Though we are in the midst of a potentially lengthy teachers’ strike, it does not take away the fond memories I have of this past summer. Truly, even by Okanagan standards, it was exceptionally hot, sunny, and full of opportunities to be comfortably outdoors at almost any hour. As the last of friends and relatives visiting from afar made their way home, it provided some time to reflect upon the great summer of 2014. It didn’t take long before I asked my two young children about what their favourite part of the summer was, and allowing them do their own reflection, whatever form that takes for six-year-olds!
Invariably, both immediately brought up a game or activity from one of our two camping trips this summer. For me, it was sitting up late one evening with my wife and two good friends, playing cards by the lantern light in a silent campground. Thinking back to some of the most significant events in my life, it was easy to recall canoe trips, week-long and overnight hikes, learning to fish with my father long ago, and so many more. The trend became clear, and I had an epiphany: could it be true that as human beings, our greatest memories will often take place in the outdoors? If so, is there something magical or therapeutic about being outside that we need to be aware of?
Richard Louv, author of a book I recently came across entitled Last Child in the Woods, would not be the least bit surprised by my observation. He makes a convincing argument that any human spending sufficient time outdoors, especially during the childhood years, will be much healthier on not just physical levels, but also emotionally as adulthood is reached. Further, the epidemic-levels of ADHD and depression we have become accustomed to in our society have shown through many scientific studies to have a high degree of correlation with spending a great deal of time indoors, and seldom venturing far from home, especially on foot. Though we are near many great lakes and outdoor activities, there is certainly no shortage of young people who come through my office and report (very matter-of-factly) that they spend much time gaming by network, on social media, or generally and unintentionally avoiding sunshine.
There is clearly something very good that happens for each of us who regularly engage in some sort of activity outdoors, even if it is simply walking to the store, or choosing to eat lunch on a bench outdoors, rather than at one’s desk at the office. The fact that science now largely backs this idea makes it all the more vital to ensure our children and teens have healthy structure and boundaries around “screen time” at home. That does not mean declaring all tablets and smartphones off limits or unplugging the internet for all but three hours per day, for example, which would likely damage trust and connection if it was done too autocratically. However, it may mean that a family discussion takes place about how much screen time is healthy on a given day, and creating some mutually agreeable rules to help ensure the attraction of staying inside all day remains minimal.
I am often asked by parents the degree to which I believe medications have an important role to play in someone receiving counseling therapy. To be honest, and this may surprise some, I fully accept the necessity of carefully prescribed medications at times to help with the therapeutic process. However, I am also very open to the idea that even pharmaceutical assistance may not provide the ideal “chemical balance” in the brain and body; the natural endorphins that are created through breathing fresh air and moving in the outdoors, along with the vitamin D created with exposure to the Okanagan sun, and reduction of cortisol (a stress hormone) through a natural relaxation of the mind that can take place by simply being fully present in the outdoors, may actually produce the most potent chemical intervention possible in reducing the often-intense effects of ADHD and depression. It is a natural part of the solution that has been scientifically proven – an attractive combination in challenging times.