature into your indoor experiences.

For more inspiration, sign up for Tinkergarten at Home at tinkergarten.com/athome to get weekly DIY activities that are inspired by nature but doable anywhere. Or join us on Facebook or Instagram for updates on how to experience Tinkergarten this summer.

Photo: Shaiza Zahid

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