One night last winter, the clouds opened into a heavy snowfall that fell in fluffy clumps and quickly covered the ground in thick, uneven mounds of drifting snow.
After dinner was eaten and toys cleaned up, we layered into snowsuits and mittens, tiny hands pulling ear flaps down over pudgy cheeks and thickly layered feet pushing into the woolen lining of our boots. It was bedtime but we were headed out.
There would be no lengthy trek or prolonged adventure, but we would walk down the road to breathe the nighttime air and gaze at the blanketed sky above. We would watch the snow land heavily and disappear into the white. We would feel like astronauts as the streetlights illuminated each flake flying towards us against the black background of night. We couldn’t even see it behind the dense clouds, but tonight was the full moon and this was our tradition, so out we went.
Every month, my kids watch the moon eagerly as it grows rounder and brighter. They check the calendar and count the days until it’s full. For they know that when it is, instead of heading upstairs after dinner for bath time and stories, they will head into the evening air and run wild one last time before they sleep. We are a family that values time outdoors and prioritizes the chance to run wild. This is one way that we let our actions reinforce that.
On the surface, family traditions are a fun and exciting way to create memories together. But on a deeper level, traditions reinforce a family’s identity, foster togetherness, teach family values and provide comfort and security. Families that create traditions centered on nature reinforce for their children the importance of time spent outdoors. And the results are long-lasting on two levels. First, children who spent time in nature growing up show higher levels of maturity and lower levels of aggression as teens. And second, teens who participate in positive and mutually-agreed upon family rituals report higher levels of self esteem.
It’s a win-win for outdoor family traditions.
But you don’t have to take monthly full moon walks to reinforce this for your own family. Here are 20 nature-centered family traditions that will rekindle your child’s love of being outdoors and reinforce your family’s commitment to nature and each other.
Throw a family party 4 times a year to mark the change in seasons. Choose a perfect winter day to play in the snow or watch an early sunset. Mark the arrival of spring by planting flowers or checking bulbs. Spend a summer day making popsicles to enjoy after bedtime. Carve a pumpkin and enjoy a harvest feast in the fall. Whatever makes each season its own wherever you are, celebrate it together.
Rather than choosing vacation destinations based on theme parks or fancy accommodations, try choosing one annual vacation based on the outdoor activities it affords. It doesn’t have to be a long trip - even a single night away that enables you to get up early and start a long day hike could be the start of a yearly tradition.
Pick your own berries or vegetables.
Find a local farm, orchard or berry patch and visit it around the same time each year to harvest its bounty. Or, visit it multiple times each summer to see how its fruit changes over time.
Family Bucket Lists.
Create a family bucket list of outdoor activities, places or sights. Make it relevant to your interests and then work together to check off each item. It could be historical sites, summits, Audubon properties, birds sightings, constellations, or anything else you can think of! Choose something together, craft the list, and celebrate your success as you accomplish everything on it!
Sharing Nature Observations.
For a simple daily reminder of your family’s values, try each sharing one interesting thing you observed in nature on a daily basis. This could be over dinner, at bedtime or in the car. It only takes a tiny bit of time to share what you’ve seen.
Have an "opposite day" to celebrate summer in the middle of winter.
Visit your favorite summer places, bring lots of warm clothes, and enjoy a meal outdoors. Don’t worry, summer is coming and it won’t be long before you can celebrate it again!
These are as simple and frequent as you want to make them. Walk weekly, or monthly, or choose an annual hike to do together. Our neighbors mark the start of each new week with a Sunday hike together.
There are many ways to become a steward of the environment. Try volunteering together as a family to plant trees, clean up a beach or pick up trash in your local park. If there aren’t any formal options available near you, start your own!
Annual outdoor photos at the same landmark.
I love this one. Try taking a photo of the family (or just the kids, if you’re camera shy) outdoors at the same place each year. Or make it even more interesting and take a photo at the same place multiple times throughout the year so you can see how it changes with you.
Meteor watching party.
This one takes some planning, but there are many celestial events throughout the year to choose from. Visit the Sea and Sky to plan ahead and make sure to research your chosen event for optimal viewing times and places.
If a weekend away is too hard to come by, simplify by planning an annual campout in your own backyard.
Choose a favorite place to enjoy a meal. Pack something special to eat, a blanket for lounging, and a kite to fly or frisbee to throw. Spend the afternoon. For a fun twist, try it on a snow day.
Thunderstorms can be a scary thing for kids, but make them exciting and lighthearted by turning them into a dance party. Whenever you hear thunder, turn out the lights and dance away!
Outdoor Movie Night.
Each summer, on a special weekend, let the kids invite some friends over to watch a movie in the backyard. A projector and a sheet screen is the ideal setup, but even a laptop will work. Bonus points for popcorn over a fire while you’re at it.
Each fall, have the kids write down one wish they have for the upcoming school year. Plant the wish under a new bulb and when it sprouts in the spring, talk about whether or not their wish came true.
Celebrate the Solstice.
Each spring and winter, celebrate the solstice with a family party. Read a story about the solstice, eat dinner by candlelight or outside, and go for a walk at sunset.
Coming of age ritual with outdoor relevance.
It could be getting a first pocket knife, going on a first backpacking trip, or learning to build a fire. I am grateful on a regular basis for the outdoor skills I’ve been taught. I find myself using my knowledge of knots often and plan on passing this skill on to my boys as a rite of passage.
Organized family distance walk or run.
It could be a formal 5k that you participate in together or it could be a long walk that you do each year. In my family growing up, we always took a long walk after Thanksgiving dinner to make some room before dessert.
Fun family sporting event.
Maybe it’s an annual football game, mini golfing excursion, or backyard corn hole tournament. In any case, kids who grow up watching the family enjoy games outside together will look forward to participating themselves.
Weekly wonder jar.
This one is especially great for younger kids. Keep a large jar or bowl on the kitchen table or counter. Each week, encourage your kids to spend some time looking around them for something small that sparks their wonder. When they find it, they can put in the wonder jar. On Sunday night, each family member can share what they put in the wonder jar that week.
When choosing a family tradition, it’s best to start small. Choose something that can be integrated easily into your routine, and don’t force it. If it doesn’t feel right or causes more stress than it’s worth, there’s no shame in starting over with a new one. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun!