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Rachel Macy Stafford is a New York Times bestselling author of “Hands Free Mama” and “Hands Free Life.” Her attempts to let go of what doesn’t matter began when her daughters were young and she realized she was missing so much of their lives because she was distracted by email, the phone and outside commitments. She started her journey to become “Hands Free” with ten minutes a day of attempting to stay present and connected. She found that over time her desire for this time increased and her connection to her daughters did as well. 

It used to be that parents were the only ones distracted by the ping of emails, texts, and phone calls. Now that so many kids seem to have smart phones, they too are distracted by the constant “urgent” pull of notifications, SnapChat streaks, and Instagram updates. The more and more electronically “connected” we are to others in cyberspace, the less connected we can become to those in our physical realm. A recent study correlated the rise in depression to the rise in teen social media consumption. The Child-Mind institute says, “Some experts see the rise in depression as evidence that the connections social media users form electronically are less emotionally satisfying, leaving them feeling socially isolated.”

Rachel offers some great suggestions for parents to make sure they are available for connection with their children. One of the key first steps is to create some daily “hands free” time. Are there times you can agree on as a family to not use (or even have available) electronic devices?

Some of the most crucial times for face-to-face connection are:

Stafford recommends putting boundaries around these times and holding that space for genuine connection with those in your presence as opposed to those in your digital world. If we lead by example, our children can follow. We can guide them toward a more genuine connection with others and allow them to exercise their communication muscles in a positive way. 

You may wonder what difference ten minutes can make. It is so easy to brush off a few minutes at a time. But the problem arises when you are busy checking the news while sipping your morning coffee and your daughter walks in to make her breakfast. She doesn’t want to interrupt, so she decides to check her Instagram feed. When you realize you could talk to her for a few minutes before she takes off for school, you look up from the computer to find her nose buried in Instagram. And round and round we go.  So we have to start somewhere. Even if you only make the kitchen a digital free zone, you may find yourself with ample opportunity to catch up with your uber-busy children. The laughter and stories at the dinner table and perhaps even the breakfast table can return. We can be “those parents,” you know, the ones whose kids know they care and desire a relationship with them? Yes. Those parents. It starts with ten minutes a day. 

Most families feel squeezed by work, school, planned activities, sports practice, and home upkeep. We don’t need fancy research to tell us that getting away from all the hustle and bustle for a few hours is refreshing to the mind, body, and soul. But studies do show nature has many benefits like decreased stress, increased mental energy and creativity, and overall, improved mental health. You may wonder how to fit one more thing in your family’s full schedule. However, if you are prepared, even a couple of hours that might have been spent binge watching a show or cleaning out a closet can turn into a family adventure.

Nature has healing properties. Leaving the stress of work, homework, and a dishwasher that constantly wants to be loaded, frees your brain to relax.  Make time and soak up some fresh air. Taking into account the ages and preferences of your family members, make a short list of places you could go to get outside and enjoy creation. If you have toddlers and preschoolers, where is the closest walking trail with a paved path, shade, and perhaps a water feature? Elementary kids, how about a place you can safely bike and end up at a large playground or ball field? Middle and high schoolers might be attracted to a more strenuous hike that could wind you around to a fun outdoor eatery. 

I don’t know about your family, but in ours, often the most difficult part of the journey is the first step. Getting out the door with all the people and all the equipment seems to take forever. I remember having toddlers and thinking that no one would ever be able to put on their own shoes. Now with teenagers, I often wonder if everyone can just find their shoes! At a family dinner, come up with a plan for where your next family adventure will take place. Decide how long you need to make it happen and what you need to take with you. Will you be riding bikes or scooters and need helmets and the bike rack? Will you stay for a meal and need a picnic blanket, snacks, and a cooler? Most adventures would do well to have a hat, water bottle, and sunscreen for all participants. Can you make a list or have these things in a bag at the ready?

To schedule or not to schedule? That is the question. Again, you know your family best. If you have young ones, just look for an empty spot on the calendar and block it off for “Nature Time.” If your kids make their own plans, you may have to request an uninterrupted time a few weeks out. Mark the time off with their approval, then you can send them text reminders. If it would be more fun, invite some friends to join you. Of course you can just enjoy the outdoors, but if you have family members who want to know the purpose of the trip or who are easily bored, you have options. Planning a scavenger hunt (photos of items work just as well as collecting the items) can be a great way to engage everyone and encourage sibling camaraderie. If you decide to bring phones along, you can have a photography contest of the most interesting find. If your children are younger, come up with a game you can play on your walk or ride. Finding something they see for each letter of the alphabet  is a fun way to help them notice what is around them. You can also do a colors-of-the-rainbow contest to see how many different colors people can notice or photograph. As long as you are breathing in fresh air and enjoying your time together, you have accomplished much.