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This Holiday Season: Give the Gift of Life

Sitting around the fireplace on a cold fall evening, my family decided to play a game called “food for thought” where each person has to answer a random, yet often intriguing question and all in attendance guess your answer.

My question was: “What is your greatest accomplishment?”

“That’s easy, it’s earning your PhD,” someone said. Another added “it must be publishing your popular book on anxiety.” The next guess mentioned my successful immigration to the United States at age twenty. Great ideas, yet pretty far from the truth. My greatest accomplishment will always be having raised two nature-loving, outdoor-recreating, risk-taking devotees of the more-than human world. I remember the day that we took our few month-old son camping, setting up a playpen inside our large tent, cuddling up with our little family and drifting off to sleep while a nearby owl hooted a lullaby. Is it inconvenient and uncomfortable to carry babies up mountains along the Appalachian trail? Absolutely. Packing all the kid stuff needed for an outdoor adventure with little ones is intense for sure. But it is worth it.

Children need nature like they need air and food. The academic support for this claim is limitless, pointing to things such as increased social and emotional well-being and better ability to focus in school. The Children in Nature Network posted a systematic review of literature that highlighted the positive impacts of nature-based learning for primary school-aged children. The Child and Mind Institute shows how most of the studies ascertain that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors. In a world where the average American child spends nearly 8 hours per day on screens, the nature-loving kid is becoming an endangered species. And how can someone care about something they are not connected to? Being an anxiety treatment expert, I am often asked for help by desperate parents to curb the angst and fear so palpable in their homes and at the dinner table. Although seemingly a bit simplistic, I ask them to consider spending more time outdoors, even if it’s cold or less than perfect outside. Their overstimulated brain needs a break from the speed of light and needs to align with the speed of life. The outdoors need not be boring either. Having raised two untamable boys, mindfully smelling the flower meadow would have ended in disaster and a frustrated mother. Instead, I’ve found that healthy risk taking in the forms of rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing or surfing can lead to confidence and self-discovery while building a lasting relationship with Mother nature. Is there a video game that can achieve interspecies bonding? A digital simulation that makes you grieve for the loss of the polar bears and thousand-year-old trees?

Now, we are heading full force into the gift giving season. On average, parents spend $250 on toys and material presents. Children will receive these with great joy. Yet, we know that this type of joy will not last. As soon as the novelty dwindles the toy is tossed aside and their hearts desire something new. I take the risk to sound a bit dramatic, but plea in honest: this holiday season, give the gift of life outdoors. Life filled with the smell of waking forest in the morning dew, a life filled with salt and sand between the toes and ears, a life bursting with outdoor adventures that tap deep into our human DNA. Many folks over the age of forty speak fondly of their childhood memories roaming the woods or neighborhoods until their mothers called them in for dinner. Well, that’s not the world we live in anymore. It’s time to adjust and adapt. But even more urgently, it’s time for grownups to role model. Adults need to demonstrate radical love and a conspicuous acceptance of the natural world to our children. That is the gift I gave to my children and in return I received my life’s greatest accomplishment: two well-adjusted young men who love this planet with a fierce passion and are dedicated to try and save it.

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