When I visited my dad this week in the nursing home his dementia had advanced another step. It seemed like his brain was struggling to register what his body was feeling. It was overwhelming to absorb. The first chance that I got, I went to clear my head with a run, or more of a walk, by a river. Under the sky and trees, I was able to connect with my feelings of loss, reflect on our relationship, and be soothed by the crunch of the leaves, the breeze, the sound of water making its way around rocks.
As I turned around to head back home, I realized – my dad gave me this. My dad gave me the habit to seek out the outdoors, the knowledge that I was brave there, and the confidence to be alone in nature. Those are powerful gifts to give any young person, but especially a girl. This is why, as Thanksgiving nears, I’m not as excited about actual Thanksgiving Day as I am for Black Friday, a day that REI turned into a campaign to #OptOutside. I feel ready to face the resistance I’ll get from my kids in order to pass on my dad’s gift, by starting our own tradition of an ambitious hike.
To be honest, while I liked the REI campaign when I first heard about it, we at Girls Leadership didn’t really take notice as a girl-serving organization. But, since the #OptOutside campaign launched, the news for our girls’ mental health has not been good – adolescents, in general, are experiencing a rise in anxiety and depression. These levels are twice as high for our girls, and the gender gap is only increasing. With outdoor time reduced by 50% in the last 20 years, and the average teen now spending nine hours a day looking at a screen, the time has come to formalize our commitment to getting outdoors.
Reason #1: Freedom From The Girl Rules
Since girls are valued from a very early age for being cute, caring and likable, the outdoors becomes an ideal environment to take a break from those expectations and explore other possibilities such as bravery, strength, or determination. While there is nothing inherently wrong with looking good, when girls focus on pleasing others, they can lose their voice and their ability to speak their mind when disagreeing with others. No wonder that 70% of women say they feel free or liberated from expectations and daily pressures when they spend time outdoors. Even if you take a few selfies (with your phone in airplane mode), outdoor time can be a welcome break from performing according to the gender norms.
Reason #2: A Chance To Be In Her Body, Not Looking At It
Girls’ growing use of visual social media platforms is cultivating a comparison culture: how do I, my likes, my followers, quantitatively compare, on an hourly basis, to others like me? This mindset can be hard to break when all of us — adults, and tweens and teens — are checking our phones hundreds of times a day. When we get outside, to a park, a riverside, a mountain, a greenway, our horizon line changes. When we push our pedals to get us up the hill or scramble over a rock, our focus shifts and we are in our bodies. This is a crucial mental shift for girls whose senses of self-worth are deeply connected to how others see their changing bodies.
Reason #3: Cultivate Mindfulness
Hopping on a bike, in the ocean, or on a trail is a chance to pause the radio noise in our heads and connect with what we’re thinking or feeling. While practicing mindfulness, the observation and non-judgment of our thoughts, doesn’t usually come easily, movement can be a much easier entry point than sitting still. The best part? While being on social media usually leaves us feeling down, movement provides us with the endorphins that keep us coming back for more.
Reason #4: Identity Exploration
If your girl is like the average American, she is spending 95% of her life indoors. It is no surprise how many girls identify as “not outdoorsy,” given the cultural expectations that girls be scared of bugs and dirt-averse. In our recent interviews with middle school girls, they told us they had no time to be outside. Since the outdoors is such a powerful playing field to learn internal (grit, resilience, bravery) and external (strength, survival, balance, etc) skills to thrive, it is important that we do our best to open this door for them. Being outside is a chance for our girls to discover what they are made of.
Reason #5: We Get To Be Out There Too
Stress and anxiety aren’t restricted to girls in a girl-world cultural bubble; we adults are right there with them. Many of us are blurring the lines between work and home life. We are going to bed with our phones, and finding it hard to be in the moment without wondering how our moments compare to others. Except for the initial resistance or eye-rolling from our kids, getting outside this Black Friday could be as important for us as it is for them.
My dad always used a treat at the mountain top to keep us going. So when the potatoes and pie are done, I will put my sneakers by the door, and pack a chocolate bar with almonds while thinking of Frank.
(1) Hinkelman, L. (2017). The Girls’ Index: New insights into the complex world of today’s girls. Columbus, OH: Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc.
(2) Blewitt, John. The Media, Animal Conservation and Environmental Education. Routledge, 2013.
(3) Tsukayama, Hayley. “Teens Spend Nearly Nine Hours Every Day Consuming Media.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Nov. 2015. Web.
(4) Stritzke, Jerry. “Force of Nature: Let’s Level the Playing Field.” REI Co-Op Journal, REI, 17 May 2017. Web.
(5) Louise Jack, “Children spend less time outdoors than prisoners, according to the new Persil Ad.’ Fast Company.