grace + gravity

6 Steps to Playing Outside

I didn't get a cellphone until my last year of high school, and before that, I didn't even have access to a home computer until I was ten or eleven years old. I spent my childhood playing outside. My brother and I, and our three neighbour kids, would play hide-and-go-seek in the back alley until well after dar. We built backyard forts out of milk crates and plywood, or homemade swimming pools by cleverly laying a tarp inside of a rectangle of crates and dragging the garden hose into it. Some weekends we would have block-wide water fights, riding our bicycles up and down the alley, stashing balloons in neighbours' front gardens and hiding in wait in park bushes. Occasionally our dad would take us out in his little boat to fish on a local lake. In the winter, we'd walk down to the neighbourhood park with a thermos of hot chocolate to ice skate and toboggan until our winter layers were drenched and our toes had frozen. That's just what there was to do.

I have never been afraid to get messy - in dirt, rain, sun or autumn leaves (I still love stomping through those piles) - and it's not something that I plan on growing out of or changing. Those years are the foundation atop which I have built a life fuelled by intense curiosity and a keen sense of adventure. They have give me the courage and freedom to wade through rivers and streams to keep trails, camp in the rain, hike through waist-deep snow, and they remind me to wear sunscreen always (okay, the last might be a lie, but I burn so easily).

My outdoor adventures have grown in scale and ambition, and nowadays, I travel great distances to play outside. My backyard is no longer a fenced-in patch of sod behind my childhood home - it's an entire province or state at a time. But I often have to remind myself that I don't have to go that far to play. I don't have to go to the mountains to travel distances, and I don't have to camp in the back country to get a little dirty or fight off a few bugs.

I hear from a lot of friends and people about the barriers that prevent them from hiking and getting outdoors - they don't have a vehicle and can't find someone to carpool with out to the mountains, they can't afford a day pack and a pair of sturdy boots let alone a snowboard or skis and the associated gear, or they simply don't have the time to trek across a province for some much needed solitude.

The good news is: you don't have to go far to play outside! There are things you can do in and around your home and city that are just as satisfying, and all it takes is embracing your inner mess-making child.

Six Steps to Playing Outside & Re-Discovering Your Inner Mess-Making Child:

Step 1: Power down. Just because you still have all your bars and LTE access to the world wide web while you're stuck inside the city for a weekend, doesn't mean you constantly have to be connected to it every minute of every day. If you're worried about important calls or emails: setup an e-mail auto-response or re-record your voice mail message to let people know when you'll be returning to the grid. Put the laptop away, hide the tv remote, and leave your cellphone to recharge while you do.

Step 2: Find a local park. Every city has 'em. Some are bigger than others, and most are connected to a system of inner city trails. Is your city built on a river? There's probably a trail that winds parallel to it. Have a zoo? They typically have pretty extensive trail systems and trail access to/from them. Even some university campuses have a great network of paths - try traveling them, you don't have to be a student to use them! When you realize how far that 16 km you would have hiked in the mountains can get you inside the city, you may re-think your next drive to the grocery store or post office - they're probably a lot closer than you realize. OR, pick a park and take your hammock! Sure, you might not be in the mountains, but hey, once you're laying in it, all you'll see are the tree tops while you sway anyway. Use your imagination if you have to! (Don't have a hammock? Check out my favourite hammocks: the Kammok "Roo".)

Post-hike or casual hang, hammocks are a great way to relax and unwind. Especially when the wind conspires with your hammock to cocoon you like this.

Step 3: Plant a garden. It may not bother you, but I cannot stand wearing gardening gloves. When I'm working in the garden, my true, inner, messy, dirt tossing child comes out to play, and I just love the feeling of soft, fertile soil. I don't even mind getting dirt under my fingernails - it is so satisfying to scrub out later. Planting a garden, for me, is a meditation. It is ritualistic, relaxing, productive, and in the end (if you plant veggies or a particularly beautiful flowering garden), rewarding. Depending on where or how you live, you may need to get creative. Live in an apartment or a townhouse on a small plot? Consider balcony railing pots or container gardens, and don't let them prevent you from growing all kinds of fun things. Lettuce and other leafy greens don't require deep soil to root or flourish - they grow extremely well in standard railing boxes. Shallow root vegetables like radishes, beets and some carrots grow effortlessly in rubbermaid bins. Trailing strawberries (and sometimes even hanging cucumber varieties) grow well from hanging pots, and if you have a south exposure, you have ripe conditions for tomatoes!

Step 4: Plan a tour. Love ice cream? How about digging for new records? Are you house shopping? Bust out (or rent) your bicycles and plan a hopping tour, kind of like a pub crawl. Most cities have a relatively dense urban centre where you can bike from ice cream shop to ice cream shop to taste aaaall of the flavours. Or dig for new vinyl to add to your collection. Or navigate and investigate new neighbourhoods. As a designer, I could (and sometimes do) spend hours wandering residential neighbourhoods admiring the architecture and beautiful yards of peoples' homes. Don't forget to carry a few quarters in case you run into a lemonade stand. Everyone likes cool refreshments and supporting budding entrepreneurs!

Some great in-town options: sight-seeing local architecture, bike rides or... just palm trees! | Centre photo thanks to Corrina Walker

Step 5: Wash your car. If you have one, of course. Check into your local bylaws to make sure you're allowed, but in most cases as long as you are using a biodegradable soap and you're not leaving it to sit under a sprinkler for hours under strict water restrictions, it should be allowed. Every summer that I drove province to province to see my grandparents, my grandfather and I would take the time to wash the bugs and highway salts from my car and tires. We'd spend the tim scrubbing it down, pulling out the mats, vacuuming the interior, washing, rinsing and waxing it all. Again, you may not be able to enjoy a magnificent mountain view while you "work", but it is still quality time spent outdoors, being productive and soaking up some of that delicious vitamin D we all need.

Step 6: Babysit. If you are having a difficult time getting in touch with your wild, outdoor childish nature, spend some time with real kids. Do you have god kids? Nieces and nephews? Can you advertise to generate a little extra income by nannying or babysitting? Maybe there are volunteer opportunities in your city? Make use of the opportunity to play outside with kids, and pass on all of your own dirt-loving, mess-making appreciation for the outdoors. They will show you the way if you are struggling to connect, and they are full of great ideas - mud pies, sand castles, water fights or kites!

One of my favourite memories of the Santa Monica beach was not the ferris wheel or the crashing waves, but laying back and watching the kites.

You really don't need much to get going. Many of these things have saved me on weekends when I couldn't make it out to the mountains for one reason or another: being short on funds, injured or too busy. I tend to appreciate them just as much, even if it means I'm not checking a trail off of my favourite to-do list. And don't be afraid of the rain! It might keep you off of the highways, but it doesn't have to keep you from puddle jumping your way to hot chocolate. Plus, it's great for your new garden!

Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.


Coming soon; please hang tight for all the sweaty, dirty and exploratory details!

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