07/02/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

You Can't Love the Planet if You're Not Outside Enjoying It

Photolyric via Getty Images

Recently, I sat down with the head of kids' books from National Geographic to learn more about the "nature deficit disorder" that many children experience and discuss how we can get outside more often this summer and all year long. As a mom of two and lover of the outdoors, Jennifer offered a ton of useful suggestions. I have noted some highlights from our conversation here, and you can watch our full Zoobean Experts chat in the video below.

Many kids are experiencing "nature deficit disorder," meaning they are spending too much time indoors (likely in front of a screen) and not enough time outside.

Richard Louv, who coined this phrase to describe a national phenomenon, wrote the foreword for the National Geographic Kids "Get Outside Guide," a book full of fun activities to kids them outside all year long. As Jennifer notes, "many of us can relate to a time when we went outside in the morning and then came home when we were hungry." It may sound idyllic, but even for those who grew up in urban environments, this sounds more familiar than it does to kids today. In the past, parents felt more comfortable letting kids go outside and play from dawn until dusk. Now, with widespread access to many kinds of screens and increased concerns about safety, kids are simply spending more time inside, away from the natural world. But kids need to be making connections to nature, much like they need good nutrition and adequate sleep.

It's hard to avoid "overprogramming" our kids, but we should do it anyway.
Jennifer noted that, even when kids are spending time outside, it's likely doing a structured activity. Yes, they're outside, but they are playing soccer or participating in a structured camp, not experiencing free play. The body of research around the importance of free play is growing, and this is particularly true with being outdoors. I asked Jennifer how she manages this personally with her two kids, especially when she compares her kids' activities to those of their classmates. As she said, "You want them to be taking the music lessons and doing the sports and photography. That's so important, but maybe three commitments a week, not five. With my kids, I encourage them to get outdoors and encourage the family to get outdoors."

Involve your kids' friends in making nature play a part of their program.
I loved the tip that Jennifer gave to help integrate getting outside into her kids' schedules. "One of the things we've done is instead of having every afternoon scheduled with an activity that gets them away from the house, we'll just have a standing playdate day where friends come over. They're never allowed to watch television on a playdate so they go outside so they use their imaginations. Imagination can be your best friend with nature play. It's not so structured so they have to come up with something on their own."

Experiencing nature can happen on the trail or the walk to school, and once you start embracing it, magical things can happen. Your tween might even open up to you...
Many researchers have pointed to spending more time outside as an aid for reducing stress. With younger kids, they are building executive functioning skills and making connections to nature. With older kids, you often notice an opening up that isn't as possible in everyday routine. As Jennifer said, "I have particularly noticed the benefits with my 11 yr old daughter. She's a classic introvert. Shy and incredibly observant, she's always taking it in, but sometimes she's not sharing as much as I'd like. When we're outside spending time in nature, I notice that she'll open up and share those stories that I'm always hoping would come out at the dinner table but just get a bit pushed aside by her more talkative younger sibling."

Whether you're an urban, suburban, or rural dweller, nature is there for kids.
I live in Washington, DC, where things are green but very urban. As I read "The Get Outside Guide" with my son, I noticed that many of the ideas were applicable to people living anywhere. According to Jennifer, "the idea can be getting outside in your backyard, in your nearby park, going out on a balcony and looking up at the sky... it can happen in much closer and important, quieter ways."

The book has so many clever ideas, and I wanted to know how the activities tied back to more traditional skill-building. "In all activities in the book, we are giving kids an opportunity to use different parts of the brain. For example, if doing rock art, you have creative activity but then also helping make connections with history and the concept that 8,000 years ago in the Sahara, humans carved full sized images of giraffes into rocks. Nature gives kids a rich glimpse into history. We want kids to make learning connections but all through the filter of challenging the kids to come up with their own exciting connections to nature so that they're really experiencing it themselves and not just taking it in through the page."

Don't let the summer heat stop you.
When the temperatures rise, air conditioning can be quite tempting. Jennifer reminds us all to carry a lot of sunscreen, to look for shady places and to try and find water for play to counteract the heat. Too hot during the day? Try stargazing in the evening. One of her favorite activities from the book, making an ice catcher, is sure to keep us cool. Gather things from nature (rocks, leaves, blades of grass, etc.). Mix them with water in a bundt pan, then freeze it and hang it outside. It will catch the light beautifully and cool you off as it melts!

Wherever you are this summer, remember to get outside to connect with nature... and your kids!

This article was originally posted on the Zoobean Blog.