The Great Outdoors

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Back in January, I read The Primal Connection by Mark Sisson and made a commitment to myself to follow the principles for health outlined in the book.  I was most interested in using experiences in nature as a means for improving mental health, particularly mine and Charlotte’s. I was intrigued with the idea that time outdoors could provide the sensory input her body was seeking. It seemed to be the perfect extension of Paleo principles–if eating and moving like our ancestors improved our physical health, then using nature as a tool would appropriately engage our senses, restore a sense of well-being and contentment, and improve our neurological health.

I decided to give it a try based on my past and recent experiences in nature that have confirmed the theory that it is, in fact, calming and anxiety-reducing to “get away from it all”. Each year after our annual hiking and fishing trips to Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, I return with a renewed spirit and deep sense of gratitude and connection.

When the school year started last Fall, my friend Rachel and I committed to taking long walks or hikes together once per week. Come rain or shine, we have hiked and talked and bonded over the challenges and triumphs of raising a Paleo family. The time outdoors has become uniquely ours and resulted in a deeper level of connection in our friendship.

My most cherished memories as a child come from time outdoors. We spent many family vacations at the beach, and when I now visit as an adult, I fondly remember the taste of sea water in my mouth and the feel of kelp at my ankles and the exhilaration of riding swells into the shore on my boogie board.

As I read Mark’s book, I found myself asking, if experiences in nature seem to nurture positive feelings of gratitude and connection, along with providing strong sensory feedback, why are we not spending more time outdoors?

Over the past few months, I have made more of an effort to get myself and the kids outside, and I’ve learned several things about making this element of our health a true priority.

It works

A few weeks ago, I picked Charlotte up from school on a Wednesday afternoon. Her teachers reported that she was calm and focused all day. I did a quick mental checklist of how much sleep she’d gotten, what she’d eaten, and what we’d done the day before so I make sure to replicate this formula for success many times over. Of course, I wasn’t surprised, remembering our quiet Tuesday afternoon at the beach together. She had happily played in the sand and mild sunshine, slept well that night, and performed well at school the next day. I now pay very close attention to how her outside time relates to better behavior and when questionable behavior may need an intervention in the form of a simple walk around the block or hopscotch in the front yard.

The Primal Connection mentioned that time outdoors spurs creative energy and encourages more independent play, and I didn’t believe it until I saw it. Charlotte has reduced her TV watching and ipad playing to just a few hours a week–completely voluntarily. When returning home from school or therapy, instead of zoning out in front of the screen, she happily gets to work making a craft or coloring a picture, consuming herself in creative thought for long periods of time.

Keep it Simple

I have learned that just like adopting the Paleo diet, this, too is a shift in thinking and takes patience and learning with yourself to find a groove. There have definitely been times over the last few months when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Some Saturday mornings, I’ll wake up ready to have a fun family day outdoors, only to find that I’m ripe with exhaustion. A quick recap of the week tells the story–cooking, hiking, CrossFit, grocery shopping, beach trips, kids’ activities, and homework leave no energy for new adventures requiring any extra effort. I’ve learned to scale back the expectations of myself and adopt this new aspect of our lifestyle more carefully. I often need to remind myself that our simple outdoor experiences are usually the most successful.

I have learned to consider that it all takes energy to make it work, and it won’t always go smoothly. Over Easter weekend, we visited my in-laws and took a walk on a nature trail that included Charlotte falling off of her bike and melting down, a grumpy old golfer accusing us of trespassing, and a near dog mauling with our dog and another dog off-leash. Needless to say, I wasn’t any more relaxed from our outdoor experience when we returned home. But rather than give up or blame myself on some level, we laughed it off and decided it certainly was a walk to remember.

Letting Go

I’ve found that Charlotte struggles the most with sensory dysregulation when she is not in control of her environment. As she has gotten older, she has learned communication and other coping tools to deal with simple things like sharing with her sister or waiting her turn. However, even in her progress, I can still see her sensory issues come alive in places where she cannot touch or feel or move like she needs to.

Yesterday I took her to a duck pond in our local community and learned an important lesson about environment. I couldn’t bring myself to buy bread to feed to the ducks, so when we arrived empty-handed, I anticipated a brief, twenty-minute excursion with nothing much to do except watch the ducks from afar and walk around the bank. When we arrived, I sensed that Charlotte wanted to be in control. I let go and while I let her guide me around the pond, I observed how her mind and body relaxed in the natural environment. I snapped photos of her as she used her muscles and maneuvered the tree roots and twigs on the banks, how she balanced using the tree’s trunk, and how she calmed when her feet entered the cool pond water. She was relaxed and at peace in a natural setting that had an ebb and flow all its own.

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When she slipped off her shoes to feel the earth on her feet, I kept on eye on the ground just ahead of her watching for broken glass or sharp twigs, but trusting that her senses were appropriately doing the work for her. We watched the turtles swim, listened to the crane’s call, and noted the bright orange color of the duck’s webbed feet. It felt natural and right and so simple.

As we walked to the car, Charlotte was already planning our next trip to the duck pond–this time with Dana, Daddy and his fishing pole, since there were fish in the water. I felt the weightlessness of her tiny hand in mine as we crossed the parking lot–using my senses to grab the moment and become fully aware of the precious time we had just shared.