“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
Spring in Western NY can be less than inviting. In months where others see the first blooming flowers and ever warming days, we often have grey skies and can have rain, snow, and temperatures anywhere from 20 to 80 degrees. As a grownup, I look outside on these grey days and think “yuck, I wish it were nice out so I could go for a walk.” The other day something changed this perspective though – my son. It was a typical March day in Chautauqua County: rainy, grey, and cold. We pulled in the garage after school pickup, and as soon as I let my four-year-old son out of the car, he immediately ran out into the rain and started playing in the mud. I am confident that at no point in the two seconds between exiting the car and being in the mud did he stop to think that this is bad weather.
Sadly, I don’t think I will ever be able to completely re-train my own brain to do away with the myth of “bad weather,” but after seeing him run into the mud with so much joy and enthusiasm, I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to keep him from forming that notion in the first place. We know from countless studies that going outside is good for us. What we are learning more and more is that it’s especially good and important for our children, and the beauty is that nobody has told them yet that some weather is good and some isn’t. So today I am writing to encourage everyone to throw on whatever gear you’ve got and get outside, rain or shine, especially if you have kids.
As Nicolette Sowder says, “encouraging a child to go outside in all weather builds resilience, but more importantly it saves them from spending their life merely tolerating the ‘bad’ days in favour of a handful of ‘good’ ones – a life of endless expectations and conditions where happiness hinges on sunshine.” But why would you take my word for it when there are lots of studies by experts that you could listen to instead? For example, a study completed in 2021 found a strong relationship between exposure to nature and children’s physical and mental health (see citation 1). That same study also found that the closer the outdoor experience was to the child’s home, the stronger the impact was. So you don’t need to go far, you just need to go out!
Another study found that contact with nature as a child is a strong predictor of higher openness (creativity and curiosity) and lower neuroticism (anxiety and depression) as an adult (see citation 2). This was particularly true for contact with forest environments, and these scientists believe that spending time outdoors in childhood creates a learned emotional regulation strategy that is then used all the way into and through adulthood.
These are just two examples from a large and growing body of research on the importance of letting our children play outside. If you still aren’t convinced, I encourage you to take a look for yourself. There is a wonderful library of these studies that has been put together by the Children & Nature Network. You can check it out at research.childrenandnature.org/research-library. We are so lucky to have wonderful places available in our community that make getting into nature fun, easy, and safe!
I wouldn’t be a very good executive director if I didn’t mention the beautiful preserves that the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy holds and protects for the health and well-being of our community. To check out which ones have trails, what you might find, and how to get there, head to our website at chautauquawatershed.org. Beyond our own nature preserves, we are also lucky to have the Audubon Community Nature Center which also has trails and even a nature playground. Plus, for days when the weather is unsafe (lightning, high winds, etc.) and we really can’t get outside, they do an amazing job of bringing the outdoors in with their family-friendly, hands-on exhibits. I sincerely hope that you will check us both out and, in doing so, get yourself and your family outside into nature. In the wise words of Jon Muir, “of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
by Whitney Gleason, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Executive Director
1) Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Hazlehurst, M. F., Perrins, S. P., Bratman, G. N., Thomas, R., Garrett, K. A., Hafferty, K. R., Cullaz, T. M., Marcuse, E. K., Tandon, P. S., (2021). Nature and children's health: A systematic review. Pediatrics, 148(4)
2) Snell, T. L., Simmonds, J. G., Klein, L. M., (2020). Exploring the impact of contact with nature in childhood on adult personality. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 55, 1-9.