Do you often think back on your childhood with fond memories of seemingly endless summers being spent outside? Do you remember family vacations in National or State parks? Did you enjoy exploring the nearby woods? Did you have a favorite climbing tree?
I remember the impact the Smoky Mountains had on me, with their ever changing shades of green fading to blue as the ridgetops seemed to pop up endlessly into the horizon. I can still picture the vast amount of sky surrounding us on an airboat ride through sawgrass marshes in the Everglades. Even with these neat adventures, no summer was complete without our family’s annual camping trips.
A large part of who I am today was formed and influenced by these experiences, and possibly more so through my time simply playing outside and spending time in nature.
Benefits of Being Outside
Growing up, my 5 brothers and I spent most summer days outside. Even in the heat and humidity of southern Florida, we’d much rather be riding our bikes around the neighborhood, exploring the field behind our house, or hiking to the nearby lake to play along the shore and cool off in the water.
We often pitched our tents in the backyard simply because we enjoyed the simplicity and freedom of spending time detached from the television and electronic distractions inside (I'm talking about the 1980’s, so think Atari and MTV). If it weren’t for my parents’ willingness to let us ‘rough’ it in the back yard and insistence that we get outside and play, I can only wonder where my life’s journey would have brought me to today.
When we were younger, we knew that spending time outdoors was the key to a happy life!
Countless studies support this notion, explaining how crucial outside free-play is for us and our children. Free-play allows us to foster our creativity and decision-making skills. Children, in particular, benefit as they are developing motor planning skills and trying to discover their interests.
Studies have shown the benefits of spending time in nature is even greater than simply being outside. If you are one who enjoys hiking, camping, hunting, or canoeing, you are probably already aware of nature’s power to make you relax beyond how you feel when you take a walk around your neighborhood.
Reduced stress, improved short-term memory, reduced inflammation, improved concentration, sharper thinking, immune system boosts, and improved mental health are some of the benefits that I have experienced firsthand. I wasn't too surprised when I began looking into and reading studies showing the relationship between children who spend less time in nature and the likelihood they experience attention disorders and depression.
I have worked outside for a living most of my life. Even if your job has you indoors through the day, neither of us can escape the fact that we need time in nature and free-play.
Making Time To Play Outside
In the typical progression we call life, things get more complicated. A brief outline of my life is likely quite similar to yours.
Now, enjoying our careers, it is quite easy to put in the extra hours. Home repairs pop up. There’s a lawn to mow, meals to make, dishes to clean, garden to weed, and so on.
If you have kids, this list expands ten-fold, which can make it seem more difficult to send the kids outside for hours on end. Their schedules are filled with structured activities. You may face pressure from people who have different priorities and approaches for their kids.
Kids aside, how about your own well-being? I am sure you still find time for fun, entertainment, and getting outside; but, what does your outside time look like these days? Does it most commonly consist of yard work, relaxing on the back patio, at the kids’ soccer game, or attending one of the many festivals throughout the summer?
How much time do you spend in nature? Whatever happened to play time? Do you not have time for either anymore?
While I do not play nor spend time in nature nearly as much as I did when I was younger, I know it should be a priority. If the opportunity escapes me for too long, I know it is imperative that I make time as it is as important as proper nutrition.
I had many favorite climbing trees when I was a kid. In Puerto Rico, there was a magnificent rubber tree (Ficus elastica) at the school playground whose aerial roots and large limbs demanded I swing in the canopy like Tarzan. There was also a rubber tree in our neighbor’s yard in Miami which catered to my later fantasy of living a life like I saw on Swiss Family Robinson.
Those who have climbed in or even tended to the more moderate house plant, know how sticky the sap of a rubber tree is. I don’t think my mom ever quite understood that swinging through the trees relied heavily on having sap-layered hands and feet for grip. The sticky arms, legs, clothes and hair were a small price to pay for safety!
I had a number of favorite climbing trees through the years. Every one of them provided me a place I could go to be alone. I could read a book, challenge my nerve, take a nap or simply lose myself in the serenity of the treetop.
Even today, the benefits I receive from tree climbing often exceed that of other activities primarily because I am outside, breathing fresh air and inhaling the essential oils and compounds emitted by the trees and other components of the natural environment. The further away from concrete & asphalt and the larger the forest ecosystem the tree is growing in, the greater the effect.
The climbing process itself heightens your senses and has a profound impact on your brain. You will feel energized once your feet leave the ground, yet you will find peace when you sit back and take in the views. Negative emotions, anxiety and stress will fade away, ushering in positive emotions and a boost in self-confidence and creativity.
Feel Better. Be Happy.
As much as I love hiking and playing in my gardens, much of my free-play during the summer is climbing trees for fun. Even though I can get in a personal climb during some of my work days, it is the climbing I do outside of work which impacts me the most.
There is no right or wrong way to climb a specific tree, which means you are free to explore as you desire that particular day. One rule: stay tied in on rope at all times…the rest you just make up as you go. Nothing compares to how I feel when I am playing out in the woods, high in a tree. Everything comes into balance. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
For me it is climbing trees. For you it may be hiking. Don’t wait for a doctor to prescribe it to you. Spend a few hours playing in nature this weekend.
We were right all along…playing outside is key to a happy life!
As a G.O.T.C. Recognized Master Instructor & Facilitator, I.S.A. Board Certified Master Arborist, and T.C.I.A. Certified Treecare Safety Professional, Curt has spent over 30 years dedicated to the study and care of trees.