Go play outside: Getting kids comfy with nature pays back big time

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When Jenn Ray’s son Dylan was 2, he started showing signs of sensory processing disorder and autism.

“His brain struggles to filter out all the sounds of life that you or I can filter out without a second thought — the dryer going in the background or a drippy faucet,” Ray said. “I didn’t always know how to help him find his peace.”

But soon she discovered a miracle: hiking.

“It was the first time I noticed he slowed down,” Ray, of Littleton, said. “He wanted to take in every single aspect of the trail: bugs, plants, flowers, weeds, sticks and rocks.”

These days, Ray and Dylan, now 6, go hiking every chance they get, and are branching out into far-flung destinations: Moab, Fruita and the Great Sand Dunes among them.

“This time in nature has really changed the lives of my son and me, and it’s where some of our best memories have been made,” Ray said.

More creative, less aggressive

Dylan’s peace in the wilderness is no fluke, said Rosemary Dempsey, the communications director for Great Outdoors Colorado, or GOCO, an organization that uses state lottery proceeds to preserve and enhance Colorado’s outdoors.

Getting kids outdoors pays big dividends, Dempsey said.

“We know that playing outside is important for many facets of a child’s development,” Dempsey said. “There’s an increasing body of research showing that kids who play outside are more creative, less aggressive, less stressed, and even show fewer ADHD symptoms.”

One of GOCO’s signature campaigns is Generation Wild, which encourages parents to get kids outside.

“On average, we’re finding that many kids get maybe four to seven minutes of unstructured outdoor play time a day,” Dempsey said. “That’s compared to hours of screen time. Doctors are starting to literally prescribe outdoor play for kids.”

Parents don’t need to light out for the territory to connect kids with nature, Dempsey said.

“We can experience the benefits of getting outside just out the back door,” Dempsey said. “It doesn’t have to be a daunting experience.”

Part of the struggle is overcoming stigmas that come with modern parenting, Dempsey said.

“Parents often feel a pressure to have kids involved in activities and complicated routines,” Dempsey said. “But unstructured time is so good for them. Studies are showing it builds creativity, curiosity and independence. This isn’t a campaign to tell parents to be a certain way, but to maybe question our parenting styles or modes.”

Getting dirty

For some parents, instilling a love of nature and fostering independence go hand-in-hand.

“Letting kids outside, they learn their limits,” said Rebekah Eddy, a mom of two from Parker. “They’re able to understand what they’re capable of and what they’re not.”

One of the Eddy family’s favorite hikes is Maxwell Falls, west of Denver off Highway 285. Daughter Ella, 3, sometimes runs ahead of the pack — and Eddy lets her go.

“She’ll turn around when she feels too far away,” Eddy said. “Instinctually, kids need to develop their own sense of danger. They’ll either do it when they’re kids or when they’re adults.”

Eddy grew up in Montana, and her husband Jason grew up in Alaska, so sometimes the suburban landscape of Parker can feel a bit blah.

“As kids, we’d run all over the place with zero supervision, so when we went house shopping, it was bizarre to look at houses with tiny yards and no trees,” Eddy said. “We bought the house with the biggest yard we could find.”

Eddy is happy to let her kids get muddy.

“The natural world is generally safer than the constructs we put up that we think are safe,” Eddy said. “We’re increasingly in a sterile environment, and it affects immune systems. Synching your system to the natural microbes in the world is an answer that’s right in front of us.”

Learning to deal with discomfort is crucial, Eddy said.

“I tell my kids: it’s OK if you’re cold,” Eddy said. “Our generation, for some reason, wants so badly to take away all levels of discomfort.”

Eddy’s methods are paying off, she said.

“Nolan can’t even say `mama’ yet, but he can ask: `outside?’ ”

Out there

For parents who are ready to venture beyond the backyard with their kids, tempering expectations is important, said Rebecca Ferrell, a spokesperson with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“You don’t want to force things,” Ferrell said. “You don’t want to start thinking about their first fourteener.”

Parents worry kids raised in a world of high-octane entertainment will get bored on a trail, Ferrell said, but Denver is surrounded by top-notch state parks and open space parks that offer ways to keep them interested.

“Are they into dino fossils? Wildflowers? Birds? Try to connect the hike with things from their favorite movies or shows, for instance,” Ferrell said.

For Jenn Ray and her son Dylan, trail time will always be family time.

“Some of our most meaningful conversations have happened on the trail,” Ray said. “That time is just priceless.”

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