Wildfulness: Nature’s Cure for Stressed Families

Cartoon image of family hiking

Outside, away from screens, kids can be themselves...With less structure, kids relax and explore.

The stresses of life—school and work pressures, packed schedules, the reality and threat of unemployment, a worldwide pandemic—are tough on body and soul. Studies link those stressors to obesity, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse in children and adults and consistently point to the restorative value of Nature. “Getting families into the wilderness might be my biggest impact on public health,” says Sarah Crockett, MD, co-director, Emergency Medicine Student Education. “There’s no better prescription.”

A specialist in Wilderness Medicine and the mother of four, Crockett understands stress and how to tame it with steady doses of the outdoors. “When COVID-19 hit our area, it was scary, and my anxiety level was intense,” says Crockett. “Nature is where I find peace, so one of my stress interventions was sitting by the brook near our house and, in my own way, meditating. I still try to make it to that spot every week.”

Nature as family-medicine

Family Hike Safety

Safe hiking starts with thoughtful packing. How long is the hike? What is the forecast? Will you be moving through changing climates? Pack these essentials:

  • Navigation: printed map, compass, GPS device, locater beacon, etc.
  • Light: Headlamp with extra batteries.
  • Sun protection: sunglasses, protective clothing, sunscreen.
  • First aid: standard kit with foot care and insect repellent.
  • Tools: knife, gear repair.
  • Fire: matches, lighter, tinder or stove.
  • Food: beyond the minimum expectation.
  • Water: beyond the minimum expectation.
  • Clothing: layers for varying climates.

Should an accident or health situation occur, employ STOP:

  • S – Stop before taking action to avoid panicked mistakes.
  • T – Think about what has happened, where you are, the resources available.
  • O – Observe the whole condition of the hurt hiker.
  • P – Plan according to the condition of hiking party, resources on hand, time of day, distance to help.

Nature as family-medicine is even more powerful. “Outside, away from screens, kids can be themselves,” says Crockett. “With less structure, kids relax and explore. Nature fascinates them. They learn by taking risks. When you watch your child play in Nature, you discover what inspires and excites them. You learn through their eyes. And, everyone gets needed exercise.”

With hiking trails in abundance in northern New England and the portability of babies, families can get an early start on building nature habits. “All of my kids have been outside and on the trail at just weeks old,” says Crockett. “My colicky son was his happiest in a front carrier, and when we took him tent camping at six weeks, I had my best night’s sleep. Now he’s 12, and I can’t keep up with him.”

Crockett recommends that families new to hiking start easy. “Flat rail-trails are the highways of hiking; you can’t get lost. Remember, if the trail you’re on is too challenging, it’s okay to turn around or stop and play who-can-find-the-most of something.”

The contents of hiking packs should reflect the unpredictability of kids, weather and cell service. “Any hiker can fall, and kids don’t always show signs of dehydration before it’s pretty far along,” says Crockett. “Climate changes with elevation and you shouldn’t count on cell service or batteries, which drain fast in colder weather, for navigation. It’s good to have a printed map.”

“The most important thing to bring on a hike is a good attitude,” says Crockett. “Parents might want to climb a peak or make it to a waterfall, but kids don’t care. They just love being outside with people who love them. Play games. Sing songs. Stomp in puddles. Build fairy houses.”

In fact, one of the most therapeutic aspects of family hiking might be the focus on togetherness over specific accomplishments. “Especially during a pandemic, outside is the best place to just be together,” says Crockett. “Nature is real-time; every family member is fully present. I recently heard this kind of wilderness mindfulness called Wildfulness. That’s exactly what it is.”