Connecting through Nature

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Hey Mom, You HAVE to come see this sunset!

I came running to the window, standing next to my daughter as we looked in awe at the spectacular showcase of colors filling the sky. We shared that moment. We connected.

One of our children's deepest needs is to feel connected, noticed and loved. Throughout the day, they offer us many opportunities to engage or get our attention. Researcher, John Gottman calls these bids for connection. Bids for connection can be verbal or non-verbal. How we respond to the bids, is essential to healthy emotional connectedness. Three possible responses to these calls for attention are: 1. turning towards, 2. turning away or 3. not responding at all. As we make the choice to turn towards our children, we are filling their emotional bank account and setting them up for emotional success. (Not surprisingly, this concept is true in marriage, as well. With happy and healthy marriages reporting a "bid towards" 9 out of 10 times a bid is offered.)

I found that connecting to my children when they were babies was easy. They loved to pick up things and show them to me. It could be a leaf, a bug or a clump of dirt. They didn't even need words. By showing them to me, they brought me into their world. With each connected moment, they grew more firmly attached to me emotionally and their love tanks were filled.

Depending on your child's personality and interests, answering the bids for attention can get more challenging as they grow older. I have to admit, that I do not always fully turn towards a long explanation of a Lego creation - as my son describes all the weapon systems and vehicle add-ons, I confess I may have been looking towards him but my mind was elsewhere (just being honest). Now that I am aware of it, I am trying to do better. How often are we on our phones checking Facebook or Instagram when our kids are trying to connect with us? (yikes, that hit close to home.)

A young mom shared with me recently that she had made a conscious decision one day this past week, to put aside her household responsibilities and chores to wholeheartedly play outside with her children. Her children were amazed. On reflection, this mom realized she was so often just giving her children 5 minutes of play, here and there, but by putting everything else aside and fully "turning towards", she and her children had the shared experience of an emotionally filling day.

Just as the mom above realized, many things in our fast paced, independence-driven, modern life make connecting challenging. Nature makes connection easy. It provides a wealth of opportunities for focused attention in the same place - for turning towards. By walking outside, leaving behind our distractions - (and boy, are there a lot of distractions!), we are better able to offer ourselves to our kids. Every time we take a walk in the woods, we see things together. Spying an interesting shaped tree or an intricate spider web, my son will call me over and we will observe it together. In our family, seeing a rainbow is a major family event. We all come running. Looking up close at the moss on a tree or listening together to a woodpecker are all opportunities for connection. The natural world invites interactions. Even the simple act of pushing your child on the swing is a pathway to connection. As your child gives an invitation for connection, how will you reply?

This week, try to notice those bids for connection. Create opportunities by spending time outside together. Whether it is marveling at the latest mud pie or going out to check out a tree fort, you are fostering a deep sense of connection which can be drawn upon in the future. If your child asks you to build a leaf pile or play in the sandbox, look at the fun shaped clouds or listen for peepers, consider what type of response you will give.

We are given opportunities every day to make connections happen. How will you respond?

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More information about bids for connection with your kids.

6 Steps To Raising Healthy-Minded Kids

Wow! As I write this post our country is reeling from the aftershock of another school shooting. So many people are asking, Why? Unfortunately there are no simple answers. But rather than letting our shock slowly turn into apathy, I feel like there are some real things we can do, Right now. Right in our own homes.

We must take on the responsibility to raise strong, mentally competent children, who can become strong, independent adults..

Because, that is our job as parents, right?

Many parents feel that if they can steer their kids safely through childhood and the teen years, then they have done a good job. The problem with that - what I call the bubble wrap approach - is that kids enter adulthood without any skills to navigate life.

Jessica Lahey puts it this way in her book, The Gift of Failure: "Today's overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the comptence, independence and academic potential of an entire generation."

By giving children opportunities to build resilience, social skills, self-awareness, and self-competency, in the context of nurturing adult relationships, children can move towards healthy independence.

So how do we do this? Here are some simple and practical things you can do as a parent, caregiver or educator to help the children in your life thrive:

  • Give them room to fail. Children, as young as toddlers, can be given space to explore and try things on their own. They may fall, they may get messy, but it is these hands-on experiences where they learn cause and effect and natural consequences. Also, when a child experiences setbacks and see that they can come out the other side and learn some things - that leads to resiliency. It is sometimes hard to step back but the rewards for you child will be worth it.

  • Help your child discover things that are calming. As they connect how they feel with the action, it will become a tool they can use when they are frustrated. Going outside is typically calming for anyone. If you have a baby, you can see right away how being outside is calming. For some children, a certain scent or having a fidget can be calming. Maybe it is petting the family dog or being by themselves for a period of time.

  • Prioritize unscheduled space in children's lives. Anxiety levels are higher than ever among children today. Very young children are being put on anxiety medicine. Children today are experiencing more pressure than ever to perform academically and on the sports field. Children need downtime to recover from the stress of their daily lives. And not only that, studies show that children with more unstructured time in their lives become better decision makers down the road.

  • Build self-competence by helping your child find something they enjoy doing. Again, step back and let them take the lead. If you are doing an art project with them, don't do if for them. Even if it doesn't meet your expectations, give them the opportunity to own it and feel pride in doing it on their own.

  • Help them build healthy thought patterns. What kids believe about themselves has a tremendous impact on how they function in the future. I came across this visual by @sylviaduckworth illustrating a growth mindset. It is a helpful guide in training your child (and us for that matter) on self-talk. This is geared toward school but the principles apply to anything they do.

@sylviaduckworth

@sylviaduckworth

  • Limit technology use. I can't say enough about this one. It is essential that families work together to limit time on technology. I often hear people say that technology is everywhere, so why fight it. Creating boundaries and limitations will give your children a) practice experiencing boundaries and limits, b) mental space without excessive visual stimulation c) more time to build real, honest-to-goodness relationships d) time to come up with other healthier options for entertainment. You would be amazed what kids can come up with when they get bored!

These are just a few ways that you can set the scene for your child to develop some important skills. Life for kids today is sort of like a pressure cooker - if we don't give them the ability to blow off a little steam, the results can be disastrous,

Doing Less In A Do More World

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We've all said it at some point.....I wish there were more hours in the day.

The pressure is tremendous today to give kids all the opportunities they need to become a well-rounded person. The minute they are born, we want what is best for them. We want them to have a wealth of opportunity and experience. But do we TRULY believe doing more things is the answer or is it pressing in on us from the outside?

What I am proposing may be a bit controversial, but I believe it with all my heart. If we want what is best for our kids, we need to start doing less, not more.

I have seen it first hand. A kid being rushed from the soccer field, with fast food in hand, to make it to their karate practice or their dance recitial, tears flowing, child (or parent) kicking and screaming! Is this what children need? Is that benefitting them? Is this really what is best for them?

I confess that, as my children get closer to college age, I wonder if they are doing enough to stand out. Should they be doing more in the coummunity? Do they have a "good enough" resume to be accepted at a good college? Recently, the answer hit me like a ton of bricks. If a college wants a list of activities so long that my child would never have down-time or time to play and relax - then that college is not going to be a good environment for my child to thrive in.

Anxiety and depression are alarmingly on the rise among U.S. children. School counselors are seeing evidence of this first-hand. But this isn't just about teens. Young children are caught in the busyness trap, too.

Young children are feeling the pressure to perform in school due to a test-based model in most public school systems. To come home from a stressful school environment, be rushed off to practice, do homework and start all over again is more than many of our kids can handle - or should have to handle!

So, what can we do about it? Give our kids time to PLAY, time to REST, time to RECOVER.

There is a misguided sense in American culture that downtime is wasted time. That could not be farther from the truth.

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I have seen the results of giving kids opportunity to play firsthand. As a Timbernook provider, I am able to watch kids flourish as they readily delve into child-directed free time in the woods. The results are often astounding. Kids who are often anxious become calm. Creativity gives rise to elaborate play scenarios. As children make choices about what to do with their time, they grow more confident.

When children have time for unstructured play - play that is not directed by an adult - play where there is no expected outcome - they are able to practice decision making, problem solving and develop a sense of self.

As an occupational therapist, we say that, "Play is the work of childhood." What this means is that while on the outside children are playing, their bodies and minds are working hard to develop and grow strong. Play time is not wasted time!

So, rather than trying to put more on your calendar in an effort to better your child, how about taking some things off your calendar? Give your kids a chance to play. Not only will it help them in the moment, it gives them a strong foundation to blossom into their best selves.

See You Outside!

-Ann-

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Will We Ever Camp Again?

Part 2 Of A Rookie Camping Experience

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We are home. Sleeping bags are still piled in the living room. Memories are made - some good, some not so good!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, we are new to camping. Now that our first trip is behind us I can fill you in our our lessons learned and answer the question - will we ever camp again?

Just to give you a little background, we set off on our first family camping trip in search of the total eclipse and then supplemented our journey home with some fun natural wonders along the way. Our initial plan included one camping stop, one night with the in-laws in Asheville, and then 4 more nights camping.

In the days before we left, I seriously questioned the sanity of camping. For years, I have known families who loved camping and I wanted a taste of this romantic, adventurous pastime. But the prep work almost did me in. The shopping! The packing! The cooking! The loading! What were we thinking?

I have to admit, I had fun looking for new recipes to try out at our campground (look forward to a blog with recipe ideas). But, because of the nature of camp cooking, there is a lot of prep work to be done. It is almost as if you have to take time off to to prepare for the vacation!

Because we live in Maryland, we had to travel over 500 miles to see the total eclipse. Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea as we did - causing us to arrive at our first campsite in Virginia in the dark. Rookie mistake #1! Luckily, we had read enough camping blogs, recommending doing a trial run of setting up the tent before we left. With flashlights, headlamps and lanterns in hand we got the tent set up in relatively good time. Other than knowing there was an RV in the adjacent campsite, we had no idea what else lurked in the dark around us.

Next hurdle - finding the bathrooms! Again, with flashlights, headlamps and lanterns in hand, we set off in search of the promised toilets at this campsite. It took us a couple wrong turns and about a 10 minute walk and we had success - Little did we know until morning that there were much closer ones right across the way! Rookie Mistake #2!

Pop Tarts - Camp Style

Pop Tarts - Camp Style

Regardless of the hassles of our first campground experience, that night, we all five, laid in our tent, snuggled up in our sleeping bags, with the sound of the cicadas and trickling water surrounding us, and peered up to a sky, brimming with stars. The Milky Way was clear as could be. Maybe there is something to this camping thing, I pondered to myself.....

Camp coffee and breakfast cookies (and pop-tarts) down the hatch, we launched off to Asheveille. After a wonderful sleep and homecooked food, we headed to the zone of totality! Warned that there might be 90,000 other eclipse viewers coming to town, we got an early start. Much to our surprise, there was hardly any traffic. Undeniably, the most entertaining part of the ride was getting a response from our homemade sign on the window:

Honk! If you are going to see the Eclipse.

Honk! If you are going to see the Eclipse.

Southern hospitality was at its finest when we parked at the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Dillsboro, North Carolina as our viewing area. Not only did they have great food available, they opened up their air-conditioned fellowship hall and gave us full use of their bathroom facilities. Amidst a party-like, expectant atmosphere we witnessed the unfolding of the eclipse with others from around the country. I didn't know what to expect but it was truly spectacular.

Wonderstruck by the eclipse, we headed to our next stop - HurricaneCampground in Mount Rogers National Recreation area - determined to get there in daylight. We did it! We found our picturesque campsite, set up our tent and began the task of making our first camp dinner. Given the task of choosing our first dinner, our son selected hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls roasted in foil over the fire. No problem!

No problem, unless the wood is damp and it takes an hour to get the fire going! Darkness slowly snuck in, Hangry children wanted food, now! Rookie Mistake #3 - trying to cook in the dark! Once we finally ate, we stashed our dirty dishes in the car, too tired to deal with them that night. Camping wasn't looking so good. Especially to one of my teens.

The next morning, however, my son was up playing in the creek in his pajamas while we cooked eggs and bacon on the campstove. With camp coffee in hand, the smell of bacon swirling in the air, surrounded by nature, a peaceful feeling set in and camping was beginning to grow on me.

My husband had researched and found some great day trips for us. We spent the middle part of the day exploring Grayson Highlands State Park, hiking among the wild ponies. After a great day, we made it back to camp in plenty of time for a gourmet dinner and s'mores. But, there was dissent in the ranks.

One of my daughters was not enjoying camp life. Unable to articulate what she didn't like, we had a family meeting and made a compromise. Rather than tent camp for two more nights, we would rent a cabin and hike a trail we had picked out to finish out our week.

Feeling a little bit like a failure, I have to admit it was nice to sleep on a real mattress, and have running water inside! Looking back, I think we should have tried a shorter trip with the kids before we set off for 5 nights. In addition, I have to wonder if we hadn't made our rookie mistakes at the beginning, if my daughter might have not had a negative reaction to camping.

So, will we camp again? Time will tell. Four of us liked it. One didn't. Maybe she will be open to try it again - or maybe she can stay with Grandma.

Something I kept asking myself on the trip was, why put this much work into a trip - and it was a LOT of work - when we could just check into a hotel and eat at restaurants? I have to say, it makes me appreciate the conveniences of life a lot more. The fact that I can wash my dishes in a sink is a luxury - there are people in the world who can't! Being able to spend time with the family away from distractions is an even greater luxury. No wi-fi, no housework, no normal responsibilities stand between the simple act of just being together and making memories

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3 Reasons I Have Never Gone Camping...Until Now!

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Confession time....I have never been tent camping, until now. Yes, I know I am a nature blogger and it doesn't seem consistent, but it's true. Being outdoors is one of my favorite things but there are some valid reasons why I have avoided this outdoor-lovers pastime until this point in my life.

What led us to this momentous family milestone of going tent camping is the upcoming eclipse. The closest vantage point for us is about an 8 hour drive from home. As we discussed where we could see it and how we could squeeze out a memorable last hoorah vacation before school starts, we landed on camping.

Bear in mind that my three remaining kids at home are teenagers. My son couldn't have been more excited - his mentality is that we FINALLY get to go camping. My daughters on the other hand are less enthused. Picture eye rolling, lots of sighing and questions like, "Are we hiking EVERY day??"

Needless to say, it has taken quite a bit of planning and discussion to get everyone on the same page. Two days from now, we will be heading off to North Carolina, car loaded to the hilt with camping gear for the inaugural family trip. Whether it will be the first of many or an experiment that failed miserably is still to be determined. Stay tuned for Part 2.

In the meantime, let me tell you why I haven't been so keen to tent camp up until now:

  1. The whole bathroom thing.....

I am just not excited nor talented at peeing in the woods. (Don't even talk about the other kind!!) My first attempt at peeing in the woods out of desparation ended up with urine soaked underwear. Yes! Disgusting! My husband tells me its a physics thing. I prefer to say that I am just not designed for toilet-less bladder relief.

I have to tell you, though that I did have success last year when my husband and I took a backpacking trip in Banff National park. Before we left, my older daughter had proudly presented me with a plastic device that was sure to solve my problems. Basically a female urinal, this device was an epic fail when tried at home! Realizing this device was not going to be my savior, I had to go device-free. Success!

The key, ladies, is positioning yourself uphill, deep squatting and getting your clothing around your ankles. Peeing in the woods made me feel like a real outdoor girl.....sort of. In all honesty, I'd pick a smelly outhouse to dropping my pants in the woods!

So, that said, on our first camping trip, we have selected campsites with bathrooms. Maybe next time we will try the backcountry....You never know!

2. Equipment out the whazoo!

UPS deliveries have been streaming in at our house in the last few weeks with camping equipment - thanks to end of season sales. Do you know how much gear it takes to go camping with a family of 5? (We actually have 4 more kids who have moved on to adulting - that is 4 less people to drag,,,,I mean take...camping, which may be why this is happening so late in our parenting life.)

Tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, stoves, pots, pans, lanterns,wash tubs ......The list is endless. Camping is not a cheap or simple endeavor. Reason #2 is a big one. Let's just say, I hope this is fun because we have acquired a lot of "stuff."

Another aspect of why I have been avoiding camping is the whole sleeping bag situation. Sleeping in a sleeping bag for me is akin to being put in a straight jacket! I am a side sleeper and there just isn't room for that and sleep just doesn't happen. With that said, my research-gifted husband thinks he has come up with the ultimate camping solution. It is some type of "sleeping system" composed of self-inflating bed pads that hook together, quilts and pillows. I will let you know how it works out.

3. Hours of Food Preparation

Having witnessed friends who have gone camping and seen them preparing food for days ahead of time, I did not see the value of camping. THIS is vacation?? Camping is not something you can pull off without some serious planning. Sure if you go last minute you can grab some hot dogs and a can of beans, but who wants to do that for a week? Not me!!

So, I have been doing some research and looking on Pinterest (probably a mistake) and I am determined to have some yummy, non-packaged food meals on our first camping trip. Aside from the traditional S'mores, we should be doing some fine dining. I will let you know how it goes. (And by the way, my son got to plan a meal and he chose hot dogs! But we are going to be wrapping them in crescent rolls for a more refined approach. And we are avoiding the beans, because you know what they do......)

Given the option of having maid service and a comfortable room or setting up a tent, prepping meals for days, peeing in the woods, I would probably choose the first option. But I am looking forward to making memories with my kids that we will talk about for years to come. I am thrilled to be spending some time away from the rat race, immersed in the woods, building connections with my kids. I can't wait to tell you how it turns out.

What were some of you favorite camping experiences? Give me the good, the bad, and the ugly

Get Your Teen Outside

A Gift That Will Keep On Giving

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Yelling. Crying. Stomping. Emotional Ups and Downs. Withdrawal.

If you've got a teenager in your house you recognize this scene.

What if I told you I had a gift you could give your child to help them through the rocky years of adolescence? It's free, readily available and life-changing. The only catch is that it is best to start giving it to them when they are young.

I am talking about a love of the outdoors. Plenty of evidence exists supporting the mental health benefits of nature, but being able to internalize the fact that being outside calms, quiets the mind and makes you feel better all around, is learned through experience. Kids might not even be able to verbalize those things but they come to connect the outside with positive emotions - which are often far and few between in those adolescent years.

It's really hard to walk by a babbling brook and not feel calmed.

Teen years are challenging - we have all experienced it. The pressures kids face today are more difficult than ever. The need for academic sucess, the challenge of relationships, managing emotional ups and downs, and peer pressure can lead to explosive results. Anxiety levels are at an all time high. It is hard to watch our kids experience these things but we can help by giving them some tools to manage the symptoms. It is sort of like a pressure cooker - if you don't let off a little steam, it will explode!

Coping skills are things we use to manage the stressors in our life. Some are healthy - taking a deep breath before speaking, talking to a friend or writing down your feelings. Others are not so healthy, such as overeating, yelling or worse yet, substance abuse. Being able to remove yourself from a situation and take a walk outside or go for a bike ride are far better options than drugs or alchohol. Teens are known for their risky behavior - it is part of how they develop into independent adults. I would much rather have them climb a tree or go hammocking than some of the more destructive options. And when self-esteem is under attack, there is nothing as great as the feeling of accomplishment of taking a long hike or climbing some rocks to provide a boost in confidence.

Being immersed in nature grounds you. It calms you. It gives you a sense of place. physical activity provides endorphins. What teen wouldn't benefit from these perks of being outside?

But having a comfort level with nature begins early in life. Start getting kids outside when they are young. Seek green spaces and forests close to home. Resist the urge to let them rely on technology for entertainment. Don't fret if you missed opportunities when they were young - it's never too late to start. Although your teenager may resist a family outing or hike (I know mine often do!), once they are out there and are physically and mentally removed from life's distractions, nature takes over and calms from the inside out. I have seen it time and time again in my own kids. Being outside yourself is the best incentive to get kids outside.

Let's face it, if someone was telling you to do something that they weren't doing themselves - would you be motivated do it?

A recent poll says that only 10% of children report going outside on a daily basis. Let's change this alarming trend and arm our teens with experiences that they can draw upon as they encounter the tumultuous season of life.

See you outside!

-Ann-