Healthy Kids     K-12    

Getting your family’s dose of ‘Vitamin N’

Spending time outdoors with your child is healthy and fun

Spend more time outdoors with your family

There is much evidence, both anecdotal and academic, that spending time exploring and appreciating the outdoors greatly benefits a child's development. 

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, talks about families getting enough 'Vitamin N,' or what is more commonly experienced as spending time outdoors in nature.

He points to the growing empirical evidence showing that exposure to 'green' exercise is a tonic for enhancing mood and self-esteem, while reducing feelings of anger, confusion, depression, and tension. Physical benefits include burning calories, reducing blood pressure and increased oxygenation.

Then there are the social benefits of walking with a friend observing together the natural environment, the foliage, wildflowers, and landscape views. I, myself, have wonderful memories of when I was younger and being encouraged to get outside and appreciate the wonders of nature.
It is 5 a.m. and my mother wakes up my cousins and I for an early morning bird-watching walk after all of us had spent the night camping at Lake Pleasant in the Adirondack Mountains.

Of course, as a teenager my wildest idea of a great time wasn't getting up at the crack of dawn to listen for quirky bird songs, but having my girl cousins along on the walk made the idea more palatable.

An outdoor enthusiast, my mother's obvious joy buoyed us along, got us out the cabin door, and into the beckoning forest at dawn.

"Walk quietly and see what you can see," she would say to us.

The first bird we heard was the white-throated sparrow's melodious, long and distinctive whistle.

READ MORE: Top hiking spots in the Hudson Valley

Next, we "saw by hearing" - an expression used by my mother - the call of an oven bird. Then we first heard, then spotted, a pileated woodpecker the size of a crow sitting on the limb of a dead tree and making a very loud drumming sound with its chisel-like bill. We observed a huge oblong hole being formed as the woodpecker chiseled away at the bark of the tree.

The pileated woodpecker is the largest in North America, mostly black with distinct white and red markings.

By rapping its bill against various parts of a tree, the woodpecker determines if there is an established colony of ants or insect larvae. Then the bird pulls its food of choice into its mouth using a specially adapted tongue.

Bird lore is fascinating; there's always a story going on. Birding by ear creates a delicious layer in life that rises above the everyday stuff. I recall our senses being in full throttle. I felt so alive surrounded by the aroma of the balsam firs and on alert for the sight for wildlife. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy of leaves creating ever-changing shadows on the ground.

That early morning walk felt like a treasure hunt.

It is wonderful to bond with nature when one is young, but it's never too late to put aside the electronic devices and open new doors. There's a world to explore right in your backyard, or perhaps right along the street where you live. There are parks, farms, and outdoor museums where you can use all your senses to go on a quest and discover what nature has to offer.

Let's imagine, for a moment, you convince your child or children to disconnect from all circuitry and spend time together getting your 'Vitamin N.' One outing in the fascinating natural world might just develop into a lifelong hobby or even a career.

You never know what you will find as your venture forth. Encourage your child to use their senses - sight, sound, smell, and touch - to help them feel intensely alive.

As you approach a meadow, look for wildflowers, or listen for a screeching hawk, as you may have stumbled upon its territory. You and your child might spot it swooping down to catch a tasty field mouse, offering an opportunity to teach them about the food chain and "the circle of life."

READ MORE: Mood boosters for the whole family

Get down on your hands and knees and look for insects trekking through the grass. You might spot an ant hill with hundreds of scurrying ants moving with a purpose and carrying bits of leaves they have chewed off that are bigger than they are! Head over to a forested area and compare the bark and leaves of the trees you find there.

To gain an even closer look at the intricacies of nature, bring along an inexpensive magnifying glass. Look closely at the squiggly patterns on a leaf that might be the trail of a leaf miner insect. This exciting find could lead to looking for more evidence of insects on other nearby plants. What about inspecting a spider web full of seed pods? What a find! Have you ever looked at colorful wildflowers - like a fall aster - up close and personal under a lens? It is a truly magical experience.

There are many ways to enjoy the diversities of nature. You and your child can pursue whatever peaks his or her particular curiosities: flowers, birds, insects, soil or wildlife. The idea is to be awake, alert and engaged in the natural world.
Take a blanket, lie down on your back and gaze up at the sky. Grab a pair of binoculars and go bird watching. Hang a bird feeder outside of a window.

Artists, poets and scientists have always been inspired by nature. Why not you and your children? It is an exciting universe to explore!

Just make sure to do an ever-important tick check after your hike.

Susan Hurd is owner of Hurds' Family Farm. The farm has a pollinator garden that attracts bees and butterflies.