As spring approaches, the sun starts to shine, days get longer, and we begin to imagine a more normal, post-COVID world, it’s time to get the kids outside. Through school, work, Zoom calls and COVID restrictions it was easy for all of us, especially kids, to get a little too comfortable spending a lot of time looking at a screen. It was a challenging year during which mental health might have suffered, one or more family members experienced anxiety, or someone in your family was or is coping with depression.
But brighter days are ahead and after a long winter that might have contributed to sadness or feeling overwhelmed, we’re all craving some Vitamin D. Here are five ways to get the family outside and boost everyone’s mental health while you do.
1. Take a hike!
Aspen’s vast trail systems are starting to break through as snow melts. Wild flowers will soon fill surrounding hills and mountain meadows. Hiking is an excellent way to get the heart rate up and immerse kids in the natural world. Exercise releases endorphins, our brain’s natural feel-good chemical that enhances peace of mind and feelings of well-being. It’s also a great way to pivot your child’s brain from screen time to scenic views, wayfinding, problem solving (getting over boulders, across small creeks and over fallen trees) and exploration. Plan a weekly family hike, letting each family member choose a new trail. Also, consider participating in Aspen Strong’s Hike Hope Heal event! Simply take a hike anytime during Hike Week in August to support mental health and hygiene for everyone.
2. Create a nature-based scavenger hunt.
This is a great way to encourage outdoor exploration for kids of all ages. For younger children, collect empty egg cartons and then draw a picture of each item they need to find for each of the 12 spaces. Now they each have their own picture guide and collection container! No need to go far and wide; this one works well in the backyard. Older kids who crave a challenge can form teams to tackle a more elaborate scavenger hunt list such as geological finds, types of tree needles, layers of dirt and sand or alpine wildflowers (pictures work well if you don’t want to pick flowers).
3. Look at the stars.
Not all outdoor time needs to happen when the sun is shining. Set aside an hour after dinner to learn about the constellations in your area – Aspen’s beautifully clear skies are full of them! Then head outside with a list of the constellations you want to find. Grab a blanket and lay down in the backyard while you look up and discuss the starry configurations, or go for an after-dinner walk to see how many you can spot up in the night sky. This is a great way to extend fresh air fun into the evening.
4. Take up bird (or animal) watching.
There’s nothing like a good game of I Spy, especially when it comes to Aspen’s many species of birds. Print or find a bird field guide. Start small by trying to spot the mountain chickadee or broad-tailed hummingbird. Then look for larger winged friends such as the common nighthawk. Keep an eye out for birds of prey like the peregrine falcon or golden eagle. For a guided excursion, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies offers birding opportunities throughout the summer and the Roaring Fork Audubon Society hosts field trips in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River valleys from May to August. If birds aren’t your child’s favorite thing, consider looking for animal tracks or larger animals in their native habitats! Start bird or animal watching early to instill a life-long, mentally refreshing interest in the natural world and provide a healthy alternative to screen time.
5. Set a goal!
When it’s time to get outside, set a family goal. Register for a local running or bike race; choose a peak to summit after a month or two of training on smaller trails; try something new, like whitewater rafting or mountain biking; or strive to log 500 hours outside before school starts again.
Spending time outside is a powerful tool to combat depression, anxiety, and improve your child’s mental state. After a long year spending more time than we wanted indoors, making a plan to get everyone out and about is a great way to kickstart spring, and a new beginning. For more ideas, Aspen Hope Center offers a Mental Health Wellness Education Series and Mind Springs Health has an informative guide to Protecting Kids in the Digital Age. We look forward to seeing you and your family outside!