Taking Childhood Outdoors: A Mother Reflects on Nature

by Linnea Westerlind, outdoors author/blogger

I spent a lot of my Pacific Northwest childhood with dirt under my fingernails, running barefoot in my suburban backyard. I built forts in the blackberry bushes, dug channels in the mud and roamed the cul-de-sac with my sister and our neighborhood friends.

When I became a mom 10 years ago, I began exposing my son to the outdoors as soon as I could, mostly because I craved the fresh air and sunshine. We took daily walks with a stroller and explored new parks all over the city. I have three kids now, who all accumulate an amazing amount of dirt under their fingernails from the time they spend outside. 

Linnea and her family on a backpacking trip through Olympic National Park in 2018. Photo courtesy Linnea Westerlind.

Linnea and her family on a backpacking trip through Olympic National Park in 2018. Photo courtesy Linnea Westerlind.

I think it’s much harder to create an outdoor childhood for our children than it was for my generation. There’s competition for their time from video games and extracurricular activities, and many parents are afraid to let kids roam on their own these days. It’s because of this draw to the indoors that I believe it has never been more important to make sure our children have outdoor experiences as part of their upbringing.

Research continues to show us that there are huge benefits to spending time in nature—for our children and for ourselves. Time in the outdoors reduces stress, increases concentration, boosts academic performance, lessens the symptoms of ADHD, improves mood and builds relationship skills.

Linnea and her mom brought the kids for a first visit to Mt. Rainier in 2016. Photo courtesy Linnea Westerlind.

Linnea and her mom brought the kids for a first visit to Mt. Rainier in 2016. Photo courtesy Linnea Westerlind.

My own mom imparted a love of the outdoors in me from an early age by taking me on a lot of short walks and hikes. Sometimes these were just around our block and other times in the forests of the Cascades. She made sure my time in nature was interesting from a child’s perspective by showing me how to look for ripe blueberries, examine holes in logs that could be hiding places for animals and check out unusual rocks or moss.

Last year I helped form Outdoor Childhood Puget Sound, a network of parents, grandparents, educators and caregivers who are interested in helping kids live a healthier and happier childhood by spending more time outdoors. Through a growing Facebook community, we share tips, events, articles and ideas for how to get our kids outside to play. What I’ve learned from the launch of this modest effort is that there is a longing for greater connection to the outdoors for people of all ages and a relief from our indoor, screen-obsessed lives.

So how do we make nature part of our busy lives more regularly? It’s OK to start small. Go for a walk around the block after dinner. Step outside to look at the stars come out before bedtime. Turn off the Saturday morning cartoons and instead go to a new park or playground. Nature doesn't have to be an epic adventure to be meaningful or memorable. What’s important is that we’re teaching them to love Mother Nature.

 Linnea Westerlind is the author of Discovering Seattle Parks: A Local's Guide (Mountaineers Books 2017) and the creator of the website, a free resource of nearly 500 local and regional parks. She is also a co-founder of Outdoor Childhood Puget Sound, an effort to inspire more families to spend time in the outdoors. All families are welcome to join the community’s Facebook group. Linnea lives in Seattle with her husband and three sons.

Believe the View: October Photo of the Month

Written & Photographed by Barbara Joan

I had the great fortune of growing up outside. Thanks to my dad's love for and appreciation of the mountains, my earliest and fondest childhood memories involve summers spent foraging for native berries and morel mushrooms, camping under the stars in the Umatilla National Forest, and swimming in remote wilderness rivers. I made houses from sword fern fronds, learned to recognize where the dolly varden were hiding, and took naps in the shade of old growth forests.

Last fall, the depression I experienced in my 20s surprised me by reviving itself the same way I've seen beetles return from the dead when they believe danger has passed. I didn't see it coming and wasn't prepared to manage the familiar feelings and uninvited distorted thinking that invaded my world like noxious weeds.  I knew I needed to go outside again and so began my quest to find the beauty in my local public lands and, in the process, remember the beauty in me.

This was a view I found in the first days of August, 2016. Starting in the early afternoon, my husband, my three-year-old and I hiked past Mount Rainier's Frozen Lake to Second Burroughs Mountain. We lingered at the crest for some time in an effort to identify the many wildflower blooms and backcountry birds that fluttered about. We've completed many hikes in and around Mount Rainier, but this was our first time in the alpine tundra and there was so much determination, resilience and hope to take in. What at first glance seemed like a barren wasteland was actually replete with life and I was mesmerized. The parallel to my own internal journey was clear.

I took this photo on our way back down the mountain. Instead of returning as we'd come, we opted for the slightly longer route down the Sunrise Rim Trail. In the early evening glow of the setting sun I heard my son say, "Wow! Mommy! Look at this view!"  

I stopped and turned and looked back behind me at this big, glorious, patient mountain. "Son," I said. "Can you believe you own a part of this view?"

He looked at me curiously. "I do?"

"You do. And so does daddy and so do I."

And without a pause, his eyes large and bright and smiling, he said, "We're RICH!"

And we are, aren't we?

Barbara takes and posts pictures of public lands to inspire others to go outside and experience our blessed inheritance and advocate for its protection and preservation. You can see more of her images on her Twitter feed: @publiclandlvr.

Let’s Go “Salmoning!”

Witnessing the salmon journey with family

Written and Photographed by Ryan Haugo, Senior Forest Ecologist

After 12+ months working on our massive Central Cascades Projects, first the acquisition from Plum Creek Timber Company and now development of our comprehensive management plan, it’s time to take a breath and enjoy the amazing natural features of this landscape. It’s time to go “salmoning”.

What’s “salmoning” you might ask? Salmoning is the name my family has given to act of trekking out to view spawning salmon at the end of their long journey from the ocean. It’s one way for two Midwestern parents to raise Northwestern kids.

This month Chinook and Sockeye salmon are spawning in the upper reaches of the Yakima Basin, in rivers fed by our Central Cascades Forests. The chinook salmon that we viewed began their roughly 500 mile journal from the Pacific Ocean this past spring, up the Columbia River, up the Yakima River, and finally up to their spawning grounds in the Cle Elum River. The Sockeye are present above the dam on Cle Elum Lake thanks to a re-introduction project led by the Yakama Nation. Prior to the completion of the irrigation storage dams in the 1930’s, it is estimated that at least 200,000 sockeye returned annually to the lakes of the Yakima River Basin. 

While current number of Salmon in the Yakima River Basin may be a far cry from historic levels, their presence was enough to elicit excitement and amazement in my family and help us remember why we are working to protect, connect, and restore our Washington forests.

More information:

Parenthood, Conservation and City Living


Finding ways to engage city kids in conservation

Written and Photographed by Jamie Robertson, Spatial Analyst

“Outside, Daddy!” demands my toddler, Rowan. She wants to be out of the house exploring the community garden, following the hoot of an owl, or surveying the bay below our Tacoma neighborhood. I hear it multiple times a day and will never tire of it. She loves being outside – out adventuring – and I wish more than anything that she always will.

Being a conservation geographer, my career and my personal life meet at a crossroads of place and a respect for the natural things supporting us in this world. As a parent whose childhood was spent freely wandering many undeveloped acres of wooded hills, playing in healthy clear creeks, and dancing around May Poles in what wasn’t quite a hippy commune but let’s call it one anyway, I recognize “place” played as large a role in shaping my sense of discovery, wanderlust, and career as the people I shared those experiences with. And Rowan’s childhood place is certainly different from my own.

My wife Courtney and I recently moved back to Washington after each discovering its lures before we even knew each other. We are from North Carolina, though we met, fell in love, and had Rowan in Colorado. Our landing in Tacoma was a surprise, but our decision to raise Rowan in this state was absolutely deliberate. As it turns out, Tacoma is arguably the prettiest city in the Pacific Northwest. Mt. Rainier looms, old growth trees tower in vast Pt. Defiance Park, the waters of Tacoma Narrows and Commencement Bay surround half the city, downtown museums and theaters provide an impressive cultural and aesthetic appeal, and beautiful Craftsman, Victorian, and Tudor homes with lush gardens spread across the steep hillsides. Despite its rough history and typical urban issues, Tacoma is a wonderful place to raise our family.

But with city living – or maybe I should say modern living – comes a struggle. How do we allow Rowan enough freedoms to discover her own paths? What is truly necessary for her to grow respect for the natural world?

Granted, my daughter is still a toddler, but finding ways to engage city kids in conservation is a necessary strategy for all people concerned with natural or urban wellbeing. I believe tomorrow’s conservationists will increasingly be born from an urban experience which differs so vastly from the back-to-nature background of so many conservationists today. Indeed, this will be necessary as urbanism will only continue to influence and control the fates of the natural world that shaped me so profoundly and which will keep our social and economic systems running well into the future. Freedom to discover outside leads to respect for nature and is fundamental to engaging all children, I believe.

In my job, discovery means mapping out the world around us to help Washington understand the natural world and the factors impacting it so we can determine collectively how to address conservation issues. As a parent, discovery means finding ways to teach Rowan skills of self-reliance and to build a foundation of confidence she will need to adventure on her own. …But for now, I’ll be sure to keep a watchful eye when she sprints out the door.

Learn more about how you can share the love of the outdoors with your kids.

A Park Ranger's Daughter

Written and Photographed by Heather Ferguson, Office Coordinator

Capitol Reef National Park. Big Bend National Park. Cumberland Island National Seashore. Great Basin National Park. What do all these amazing places have in common? My undying adoration thanks to my father. This is just the short list. A few of the many places that we called home throughout my childhood and some of the many reasons why my immersion into nature was so complete. While growing up, my father’s career in the National Park Service gave me a perspective that few others have had a chance to enjoy. He never missed a beat when divining that his daughter was no just in awe, but deeply in love with what surrounded her and always included me in the explorations in which I could take part.

In my very early days, as we lived in the natural wonderland that is Southern Utah, some of my most cherished memories are of Dad and me heading out on a hike through Arches and then Lake Powell, sneaking up on lizards, and playing in secluded pools. During our time in Capitol Reef, tiny though I was, I vividly remember the rich smell of the honey and fresh beeswax, the cherries and apricots that he brought home as he cared for the bees and orchards.

As a teenager, full of the expected angst and often at odds with a man with whom I was altogether much too similar in temperament, we came to terms with each other in natural settings. Our time in Georgia was testament to the healing power of nature. It was a whole new world for us both having spent the vast majority of our lives in the Southwest. Always well read, we ventured through swamp lands and eyed alligators, Dad sharing tales of some natural event pertinent to the location. Had a long weekend? Let’s go check out a different National Park or natural area!

Today, my folks have chosen to settle in a remote valley of Nevada, cherishing the last park where my father served as a Superintendent and finally calling one place “home”. When I go back to visit, I know that he will take me into the Lehman Caves to introduce me to any one of the 17 new species discovered in the last few years. We’ll probably go rock hounding and maybe even fish in the mountain lakes and streams running with snowmelt. He’ll share the familiar stories of his Peace Corps service in Nicaraguan National Parks and his summer of Nature Conservancy stewardship at Idler’s Rest in Idaho. As for me, I’ll be taking my time, relishing every minute with my Dad, and becoming inspired once again to take nature as my refuge.