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16 TIPS FOR GETTING OUTSIDE: How Families, Schools and Communities can Make the Most of Nature

About the Author

Kathy Ambrosini is Director of Education at the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, N.Y. and has over 25 years of experience in the field of environmental education. She is also the originator of the NatureAccess® program, begun in 1994 to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in outdoor activities and programming. In 2006, Kathy received the Beyond the Letter of the Law award for her commitment in providing access to environmental education and the outdoors from the Resource Center for Accessible Living.

Here are some tips and tricks to help you and your family – even your community – make the most of what’s just beyond the doorway. At the Mohonk Preserve in New York’s Hudson Valley, people and nature thrive in a setting with more than 8,000 acres of mountain ridges, forests, fields, streams, ponds, and other unique natural features.  Here, 165,000 visitors each year enjoy world class scenery while they hike, run, mountain bike, horseback ride, rock climb and cross-country ski, all just 90 miles from New York City.  The Preserve’s programs in environmental education, conservation science, land stewardship and land protection make this a special place where people can really get into nature and reap the benefits of time spent outdoors.

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Tips for improving your quality and quantity of time spent outdoors

For families with a wide range of abilities, here are a few tips for spending time together in nature.

  • For young children, the most seemingly insignificant things can be awesome. Finding a cricket, an acorn or a colored leaf becomes a magical event. All it takes is to step outside your door and explore.
  • Plan a playdate at a nearby nature center or park. Let the kids discover what live under rocks, logs or up in the trees. Build a fort. No equipment necessary!
  • You plan your family’s sports games, long weekends and vacations in advance, so why not plan a nature-based outing? Spend next weekend on a family hike at a park you haven’t yet visited. Block out time now and you’ll feel better later.
  • Have children in organized sports? Talk to their coaches about holding that end-of-the-season pizza party at the local park, where kids and their families can move around, get some fresh air and take in the sounds and sights of nature.
  • Change it up this Thanksgiving! Invite family to come early for a pre-feast walk. Those who stay overnight can join you for a walk at a neighborhood preserve in the morning.
  • Get out of the gym and into nature. Consider taking a portion of your exercise routine outdoors and biking, hiking or snowshoeing together at a local preserve or nature center.
  • Bring your next birthday, anniversary or family reunion into nature. Many nature centers offer indoor and outdoor spaces for your special event.

Tips for what schools can do.

Wouldn’t it be great if schools could reduce problem behaviors while increasing focus and academic achievement, without stretching tax-payers’ wallets?

  • No extra certification required! Sunshine is a well-known antidote to depression and time outdoors can be successful in reducing anxiety, impulsivity and hyperactivity.
  • Schools can set the expectation that lesson plans will allow for flexibility to take students outside whenever possible to reap these benefits. Whether it’s a class in health, math, English, science or art, changing the teaching setting alone can enliven a class and spark greater discussion and participation.
  • Green settings, sunlight and natural surroundings minimize school avoidance and other negative and disruptive behaviors.
  • Make your case for field trips easier by partnering with a local preserve or nature center to jointly develop programs based on the teaching standards. Take advantage of those aspects of the curriculum that are best taught outdoors and start small, perhaps with one grade level.

Tips for what communities can do.

  • Use your community’s natural features to boost visitation. Place welcome boards or kiosks where visitors arrive and/or park, and well-placed interpretive panels leading them through town to encourage visitors to slow down, observe what’s around them and notice what’s unique about this place.
  • Offer something for all ages and abilities for local residents and visitors. Town projects could include linking the town square to nearby bike and walking trails, landscaping with shade trees and providing benches at resting intervals.
  • Choose sites for community events that are outdoors wherever possible, with accessible parking and paths and programs that are designed with inclusion in mind.
  • Partner with a park or nature center to get seasonal information on what’s happening locally with nature in your area.
  • Provide individuals with connections to local sites where they can get outdoors and observe the beauty of each season on their own.

Photo credit: Betty Boomer

Additional reading:

Accessible Outdoors

Families and the Great Outdoors

Bring Down the Barriers! Five Reasons for Nature-Deficit Disorder

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