Refresh Your Life

Category: Educational (Page 1 of 2)

5 Ways Parents Can Save the Planet

The boys pick up trash along the river.

I will admit to feeling more than a little apprehensive these past few months. If anything will make you more political, it’s becoming a parent. Suddenly I’m not just invested in decisions about my own life. I’m worried about a whole generation from now.

It’s hard to know where to start with affecting any change at all. We’ve been talking a lot in our house about love and letting the love inside our hearts be more powerful than other feelings. These are things my small children can understand.

But talking about the very real and very imminent threats to our environment is a little harder. How do I tell them that I’m worried for the earth they will inherit? How do I tell them that the planet they grow up on and pass on to their own children is less rich, less diverse, and less wild than the one I enjoyed when I was little? And do I tell them that it’s our fault?

There are hundreds of ways that we can affect positive change for the environment every day. But the single most important change we can affect as parents is the generation we raise. If we want to save the planet, we need to raise children who will speak up for it, take action, and stand against the destruction of natural resources.

Saving the planet isn’t going to be easy. Head over to Parent.co to read my recent article, 5 Ways Parents Can Save the Planet.

365Outside on TV

Recently, I had the honor of being interviewed for our local cable channel, Cape Ann TV. Follow the link below to hear what I had to say about 365Outside!

365Outside on the Cape Ann Report

5 Simple Ways to Celebrate the Supermoon

A full moon walk last winter.

A full moon walk last winter.

If you follow us regularly, you know how we feel about full moons. Every month (errr . . . lunar cycle) the boys eagerly await the night of the full moon because with it comes our family’s tradition of a full moon walk before bed. Whether we can see the moon or not, out we go to celebrate it.

On November 13 and 14, we’ll be treated to a particularly rare and beautiful “supermoon”. Read on to learn about what causes a supermoon and how you can enjoy it together as a family.

What is a Moon Cycle?

Lunar Cycle Diagram

Lunar Cycle Diagram

You may already be familiar with the basics of the moon cycle, but just to review, the moon orbits the earth every 27.3 days. As the moon orbits the earth, one half of it is always illuminated by the sun, just as one half of the earth is always illuminated by the sun (the side of the earth experiencing daylight). Here on earth, we cannot always see the part of the moon that is illuminated and the part of the moon that we can see changes slightly each night according to its location relative to the sun. During most of its cycle we see just part of the moon’s illuminated side and part of the shadowed side. When we see a crescent moon, we are actually seeing just a small bit of the side that’s illuminated and the remainder of the shadowed side (which we can’t distinguish from darkness so far away). Check out the Lunar Cycle Diagram to get a better idea of how this works.

What is a Supermoon?


Moon’s Orbit Diagram

But wait, there’s more! The moon’s orbit isn’t exactly round. Although it is depicted as perfectly circular in most diagrams (including the one above), the moon’s orbit is actually almost elliptical – meaning it’s more of an oval shape. This is true of all orbits due to variations in gravitational pull, initial velocity of the orbiting bodies, and any other disturbances such as collisions. Because of this, the moon’s distance from earth varies between approximately 357,000 kilometers (222,000 mi) and 406,000 km (252,000 mi). The moon’s location closest to earth is called perigee while its location furthest from earth is called apogee. See the Moon’s Orbit Diagram for a visual.

When a full moon occurs at the perigee, it is often referred to as a Supermoon. These moons appear 13% larger and shine 30% brighter than a typical full moon. The Supermoon we will experience next week is the closest full moon we’ve experienced since 1948 and a full moon won’t be this close again until 2034. That means this is the closest full moon in a period of 86 years!

How Can We Celebrate?

The moon rises over the bay.

The moon rises over the bay.

Full Moon Walk

Our family celebrates the full moon by going for a walk before bedtime. We do this not just for Supermoons, but every full moon, regardless of the weather and visibility. Next week, rather than walking down our street, we will go someplace special to walk by moonlight.

Aside from the full moon walk, here are some other great ideas to mark this special lunar event:


Did you have a stressful month? We sure did. Between The Captain transitioning to a new rotation on his tugboat, the melancholy of days getting shorter, and the presidential election (I can’t even go there yet), this past month has seemed far from peaceful around here. Buddhists mark the full moon with a day of spiritual focus, meditating and keeping away from worldly distractions. Historically, ancient sages have advised the same thing – to take time on the full moon day to relax your mind and devote time to spiritual development.

If you’ve felt the emotional weight of the past month heavy on your shoulders, take some time under the full moon to be present in the moment. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and you don’t need to have any experience with meditation. Just go outside, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and focus on breathing and clearing your mind. Try taking a deep breath in through your nose, holding it for a moment, and exhaling through your mouth. Let your mind clear and allow yourself to be present in the moment. This can be hard for kids, but even young children can attempt it. Challenge a child to sit quietly and soak up the moon’s beauty for the same number of minutes as their age.


Full moons are, not surprisingly, a symbol of fullness. They mark the highest of high tides and many believe they spark the height of creativity and power. One of our favorite ways to release this fullness is through dance. When our house gets too crazy, too loud, and too full, we put on some music and we dance. It’s often a raucous party with the kids quite literally bouncing off the walls, but when it’s over they are tired and subdued, at least for a moment. Try having your own dance party outside under the moon. Choose whatever music feels right to you and dance with wild abandon.

Bring the light inside

Full moons bring light to an otherwise dark place. One of the reasons we love our full moon walks so much is that the night is normally a time of darkness when we can’t easily enjoy the same places that we do during the day. The full moon helps us to see that there’s nothing to be afraid of after the sun goes down. As a symbol of your appreciation, light a candle outside under the moon, then bring it inside with you. Try having bath time or stories by the light of your candle. There is something simple and peaceful about enjoying everyday activities by the light of a candle’s flickering glow.

Read a moon story

There are many beautiful books about the moon. Goodnight Moon is a staple of many bedtimes, but the list goes on from there. Here are some of our favorites:

Wings Across the Moon by Linda Hargrove

The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson

Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop

If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

In our house, bedtime stories are a way of winding down and enjoying each other’s company before bed. We snuggle up in a cozy spot and read together before turning off the lights to continue with some songs. Moon stories are a great way to cap off the night of a full moon, and even better if you decide to enjoy them outside, under the moon.

This month’s full moon is definitely one for the ages. How will you mark the occasion with your family?

The boys watch the full moon across the water on Christmas 2015.

Check Out Our List of 20 Outdoor Family Traditions!

Headlamps on for some pj-clad explorations under the full moon.

Headlamps on for some pj-clad explorations under the full moon.

“On the surface, family traditions are a fun and exciting way to create memories together. But on a deeper level, traditions reinforce a family’s identity, foster togetherness, teach family values and provide comfort and security. Families that create traditions centered on nature reinforce for their children the importance of time spent outdoors. And the results are long-lasting on two levels. First, children who spent time in nature growing up show higher levels of maturity and lower levels of aggression as teens. And second, teens who participate in positive and mutually-agreed upon family rituals report higher levels of self esteem.”

Head on over to Parent.co to read our list of 20 Family Traditions That Will Teach Your Kids To Love Nature!

The 365Outside Guide to The Perseid Meteor Shower

I watched my first meteor shower in college. We loaded into a friend’s car, stocked up on snacks and drinks that we weren’t old enough to enjoy, and drove up a mountain to camp out and watch the shooting stars. It was cold and we didn’t see much, but I was hooked on the experience.

Since then, I’ve learned that shooting stars are anything but their namesake. Meteor showers actually occur when the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, passes through trails of debris left behind by comets. When this debris enters Earth’s atmosphere it burns up and leaves behind the streaks of light that many refer to as “shooting stars.”

A meteor streaks across the sky.

A meteor streaks across the sky.

The Perseid meteor shower – owing its name to the constellation Perseus from which it appears to fly out of – occurs annually each August and is an ongoing event. The Earth has actually been passing through it since July 17 and it will continue until August 24. The Perseid meteor shower is made up of tiny pieces that have broken off from the Swift-Tuttle comet which orbits the sun once every 133 years and is the largest object known to regularly pass by Earth.This month’s meteor shower will be one of the biggest of the year and it is forecast to be the most impressive Perseid meteor shower in 20 years when it peaks around August 12.

Camping beneath a meteor shower outburst - could it get any dreamier?

Camping beneath a meteor shower outburst – could it get any dreamier?

In a recent news release, NASA’s meteor expert Bill Cooke predicted that this year’s Perseid meteor shower will feature an “outburst” in which the meteors will appear at double the usual rates. This unusual outburst is thanks to the gravitational pull of Jupiter which has pulled some extra debris into the path of the Earth this year.

For your best chance at viewing this awesome celestial event, here are some top tips:

  1. Avoid as much light pollution as possible. Find a dark place, away from artificial lights for your best shot at maximizing your view. To really absorb the experience, try to get outside at least 20 minutes before the peak so that your eyes have time to adjust to the low light and are more able to pick out the meteors above.
  2. Image courtesy of http://www.astronomytrek.com/interesting-facts-about-the-constellation-perseus/

    Image courtesy of http://www.astronomytrek.com/interesting-facts-about-the-constellation-perseus/

    Look for the Perseus constellation. This constellation rises at roughly 10pm local time. In the northern hemisphere, it rises in the northeast sky during August and descends into the northwest, following the constellation Cassiopeia. The Perseid shower can also be viewed from the southern hemisphere though it will not be as visible. You do not need to find the constellation to catch the show since the meteors will streak across the sky in every direction, but they will all originate from a point near Perseus.

  3. Go out sometime after midnight and watch for at least an hour. The moon will be setting by midnight, meaning meteors will be more visible. This, combined with the pattern that the Perseid shower typically peaks between midnight and dawn, will mean that your best chance for an impressive show will be sometime between midnight and 4AM. Be patient and stick it out to increase your odds even further.
  4. Look for the most impressive show between August 11-13. Most predictions agree that the absolute peak with up to 200 meteors per hour should occur in the early morning hours of August 12. But the show should be good anywhere in this window, whether you catch the “outburst” or not.
  5. If all else fails or the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can count on NASA. Tune in to the NASA Perseid meteor shower feed beginning Thursday at 10PM ET and continuing through the early hours of Friday morning. Check out the briefing from NASA above for more information.

I plan to get up and watch at some point Saturday night, when we’re out on the boat. It may not be the peak, but I think we’ll avoid most of the light pollution that way. If it’s a good show I’ll wake the boys and share the experience with them. Fingers crossed!

How To Wander the Woods With Very Young Children

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

When I first sat down to write about hiking with the kids, I drew an absolute blank. I felt totally unqualified and unprepared to dole out any advice about the topic and, dare I say, I actually felt completely uninspired by it. I know, I know – I felt uninspired by the idea of hiking outside with my kids??! Who am I and why so glum, chum?

But then I flipped my thinking. I realized that whenever I ask my kids if they want to go for a hike (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a hike, whether they like it or not), there is immediate pushback. They never want to go. In their minds, hiking is an arduous task. It’s work to get from one place to another. It is strenuous activity for relatively little in return. Yet when I ask them if they’d like to go for a walk (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a walk, whether they like it or not), they are always game. They help me choose where we’re going. They want to pack snacks and water bottles. They want to know if the dog can come, or if we can bring friends. They are excited. They are clamoring at the door while I finish getting our things together. And that’s exactly the flip my thinking needed.

Hiking, with my very young children, is in fact not pleasurable. If we leave the house with the sole objective to start on foot in one place and end on foot in another place, I am most definitely starting off on the WRONG foot. I am setting myself up for failure.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

But when we go for a walk, or even better yet, a wander in the woods, we are infinitely more happy. When the kids set the pace and the agenda, we all have more fun. That’s not to say we never make it anywhere. It’s just to say I can’t ever count on us making it somewhere specific and if we do, it’s never within a predetermined timeframe.

Later this year, the Captain is hoping to take Junior on a backpacking trip. Just to remind you, Junior is still four years old. And though he isn’t a super-enthusiastic hiker (YET), we think he will actually love being out there, making his own progress and carrying his own gear, if we frame the experience correctly. First, we are going to try to coordinate with some friends so that he has some positive peer pressure to help him along. Next, we are framing it as a privilege. Backpacking is something that can only be done when you prove you’re ready for it. You have to be able to walk a couple miles with a pack on your back. You have to put in some work to reap your rewards. You have to be physically and emotionally strong enough to keep up. In short, you have to be a big kid.

Obviously, having just turned three, Little Bear isn’t there yet. He’s still at the meandering-through-the-woods phase. Which is just fine. Sometimes we have to meet our kids right where they are. And so, for Little Bear and little people like him, here are my top 3 tips for hiking wandering the woods with very young children.

  1. Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Bring plentiful snacks. This is pretty much my top tip for anything with kids. Skiing? Bring snacks. Sailing? Bring snacks. Hitting the beach? Taking a road trip? Sticking your head out the window to check if it’s raining? Always bring snacks. There will come a time when you will be running out the door for a very quick errand or simple stroll to get the mail and you will fool yourself into thinking it’s okay to not bring snacks, but you will be wrong. Very, very wrong.

  2. You may set a target destination or a target timeframe, but never set both. If you’re trying to get somewhere specific, allow all the time your kids want to take. And believe me, that will be ages. Epochs even. Or, if you know you don’t have several days to wander the woods, set a timeframe and confine your explorations to areas that are easily accessible. That is to say, don’t wander off deeply into the woods only to find your time expired and your car two miles away. Murphy’s Law says that this will happen every time, and that your child will then either take four times as long to return to the car, or will need to poop immediately.

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, go ahead and stop, discover and observe right alongside them!

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, let them!

  3. Don’t push it. Go in with low expectations, and let your kids set the pace. Instead of walking ahead of them, follow along behind. When they stop to look at something, stop to look at it with them. If they are tired or uncomfortable or hungry, listen. If they are fussy, ask yourself if they could be tired or uncomfortable or hungry. It is usually one of the three, and all can be fixed. Stay one step ahead of them in preparations, but one step behind in pace. Your patience will be rewarded.

Have you wandered the woods with the very young people in your life lately?

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.


In The Moment, He Could Have Drowned

Suddenly I looked down and Little Bear was underneath me, swirling in the murky depth of the hot tub. His eyes were open and wild. Panicked. I reached down with one arm and fished him out. He came up feisty and screaming. He was scared and latched on to my neck, clinging with bony arms around me as he wailed.

Both boys play at the beach in their Coast Guard approved Puddle Jumper lifejackets.

Both boys play at the beach in their Coast Guard approved Puddle Jumper lifejackets.

I often reflect here about the importance of letting my kids experience failure (sometimes even when it hurts) and about my general let-them-run-wild approach to parenting. But I actually do consider myself a very SAFE parent. I like to think that through my experiences in education and particularly as an experiential educator, I have above average awareness of our environment and its potential risks. We let our kids take all sorts of chances, but we do so knowingly and we take precautions to minimize risks. We also teach our kids about the risks around them. I recently read an interview with National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Tommy Caldwell in which he says about raising his son, “prepare him for the path; not prepare the path for him.” And that rings true for me. We create an environment in which our kids can fail without dire consequences, and then we let them learn from it so that they can move forward more confidently and more safely in the future. We’ve got this.

But while we were on vacation, Little Bear could have drowned. I won’t say he almost did because he wasn’t even coughing afterwards, but there was a moment where I saw so clearly how it could happen. It was so quick and it was so quiet. At the time I brushed it off as no big deal, just another childhood rite of passage. We laughed about it later that day, this crazy fearless little kid, always such a handful, giving us a run for our money. It was the kind of thing that happens all the time. But I am still thinking about it almost two months later so here I am, putting it in writing where I purge the toxins that my mind can’t process.

Little Bear in the hotel pool, wearing his Puddle Jumper.

Little Bear in the hotel pool, wearing his Puddle Jumper.

Our hotel had a small pool and a hot tub. Every afternoon after the boys woke from naps, we’d head for the water. The pool was on the colder side and both boys were their usual cautious selves at first when it came to getting in. They’d splash around the edge for a while, dipping toes in and giggling at the chill. Junior can swim on his own now, so he would eventually swim from one side to another and Little Bear would follow suit with his Puddle Jumper on. The hot tub, though, was a new commodity. Neither boy had ever been in one. And since it was really only lukewarm, it was easy to get right in.

Both boys standing on the seat of the hot tub earlier on our trip.

Both boys standing on the seat of the hot tub earlier on our trip.

One afternoon towards the end of our stay, when I thought we’d all figured out the whole water safety thing, I got into the hot tub and Little Bear hopped in right beside me, which was unusual since he is almost always very cautious around the water. I guess he had grown more confident during our stay. He was standing on the seat and I told him, “Remember, you don’t have your floatie on. You can stand here, but you can’t go in the middle. You will sink.” When I said it, I thought that maybe he actually would slip off the seat, and being that I was sitting right next to him I’d grab him just as his head went under. And there we’d both be, lesson learned. But instead of squirming around in his typical fashion and slipping off the seat, he just stood on the seat for a long time, elbows propped on the tiles around the edge of the tub. He was deep in thought or he was tired or he was just having a moment. He stood there so still for so long that I became too comfortable with him being there, without a floatie on. I had a false sense of security. I almost forgot he was there.

Little Bear splashes at the beach in his lifejacket last summer.

Little Bear splashes at the beach in his lifejacket last summer.

I reached for my camera. The bag was beside the hot tub so I didn’t even need to get out of the water. He was beside me, within arms reach. He could have put a hand out and grabbed me. I only needed to shift my body and turn my shoulders slightly to reach my camera. I pulled it out of the case. I took the lens cap off and looked through the viewfinder to check the autofocus which had been acting up. I took a picture of the view.

And when I turned back, he was gone. He was underwater, swirling around and around, his panicked, pleading eyes staring up at me. I fished him out. It could not have been more than a few seconds. I held him while he cried and I felt my chest collapse with the knowledge that it could happen just like that. Beside me. Silently. What if I had decided to change the lenses? What if Junior had yelled, “Look at me, Mama!” What if. What if.

I write this now because we learn from our own stories and from the stories of our friends. If we can’t learn from the mistakes of others, our own growth only comes from our own mistakes. Don’t let that happen. Let my mistake be the catalyst for your change.

Junior wading in a tidepool, wearing his lifejacket last summer.

Junior wading in a tidepool, wearing his lifejacket last summer.

Put your child’s life jacket on EVERY SINGLE TIME they are near the water. I thought I could trust Little Bear but I should have never put that kind of trust in a two-year-old. The only way to keep your child safe around the water is to fit him or her with an appropriate life preserver and use it every time. Little Bear was fine. He didn’t swallow any water and he was back to swimming in just a minute. But I’d be selling us short if I let that be the end of it.

Drowning is silent and quick and it can happen right beside you when you turn away for just a moment. There wasn’t even a splash.

I thought it couldn’t happen to us, but I don’t think that anymore.


For more about water safety, click here.

To learn more about what drowning really looks like (and it doesn’t look how it does on TV), read this.

Is Contentment the Enemy of Adventure?

If we’re going to talk about work-life balance, I have to start out with the honest truth. I do not work outside the home. To some, that probably removes me from the conversation immediately. I am a stay-at-home mom who tries to do some writing on the side and holds down the fort here full time. That said I have two rambunctious little boys, aged 3 and 4, and my husband is a full-time tugboat captain which means he is often at sea. His current schedule has him gone Monday-Friday and we are grateful to spend the weekends together, but he leaves the house at 4:30AM on Mondays and doesn’t get home again until 7:00PM on Fridays. During the week it is just me and the kids, day in and day out. His previous schedule had him at sea roughly half the year; his current one is more variable. In any case, like all stay-at-home moms I am busy. I am not doing morning yoga and drinking smoothies on the couch. But, I also thought I was doing plenty for myself.

Some days after the kids are in bed, I will take a nice, long soak in a hot bath. Sometimes when they both nap in the afternoon, I will drink a cup of tea and watch a Gilmore Girls rerun. I’ve also helped myself by raising the boys to enjoy the same things that I do, so that we can all go on long walks through the woods or farm fields.

Sailing with Junior on the wooden boat that we owned before Little Bear was born.

Sailing with Junior on the wooden boat that we owned before Little Bear was born.

In my mind, these were the things keeping me sane. They brought a great deal of contentment to my everyday life. But, though they made me content, they didn’t bring me a ton of real joy. I had lost touch with the things that thrilled me, the things that made me throw my head back in hearty laughter, the experiences that left me so exhilarated that I could only grin and shake my head afterwards. There was no excitement.

We were content, but were we too content?

In many ways contentment is the enemy of adventure. It’s easy to find contentment in the everyday, mundane comforts of daily life. My morning coffee before the boys wake up, steaming hot and cloaked in the warmth of my boys quietly sleeping upstairs. Stealing an hour to exercise and shower, boys playing with their legos or watching an episode of Wild Kratts in the next room. Taking the dog for a long walk on a rainy day. Drinking tea while snow falls gently on our skylight. Spending a day at home without accomplishing much of anything. It’s so simple. It’s so easy. We are so content.

But with the purchase of our new boat, we’ve plunged headlong into a different kind of joy. It’s the sheerness of being on the edge of our dreams. It’s the excitement of working towards something, dreaming about it and taking the first big concrete step towards reality. It’s the fear of knowing you’re financially invested and that you’ll only get one shot. It’s the fear of unknown challenges ahead and the adrenaline rush of running towards them instead of away.

Our boat, formerly named Deja Vu, launches.

Our boat, formerly named Deja Vu, launches.

We launched the boat last week and took delivery of it this weekend. It was in many ways the opposite of how I’d imagined it. The weather was cold, damp and windy. We hadn’t bent the sails on yet, so we couldn’t sail but instead motored into a bumpy seaway, me on the helm and the Captain wrestling canvas into place up forward. We shivered in the cockpit as the wind nipped our ears. Though it had been almost 90 degrees the day before, I layered on three fleeces and a raincoat and the wind still got through. Down below, the boys were nestled into bunks, bundled in sleeping bags, napping to the rhythmic hum of our engine.

Little Bear asleep in his bunk.

Little Bear asleep in his bunk.

Junior asleep in his bunk.

Junior asleep in his bunk.






Finally underway on our new boat!

Finally underway on our new boat!

When we arrived at our mooring just a few hours later, it suddenly became just as I had imagined. The Captain got into the dinghy to attach the mooring pennants and I motored the boat around, standing by for him to wave me closer. For just a few minutes, it was just me at the helm and the boys down below sleeping. It brought me such joy to have that moment, where I was doing something that I used to do routinely that brings me such pure happiness, and I was doing it by myself with my children sleeping quietly in their bunks. A wave of relief washed over me. I’ve still got it, I was thinking as a grin plastered itself across my face and I pulled our boat up to the mooring. As I shut the engine off, the boys woke. Junior asked what was next and when we told him we’d go ashore, retrieve our cars and pick up dinner on the way home, he cried. “I want to stay here.” His eyes brimmed with tears. When we told him again that we needed to go get the cars, he pleaded, “Can we come back in the morning? Can we have breakfast here?”

You know it's sheer joy when I start snapping selfies.

You know it’s sheer joy when I start snapping selfies.

Sheer joy swelled in me. I was afraid the boys wouldn’t be able to nap onboard. When they did, i was afraid they’d wake seasick or grumpy or cold. I was afraid they would hate it. But they napped soundly and woke begging for more. They love the boat possibly as much as their parents do. They want more.

And that brings me sheer joy. We have the whole summer ahead of us. Adventures line the horizon. We haven’t fallen victim to the comfort of contentment. We are just getting started.

Outward bound on the S/V Little Wing.

Outward bound on the S/V Little Wing.

Adventure’s Fine Line: Balancing Safety and Freedom Outdoors

The boys run wild with a friend. This may look chaotic to some but in reality it's a carefully considered balance.

The boys run wild with a friend. This may look chaotic to some but in reality it’s a carefully considered balance.

What does free play look like in a natural setting? Is it really and truly free? How do we keep kids safe while letting them push the limits and immerse themselves in their own world?

Junior scaling an apple tree while Little Bear practices his leaps below.

Junior scaling an apple tree while Little Bear practices his leaps below.

Junior is perched on a tree branch, leaning from side to side as he hums the sound of a buzzing propellor plane. He dodges imaginary projectiles, adding sound affects. On the ground not far away Little Bear, knees muddy and face smeared, is stacking logs and chattering away in a crackly deep voice, enacting both sides of a conversation between himself and “Worker Man.” With much fanfare, Junior tumbles to the soft dirt below, then rolls down a slope dramatically, his hair gathering hay as he goes. Little Bear glances up, then joins him in the dizzying descent. They are rolling, rolling, rolling down a gently sloping field of hay and dandelions. Soon they are laughing loudly in a heap of marsh grass and mud, hair matted and hands caked.

To the kids, this feels completely and utterly free. To the bystander, it looks like complete chaos. To me, it is the perfect balance and all within the bounds of carefully developed rules that we play by when we’re exploring outside.

Setting kids loose in nature can be intimidating, especially if it’s something that you’re not used to. But free play isn’t entirely free. By setting reasonable limits and creating logical rules, kids can explore freely and have a positive experience without feeling restricted or bound by arbitrary limits. Because our rules are based in logic that is easily explained to them, the kids rarely question them. They aren’t just rules governed by adults; they are rules governed by nature.

Here are eight rules we play by when we’re free playing outdoors.

  1. We are guests here. When we explore the forest or the beach or the park or a meadow, we are exploring a living habitat. All sorts of creatures big and small make their homes in these places and when we’re here, we’re guests. We don’t have to leave everything exactly as we found it, but if we don’t, we should leave it a little better than before. We might gather fallen leaves and sticks to build a fairy house for others to discover. We might simply pick up some trash and pack it out to the parking lot dumpster with us when we go. Sometimes we clear fallen brush off a walking path. Other times we delicately leave everything exactly as we found it. However we change the environment we’re in, it should somehow be for the benefit of others.

    Junior's sheer glee at watching a snake in the leaves.

    Junior’s sheer glee at watching a snake in the leaves.

  2. Know your neighbors. Because we are guests in these habitats, it’s our job to know who we’re visiting. Teach your children to identify any hazardous insects, snakes, or other animals likely to live here and make sure they know what to do if they encounter one. Similarly, teach them to avoid plants like poison ivy or stinging nettles. Kids who know the potential risks in their environment aren’t just more likely to avoid them; they’re also more confident in exploring their environment independently.
  3. The playful shrieks should be distinctly different from a scream indicating real trouble.

    The playful shrieks should be distinctly different from a scream indicating real trouble.

    Yelling and screaming means something is wrong or about to go wrong. This may sound overbearing when you want to let your kids go wild, but there is a difference between the sort of gleeful yipping that I often hear in the woods from my boys and the fierce shouting that signals a real problem. The only reason to really truly scream is if there is an emergency or we need to get someone’s attention urgently. Of course there are occasional exceptions to this rule, like when we take the boat under a bridge and shout to hear our voices echo or when we howl at a full moon. But generally, everyone in the group should be on the same page and understand that yelling signals something important. This way, if I hear screaming through the woods, I know to respond quickly. Likewise if the boys hear me shout, they know to pay attention as someone’s safety may depend on it.

    Junior sees some storm clouds approaching.

    Junior sees some storm clouds approaching.

  4. Keep an eye to the sky. Always know what kind of weather to expect for the day and plan accordingly. Even with the best laid plans, know that weather can change suddenly and teach your children to be aware of the subtle signs that storms could be brewing. Be aware of changes in wind strength and direction. In addition to feeling the wind, teach kids to watch for the wind in trees and across water. Identify different cloud types and know which signal approaching storms. General awareness of their surroundings will come more and more naturally for them the more they experience a changing environment.
  5. Three different approaches to scaling a rock.

    Three different approaches to scaling a rock.

    Climb it yourself, or don’t climb it at all. Want to climb? Great. I’m not helping. This one sounds a little harsh at first but it’s a good way to create self-enforcing boundaries. I’m not crazy about the idea of my kids scaling piles of logs or scurrying up slippery rock slopes and I know there will be times when they will fall. But rather than constantly scurrying around after them, trying to be there to catch them when they do, I make sure they aren’t too high to start with by only allowing them to climb things that they can climb on their own. Need a boost to get started up that tree? Nope, sorry. Want a hand shimmying up that boulder? You’re on your own. I’m happy to act as coach and I often do, but when it comes to offering a physical boost, they know I’m not there to help. If they can’t get up on their own, they’ll need to wait until they’re a little taller or a little stronger and try again.

  6. Stay close. Now that the boys are getting a little older, I’m not so worried about having my eyes on them every second while they explore, but I do need to know that they’re close. When we’re in the woods and they are wandering around on their own, we agree on physical boundaries before they set off. It could be the creek, the trail, or a ridge line. The same goes for when we are on the beach, though sometimes here it’s easiest to literally draw a line in the sand at the furthest acceptable point. If we are going to be in one place for several days as when we’re camping, I use fluorescent flagging tape on trees to mark limits. Just make sure to remove it before you go.

    The kids watched some older children building a lean-to and decided to build there own.

    The kids watched some older children building a lean-to and decided to build there own.

  7. Sticks are tools, not weapons, and as with all tools, they come with responsibilities. What is it with kids and sticks? My boys are drawn to them like pigs to mud. No even better, kids to mud. Long, short, fat, thin, green or rotting, they don’t discern. But we draw the line at using sticks as weapons. No sword fights. No light sabers. No jousting. Sticks are great tools for hiking and building. Sometimes the boys pretend they’re hammers and hit them mightily against tree stumps or rocks. Sometimes they use them for building shelters. But we never use them for fighting and we have to be smart with them. We don’t run with sticks, we don’t swing them near other people, and the only reason we lug around a stick bigger than our arm is to build with it.
  8. Know when to ask for help. Tell kids to trust their gut and if something feels wrong or scary, ask for help. Teach children to find their caregiver if they or someone else is hurt, sad or scared. Also teach them to tell a grownup if they see something that could hurt them, like broken glass or a hornets nest.
The core of childhood.

The core of childhood.

Free play outside has amazing benefits for kids of all ages. By creating logical boundaries to guide their play, we provide an added layer of security for them. Kids can play more independently and more confidently when they know how to watch out for themselves.


9 Simple, Last-Minute Activities to Celebrate Earth Day With Your Kids

The Captain and Little Bear enjoy a sunset on vacation

The Captain and Little Bear enjoy a sunset on vacation

Today is Earth Day! As you can imagine, I have all sorts of intricate and well-thought out ways to appropriately mark the occasion with my kids. Nope, just kidding. We are still easing back into the routine after vacation so everything has been a little chaotic around here lately but lucky for us, celebrating Earth Day doesn’t necessarily take a ton of planning and preparation. Here are some easy, no-prep ways to mark the day together.

Little Bear examines an expertly crafted fairy house before making his own.

Little Bear examines an expertly crafted fairy house before making his own.

  1. Build a Fairy House. Find a sheltered cozy spot outside and use sticks, leaves, or whatever else you can find to build a cozy home for a tiny fairy. My boys especially love checking the houses in the morning for signs of fairies!
  2. Feed some birds! Sprinkle some bird seed outside your window, or make your own bird feeder! Spread peanut butter on a pinecone or a piece of corrugated cardboard, then press into bird seed. Thread a piece of yarn through and hang it from a tree.
  3. Read a story outside. If it’s after dark, snuggle under a big blanket and use a flashlight or headlamp. There are tons of great choices for Earth Day including The Lorax and The Giving Tree
  4. Start your own wonder jar. Choose a nice glass or vase from in your house and fill it with beautiful and things you find outside. Put it somewhere you will see it every day and let it inspire you to find wonder in your environment.

    Little Bear doing some cloud spotting.

    Little Bear doing some cloud spotting.

  5. Just soak it in. Find a nice spot to sit, spread out a blanket if you want, and just sit. See if your child can sit and watch the sky for the same number of minutes as his/her age. Teach him or her to look for shapes in the clouds, birds or wind in the leaves.
  6. Go old school and make your world a better place. Clean up some trash and dispose of it properly.
  7. Educate your child about environmental issues. Talk to younger kids about water conservation or recycling. Talk to older kids about climate change and alternative energy. There are some great resources for this here.

    A full moon walk earlier this winter.

    A full moon walk earlier this winter.

  8. Take advantage of the first Earth Day full moon since 1997 and take your kids for a walk after dark to appreciate it.
  9. Eat a meal outside. Whether you have a picnic table or not, meals outside are a time efficient way to enjoy nature with your family. Spread a blanket on the grass, sit at an outdoor table, or just find a perch on the front steps.

Most importantly, whatever you do to recognize Earth Day with your kids today, make sure to explain to them why you’re doing something special. The first Earth Day was in 1970 and was the result of an idea from Gaylord Nelson, a US Senator from Wisconsin, who was inspired to organize a national “teach-in” that focused on educating the public about the environment after seeing the damage done by a 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. By continuing this pattern of environmental education for generations to come, we offer our kids the tools to recognize environmental issues and the heart to make a difference.

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