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Challenge: Reflecting on a Year of Pandemic Parenting

1000 Hours Outside is the life hack we should all achieve in 2021

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In the last year, we all found creative ways to reconfigure our lives in response to the pandemic. What if I told you that in the process, I discovered the greatest life hack of all time? A hack with holistic benefits, regardless of your age, location, profession, the size of your family…

I recognize I’m getting dramatic, so let me back up…

During those initial months when we were relegated to our homes, the departure from my on-the-go life was uncomfortable for me. I lost a bit of my mojo and felt like I was wandering day to day. In an effort to get out of the house and salvage my sanity, I started dragging my family around the state of Illinois, visiting different parks and forest preserves.

Before long, heading outside was a family ritual, even if it was just riding bikes in an empty parking lot. As spring turned to summer, it became easier to build our daily life around being outdoors. Nature held the key to our freedom. It allowed us to safely spend time with loved ones and escape the confines of our city condo. But then it did so much more. My boys had a summer of firsts – first canoe ride, first campout, first kite launch. We had bonfire movie nights with my cousins, went creek fishing with my mom, and discovered an enchanted forest with my mother-in-law. These priceless memories made it one of the best summers of my life.

As fall approached, I wondered how we’d sustain our outdoor time come winter. My older son began virtual kindergarten, and the kids’ screen time became a major source of anxiety for me. I felt like I had no part in steering the family ship and I desperately needed to regain some control. In my pursuit, I came across 1000 Hours Outside, a global movement to match screen time with hands-on outdoor experiences. I was stunned by the amount of time American kids consume content on screens versus enjoy free play outside. Making a commitment to spend 1000 Hours Outside in a year was something I could actively do to rescue my children from the tech era they were born into.

Make no mistake. It’s going to be hard and the deck is stacked against us.

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We live in the city, in one of the coldest climates in the country, and we do not have a backyard. My children dramatically resist leaving the house, no matter where we’re going. It takes the stamina of a warrior to get us all bundled in our gear, pack all the things, and load up the car so we can drive to nature. If you’re new here, my response to the pandemic has been to lower the bar across all areas of my life. Taking on a “challenge” is not exactly on brand with that approach. I’m making this one important exception and here’s why.

In a world saturated with technology, nature is the hack that can change our lives. Here are the four reasons the 1000 Hours Outside challenge is worthy of your time:

1. Green space does wonders for mental health and physical well-being.

You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to subscribe to this phenomenon. It’s science. Loads of research supports the calming effect of nature and its ability to lower blood pressure, improve immune health, and relieve depression and anxiety. I immediately recognized the positive impact it was having on my mood. I felt lighter and happier, even on cool or rainy days. I’ve become less concerned with muddy shoes, and more focused on finding butterflies, collecting rocks, and getting my daily dose of vitamin D. The restorative power of simple joys is very real, even for the indoorsiest people.

2. Being outside can save our kids (and us) from technology.

The premise of the 1000 Hours Outside challenge is to match screen time with outdoor time. The stats around the negative impacts of technology on kids – increased childhood depression, sleep issues, weight problems, and suicide – are pretty bleak. I’m also crouched in front of a computer all day, so I’m mindful of its impact on the human spirit. A child’s purpose is to be a child, and they can’t become happy, productive adults in a world that moves too fast to appreciate the wonders of nature. Unstructured outdoor play helps kids build resilience, and frankly, it’s done the same for me. I’ve noticed positive behavioral shifts in us all since we began prioritizing fresh air.

3. Nature does something for a child’s development that cannot be simulated.

The outdoors gives way to the kind of deep immersive and multi-disciplinary learning that I find far more intuitive than the check-list approach my boys get at school. I can literally see the synapses forming as they assess risk when crossing an uneven path, find a leaf frozen in ice, or realize that their shadows move as the day progresses. They ask rich questions about our relationship with the earth, where waterfalls go, and why it’s summer in other parts of the world. Sure, we still talk about legos and Minecraft and Batman at length, but there’s a balance that makes me feel like a good mom and I like it. My younger son is autistic and has been in speech therapy for the past two and a half years. His language skills have skyrocketed since we began our outdoor adventures.

4. It’s environmentally and fiscally responsible.

One unexpected outcome is that we spent less money and bought less “stuff” just being outside more. We invested in some weather-appropriate clothing, a tent, new bikes for the boys, and some sleds. But that came in well under our typical spend on cheap toys and experiences that weren’t available due to COVID, and we didn’t miss them!

By now you’ve done the math and you’re probably wondering how anyone living in modern society can spend 2.7+ hours outside everyday for a year. Fear not, I have a plan. We can do this!

Here are some strategies for completing the 1000 Hours Outside challenge:

  • Track it! If you’re someone who likes to track your workouts or calories, add outdoor time to the mix. There are beautiful (and free!) trackers you can download to help you gamify the challenge.
  • Add different parks to your challenge. We’re also tracking the different city and state parks we visit throughout the year. It adds novelty and adventure, which is especially helpful if you have kids who don’t like to leave home.
  • Invest in proper clothing. There’s a Scandinavian saying: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.” You’ll never make it out in the winter months if you don’t have good warm clothes, so don’t give yourself the opportunity to make excuses.
  • Embrace inclement weather. You’ll soon discover that every season has its charm, even the cold and wet ones. We recently went sledding on a gray day when the snow was starting to melt into a muddy mess and had a blast!
  • Load up on hours in the spring, summer and fall. We plan to spend full days at the beach, go camping, and eat many meals al fresco to catch up on hours lost in winter.
  • Join a local 1000 Hours Outside Facebook group. I’ve learned of new and creative outdoor activities from members of the Chicagoland group. It’s also motivating to see daily photos of people logging their hours on days you’d prefer to stay in.

It’s true, we might not make it to 1000 hours at the end of the year. But I assure you, we will not fail. Whether you’re in the thick of parenthood, young and single, the parent of teens, or an elderly couple wondering how it all goes by so fast: there are some pretty special moments you’ll miss if you don’t push yourself outdoors.

Picks some wildflowers.

Splash in puddles.

Catch snowflakes on your tongue.

Build a campfire.

Make a snow fort.

Pandemic or not, it’ll always be worth your time. I promise.

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