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The simplicity of it all...you fill your backpack with a bottle of water or a CamelBak, snacks, and a first aid kit. You put on a good pair of socks and some hiking boots and off you go. You are ready to soak up some sun and go in a meditative trance listening to the songs of Texas birds, the caressing sounds of a creek nearby or the soothing breeze that rescues you from the infamous Texas heat. Now try doing that with kids!

We all know how positive being outdoors can be on the mind, body and soul. Increasingly, humans have succumbed to the comforts of urban living, living in a 68-72 F degree bubble inside our homes and workplaces, constantly connected to our smartphones, tablets or whatever new shiny object has hit the store shelves. This seclusion stumps our intellectual desire and originality, and makes us sicker, physically and emotionally. The saddest part of this is that our children emulate our behaviors. With each generation, our kids adapt more to this pattern of living, making them less adept to survival. It saddens me when I visit a local, state or national park and my children are the only young ones there. I rarely hear children playing in their backyards other than my own. I then get to see those same non-outdoorsy kids as patients in my pediatric urgent care clinic complaining of a variety of ailments: headaches, abdominal pain, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, obesity...and the list continues.

My observations have troubled me for some time. Since reading "Last Child in The Woods" by Richard Louv in 2005, I have made it a priority not only for my kids to spend as much time outdoors as possible, but to "prescribe nature" for my patients when they are depressed or anxious. This summer's WMS Virtual Conference lecture on the topic “Bambinos in the Backcountry" by Dr. Christopher Peluso only confirmed that my approach was not unreasonable. I am convinced that if we encouraged our children to be outdoors more, our world would be a better place. There is nothing to be proud of when the U.S. ranks highest among developed nations in teen pregnancies, obesity and homicides. Perhaps a regular short hike may be the cure for that malady.

Being in the wilderness as a child gives them a better life. It teaches them resilience. It promotes creativity. It shows them how to meditate and blow off steam. It instructs them on how to navigate and survive. It makes them aware of the importance to take care of and respect their environment. It is crucial to get them started as early as possible so they see nature as their friend.

I am the first to say it is not easy: "I'm tired"..."I'm hungry"..."I'm bored"...may plague your outing but it is no reason to stop. Here are some tips, but I disclose they are not foolproof.

  1. Early exposure is crucial, but it has to be done slow and steady. Deciding last minute if you want to take your one year old to Big Bend National Park on his or her first hiking or camping trip is not the way to go! Start simple: Camp in your car or backyard, show them outdoor toileting (easier said than done), eat camp foods at home, and hike the local trails. Remember, it is easier to correct mistakes at home or near your home than in the wild. If you need to cut your adventure short, no worries! When your child is ready, let the real planning begin!
  2. Set realistic expectations: Discomfort is part of the process, but putting your child in danger is not. A good rule of thumb is that children can hike one mile for each year of life. A lot of stops and gos are perfectly acceptable! Older children can carry backpacks that weigh up to 15-20% their body weight, just like adults can, but they need to practice...just like adults should.
  3. Make the experience fun: Trail games can make a long arduous walk into a positive experience. Play the alphabet game and have your child name one animal, fruit or vegetable for each letter of the alphabet, sing songs, or practice silence. For the older kids, you can use the time to investigate and learn some history on the area. On rest times, allow the child to be free. Their short attention span is not made for walking one hour without rest. Let them explore that rock, get their feet wet in the creek, or touch that tree. At nighttime, have a cool "almost scary story." If you don't know any, listen to the REI podcast "Camp Monsters" for ideas or just make something up. Even better, have your child make something up!
  4. Kids need gear too...don't be cheap! Get them their own water bottle, CamelBak, whistle, and jacket. Buy them hiking-appropriate shoes. The worn down school shoes will only lead to hot spots, blisters and more complaining. Plus, there is no kid in the world that doesn't like new shoes. That alone will get them pumped and ready to go!
  5. Make them feel responsible: They can do dishes, dry clothes if wet, pitch a tent, take care of the snacks, or even better, be the leader of the group. Use that time to teach them personal safety such as navigation skills and survival tips, while keeping constant visual contact to avoid harm.
  6. Let them eat: Kids do not and should not pace themselves. They need fuel. You probably don't remember you had 15 snacks a day (some of you may still do). Let them eat and drink water ad lib. Not only will they not be "hangry,” but it will make everyone's experience so much more positive.
  7. Don't say no: Every time you tell your child "No" or "There is no time for that," it is a negative experience. Isn't the whole point of the journey to relax? You need to apply that concept to yourself.

If anything has taught me of our innate need to connect with nature, it's been the current COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot forget that the best social distancing activity is right in all of our backyards. It is our duty to enable our children to develop a close bond with nature so they understand that touching a leaf or a tree is a lot more fulfilling than looking at that glass screen.

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