With so many New Year’s resolutions vying for your attention, finding uninterrupted family time can easily slide off your list. No matter what year we’re in, we all crave connection. Why not make 2022 the year you take advantage of our (mostly) year-round good weather by getting out in nature more to revitalize yourself and your relationships?
“There’s more and more research and study about the benefits of being out in nature for everyone, and for children in particular,” says Emi Yoshimura, director of education at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge. Spending time outside can improve your kid’s concentration, self-esteem and overall cognitive function.
These aren’t the only life-changing discoveries to be made in greenery. Yoshimura stresses that it’s important for children to have time outdoors to cultivate a sense of wonder. “The joy of making discoveries together is an important part of being able to spend time outside,” Yoshimura says.
Who knows what you might discover — in nature and each other — while visiting our local gardens, outdoor spaces and secret hideaways?
Grow together in gardens and parks
With 150 acres of gardens and woodlands, Descanso Gardens makes discovery time easy. It boasts a variety of plant collections, and exploring the grounds together is one way nature can initiate a connection for you and yours. “We’re also a great place to see wildlife,” says Yoshimura. At Mulberry Pond, you’ll spot turtles, fish and ducks, depending on the season. Watching animals interact in their environment is a great way to strike up a conversation, and little ones are mesmerized by the animals’ movements and sounds.
“Nature is a huge conversation starter,” says Adrienne Lao Nakashima, CEO of South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. During your visit, soak in everything from flowering fruit trees to plants from all over the world. Talking about all the sights and sounds is a good route to take when opening the door for deeper discussions. For the smaller kiddos, searching for colors and shapes in nature is a fun addition to walking and skipping down well-worn paths. Nakashima encourages visitors to touch and explore the plant life.
Another outdoor space where you can witness local wildlife, seasonal changes and positive mood changes in your crew is among the trees with TreePeople, located in Coldwater Canyon Park. “You always feel better after walking around in nature,” says Rosa Donis, senior manager of educational tours. TreePeople is a nonprofit organization that’s been around for 50 years. Donis says its mission is planting trees and educating children, including children at heart. “Adults are just grown-up children who like to have fun connecting with nature as well,” she says. And with parks and shaded trails that connect to the Santa Monica Mountains, your family can definitely find great amounts of fun there.
“Nature helps you connect, and it helps you reflect and remember,” Donis says. “The little ones love our trails because they’re canopied and surrounded by trees and bushes.” Picking up leaves and smelling the eucalyptus gives kids a nice sensory experience.
Then there are the educational displays that young (and older) readers will enjoy. “The picnic tables give amazing views,” Donis offers. So, if you’re looking for a great backdrop to chat or snap a quick family selfie, you know where to go.
While you’re looking to reconnect in the great outdoors, don’t miss The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. “This is a garden that appeals to all generations,” says Nicole Cavender, The Huntington’s botanical gardens director. The botanical gardens take up approximately 130 of the 207-acre grounds and offer more than a dozen impressively themed gardens. Cavender says that having unscheduled time in nature gives children space to nurture their curiosity. “You want to leave that space for kids to be creative, and a garden setting like this is conducive to that,” she says.
A great place to share in your kid’s natural curiosity is by spending time in the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden. Built to engage 2- to 7-year-olds in particular, this garden introduces kids to “the wonders of the natural world through interactive sculptural elements,” Cavender says.
On your way to the children’s garden, trek through the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory to “immerse yourself in this tropical world [which also has] a really nice aquarium,” she says. While further exploring the gardens and strengthening your family connection, Cavender recommends allowing yourself to get lost because that’s part of the fun.
Claim a nearby ‘sit spot’
While you have your explorer’s cap on, don’t forget nature is also outside your own front door. Set off on a neighborhood adventure to find your very own “sit spot.” Your goal here is to pick a location you and your kids love and then return to that place often. Feel free to choose favorite spots in local gardens or outdoor spaces, too, but finding a spot to revisit close to home has advantages. Easy to access after long work and school days, returning to these familiar places connects you in a deeper way to the nature close to you.
Focusing on the nuances at your sit spot can bring a meditative quality to your family time. Maria Cristina Jimenez, yoga instructor and occupational therapist, says, “Meditation can be described as the act of paying attention to what’s new.” One way to pay attention in your special spot is to listen to the sounds around you. “What sounds do you hear and what seems close or far away?” Jimenez asks. Moving further down the meditation path, she suggests that you ask yourself (and each other): “How can I connect more with my surroundings and the people around me?”
When visiting your special location, don’t forget to take along binoculars and all the drawing supplies you can carry. This way you and your kids can have fun documenting everything you see. Jimenez says noticing what’s around you is one way we can increase our self-awareness. Another added bonus to this expedition is seeing all the animals that frequent your area. This bolsters empathy and encourages respect for the environment.
Getting out of the house for some simple undistracted moments helps us make memories and strengthen family bonds. So, next time you need some family time, remember that it need not be complicated or filled with lots of fanfare. “Just be curious and let it take you where it’s going to take you,” Cavender says.
Tonilyn Hornung is an author and freelance writer who lives with her husband, son, many furry friends and never enough closet space.