Japanese forest bathing

Last week our family hiked at Bald Hill. We had masks at the ready and were careful to socially distance from other hikers. We did the pasture loop, which is short, with a wide paved path that skirts around most of the hill. Despite forecasts of sunny, warm weather, it started to sprinkle as we left the car. 

The sprinkle turned to rain as we left the pasture for the trees, but after a bit it stopped. To be honest, the damp was about the only thing I noticed as we walked.

I’m kicking myself today, because we missed a magnificent opportunity to experience what in Japanese is called “shinrin-yoku”, or forest bathing.

Dr. Qing Li , author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, describes it like this, “In Japan, we practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.”

He explains, “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”

The Japanese aren’t the only ones who have discovered the health benefits of communing with nature. There are many studies that have documented how spending time outdoors lowers stress for everyone and, among other things, improves concentration for children with ADHD. You’ll find details and some great links for more reading here

How to Forest Bathe

So how does one “forest bathe”? First, find a forest with even walking paths. You can go it alone, or join a walk led by a certified forest bathing guide.

Walk slowly and stop often. This is exactly what I neglected to do on our visit to Bald Hill. Take time to relax and to notice the environment. Spend time under the trees, soaking up the smells of the forest. Dr Li’s research has found that the chemicals released by the hinoki cypress tree boosts the immune system.

If there are places to sit quietly under the trees, take advantage of them. Listen to the sounds of the forest, observe the birds overhead, the plants growing on the forest floor, and insects scurrying along fallen branches and leaves.

Take a few slow, deep breaths and notice the smell of the forest. Those smells include the beneficial chemicals released by the trees.

Me, I’m wishing I’d been a bit more conscious of the world around me as I walked between those raindrops, trying to keep up with my energetic teens. 

How about you? Have you had an opportunity to spend more time outdoors this month?

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at  www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

 

Honoring the rhythms of nature

Did you notice the trees? When we started quarantine none of the trees had leaves.  We knew Spring was coming, but in the Willamette Valley, we were still in the grip of winter.  Today when I walked the dog early in the morning I noticed every single tree has fully leafed out.  

While we’ve been sheltering in place, on hold, waiting for businesses and workplaces to reopen,  nature has been moving forward.  

There’s a rhythm to the cycle of nature that we can take a cue from.  The ebb and flow, of night and day and seasons, have long had an impact on our bodies and our health.  Our bodies rely on rhythm – our breathing, heartbeat, and our sleep/wake cycle, the Circadian rhythm, are all part of being alive. 

Recognizing the natural rhythms of the day and the year and leaning into them can have beneficial effects on health and well-being.  

Before electrical lighting lengthened our days, societies lived within the cycle of sunrise and sunset.

“Morning and evening are especially significant times for resetting our inner clocks. Awakening gradually with the sun, which stimulates the hormone serotonin, allows our body to peacefully resolve its sleep cycles and prepare us for the day. If we are in tune, our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and cortisol (a hormone that defends against stress) level increase before we wake up. In the evening, these functions should decrease, while darkness triggers increased production of the sleep-inducing hormones melatonin and prolactin,” says Carol Venolia in Mother Earth Living.

Yet, our busy lives cause many people to be cut off from the natural rhythms of nature and their bodies. “They no longer get up with the sun, and they may stay up until the wee hours of the morning. Their pace of life is such that it is inconsequential whether it is night or day or winter or summer. The phases of the moon go unnoticed,” notes SlowMovement.com.

Disrupted circadian rhythm can make you feel out of sorts and can make it harder to pay attention. Hopefully, this season at home has opened space and opportunity for being more in tune with nature and its rhythms. 

Says Megan Roop at mindbodygreen.com, “Nature will quiet your mind, open your heart and invite ease into your body. You’ll feel the living connection with life all around you, giving you the capacity to open up to something that’s much bigger than yourself. Through nature, you’ll transform, awaken, and heal, and even get a boost in creativity, health, and quality of life.”

As hard as these last couple of months working and schooling from home have been, in some respects life has slowed down.  It has given us an opportunity to become more aware of the rhythms of nature and our own body clocks in a way that our busy hurrying about does not.  And it has given us the opportunity to walk more, and watch the trees bloom and hear the birds sing. 

Have you found your family becoming more in tune with the cycle of nature during our season of sheltering at home?

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at: www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Sleep, sleep debt, and mental health

a woman lays face down on a bed that is covered in a white sheetLack of sleep, also known as sleep debt, affects both our physical and mental health.  Studies show that sleep debt affects numerous parts of our body, including our brain. In our brain, lack of sleep actually causes brain activity to slow down.  

Sleep cycles at my house are dramatically different in the summer than during the school year.  With a house full of tweens and teens, removing the need to get up in the morning has invited my teens and tweens to stay up long past their typical bedtime.  

They stay up until midnight, then sleep in the next day.  Sometimes I find myself insisting they get up as the clock chimes noon.  Yesterday we dragged the 14-year-old out of bed at 10:30am for a family trip to the blueberry patch.  He was not pleased. He complained about feeling rushed out the door. He slumped into his seat in the car, intent on ignoring those around him. But the ride out helped improve his mood.  By the time we were all in the berry patch he had waded through the worst of his sleep deprivation. 

We all know what not getting enough sleep does to us the next day.  We are grouchy. Moving through the day feels like swimming against the current.  It’s hard to get things done. We are short with the kids, tend to eat even though we are not hungry, and have no motivation for exercise.

That is not a surprise to researchers who study what lack of sleep does to people. 

Describing one study, Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University said, “We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”  

You are not imagining things – when you are tired you really do think more slowly.

What’s more, not getting sufficient sleep for long periods of time also reduces mental and emotional resilience.  Lack of sleep can lead to negative thinking and emotional vulnerability and can make problems with anger, depression or anxiety worse.

A survey of sleep studies done by the Department of Research at the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology notes, “Sleep is an essential part of our lives. The typical person needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night to maintain peak mental and physical health.”

They continue, “Less than seven to eight hours of sleep can be harmful to human health. Getting less than adequate sleep is known as sleep deprivation. When an individual has multiple consecutive days of sleep deprivation, they enter “sleep debt,” which is a cumulative effect of insufficient sleep for any period of time. The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well-documented. The changes in mood that have been linked to sleep deprivation include anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc.

Sleep deprivation appears to impact adults, adolescents, and children in similar ways. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate pre-existing mood disturbances, such as anger, depression, and anxiety, and can lead to confusion, fatigue, and lack of vigor. Even just one sleepless night correlates with these changes in function.”

How much sleep do you need?

It’s not always easy to get as much sleep as we should. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Recommended nightly sleep is 10 hours for teens and between 10 and 13 hours per night for children over the age of 3.  (Children under 3 need even more.) Missing even 15 minutes of sleep each night can accumulate over time and result in sleep debt which affects both mental and physical health.

So how do you take corrective action if you or your children are suffering the effects of too little sleep?  Sleep experts recommend:

  1. Rather than sleeping later, try going to bed earlier each night.  Going to bed at the same time each night, as well as following the same routine getting ready for sleep, can help with falling asleep.
  2. Optimize the sleeping environment by eliminating electronics (tv, ipads, phones, laptops) in the bedroom.
  3. Consider room darkening shades and motion-sensing nightlights to minimize the amount of ambient light in the room overnight.
  4. Lower the temperature of your sleeping environment. Body temperature drops as we sleep, so the optimal temperature for the bedroom is between 65 and 68 degrees overnight.
  5. While naps can help reduce the total amount of sleep debt, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Adults should limit naps to a 20-minute catnap or a 60-90 minute power nap. Any more can create problems getting to sleep later in the day.  

Want to know more about the physiological effects of sleep debt?  Check out this article from LiveScience.com.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

What’s “Normal”? Tracking Developmental Milestones

When every baby is different, how do you know if your baby is meeting developmental milestones?   As parents, we observe, compare, and worry when we see other children doing things our child isn’t yet attempting.  How do we know what is normal?

As we watch and wonder, descriptions of typical child development can help.  But lists and charts provide only a framework for understanding. Not all children will meet all milestones at the ‘typical’ age‘.  You know your child best.

My son was born with a condition that limits his vision. We adopted him when he was 13 months old.  Since we knew babies typically start to walk around 12 months, we worried when he didn’t walk until he was well over 18 months old.  Was it his vision keeping him from this milestone? Was it adoption trauma? Was there something we should be doing?

Pediatricians and daycare centers routinely ask parents to complete developmental screening questionnaires to help monitor a child’s developmental progress.  Done regularly, these tools provide a picture of your unique child’s development over time.

If you have concerns consulting your pediatrician or preschool teacher is a great way to begin the conversation about normal development and your child’s individual personality.  They will likely invite you to complete one of the many different tools that screen for growth and development.

These are typically not assessment tools, but rather help screen for indicators that suggest the child would benefit from closer monitoring or early intervention services.

There are a number of different screening tools available:

ASQ (Ages & Stages Questionnaire): Many doctors and pre-schools use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) to screen children between the ages of 15 months and 48 months.  ASQ is not an assessment tool but it can help determine if a child needs further assessment or support. https://agesandstages.com/about-asq/for-parents/

CDC checklist:  The CDC checklist provides lists of typical behaviors from birth through kindergarten.  In addition, they offer parenting tips for interacting with your child at each stage of development.  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/checklists/all_checklists.pdf

M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers): The M-CHAT, like the ASQ, is a screening tool and not an assessment.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for autism at 18 and 24 months. It cannot diagnose but it helps identify children who should be evaluated further. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/Autism/Pages/How-Doctors-Screen-for-Autism.aspx

Completed questionnaires document your child’s growth and development, helping you and your support team of doctors and caregivers know what is normal for your child.  They also provide indicators when further assessment and support would be helpful to you and your child.

My son did eventually move from crawling to walking.  The delay was normal for him. But his unique circumstances meant that we also sought help from early intervention to equip him with the tools he would need to help him walk safely with limited vision.

Screening tools help us answer the question “Is this normal?”.  But they also provide a path toward further support when warranted.

 

Sidebar

10 Physical, Social, Emotional & Cognitive Milestones from healthychildren.org:

  • By 2 months: Tries to look at his or her parent and pays attention to faces.
  • By 4 months: Copies facial movements, such as smiling or frowning, and responds to affection.
  • By 6 months: Likes to look at himself or herself in the mirror and brings objects to mouth.
  • By 9 months: Has favorite toys and picks up small items between the thumb and forefinger.
  • Around 12 months: Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing and follows simple directions.
  • At 18 months: Explores alone if a parent is nearby and points to a body part when asked.
  • By 2 years: Gets excited to see other children and begins sorting shapes and colors.
  • By 3 years: Is able to dress himself or herself and completes puzzles with three or four pieces.
  • By 4 years: Is able to tell the difference between real and make-believe and predicts what is going to happen next in a book.
  • By 5 years: Wants to be like his or her friends and is able to draw a person with six body parts.

(https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/health-management/Pages/Milestones-Matter.aspx)

 

Such Thing as Free Lunch

This week I want to tell you about something that I love.

It is Oregon’s Summer Meals program, and in this time of uncertainty and crisis I believe it’s one of the few things around that’s just purely good.

It might seem like I’m hyperbolizing (or, more likely, just inventing an excuse to use that word in a sentence), but I tell you it’s true. Why, take a gander if you will at the organization’s handsome and generous website, which provides an overview of the service and a tidy history as well as a sweet site locator to find meals around the state.

What do they do? Well, since it was created thanks to an act of Congress (remember those?) exactly 50 years ago, the USDA-funded program simply gives out free meals to children aged 1-18. Some sites also sell meals to adults, and some offer activities and educational opportunities before or after. That’s it.

Why is that magic? The awesomeness is in the details: how many public programs can you think of that don’t ask you to register your kids, or meet eligibility requirements, or sign up for further something-or-other, or commit to anything? Really! You just show up and they feed your kids. The end. No follow up, no stigma around needing the assistance. I think that’s mighty special.

My kids, who eat a lot and are sometimes in need of assistance, have enjoyed free meals in parks and libraries around Linn and Benton Counties. They’re not picky or anything, but they have pronounced the offerings both varied and pleasing. I believe them.

If you have kids, and a finite amount of financial resources, and/or it’s just too cockadoodle hot to make lunch, I suggest you check out the Summer Meals sitch. Here’s some nice pointers from our own Parenting Success Network.

So, what are you waiting for?

Except maybe morning?

 

Like Baby Steps, Only Tinier

“It takes 30 days to form a habit.” It’s always somehow shocking to me when these cliches turn out to be more or less true, as if the truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert) rubs off in the repetition. But what if it’s backed by science? Turns out the facts are more complicated (AGAIN). Certainly too much so to comfortably aphorise.

So let’s put this another way: “It takes 66 days to form a habit. Or broadly, 18 to 254.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, does it?

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t bother to do this research before I started forming my new exercise habit. Because I was going by the 30 day thing.

Let me back up a little bit. I just turned 45 and I was thinking about, like, mortality, and things. In my parent-mind, I was thinking about how nice it would be to still be around when all my kids were doing grownup things and thinking about their mortality, and things.

Related to that thought was the one about how well I’ve modeled literacy and learning for my kids at the expense of other things like movement, sport (in the phenomenological sense), and exercise. Sure, we like to take hikes and go for walks, but that’s more about being in nature. And they do love to swim. So. But I have not prioritized those things, and I want to turn that around.

My brilliant wife is right on board, and has instituted a morning walking/jogging regimen for the girls, supplemented by yoga and frequent trips to the pool. It’s going…okay. And by okay, I mean that about half the kids are into it on any given day. Granted, it hasn’t been 30 days, much less 254.

As in all things parental, I had to start with me (we fill our own cup so that we can yada yada). As much as I cherished my morning ritual of making coffee and reading on the couch with a pointy cat on my lap, I knew I had to get moving. My aforementioned wife–the brilliant one–got me some workout clothes for Christmas (I HAVE NEVER OWNED workout clothes). I visualized myself waking up, suiting up, and heading out for an early morning jog, frost, rain and snails be darned (really, tried to be careful of the snails though).

I kept visualizing it every day as I made my coffee and sat down on the couch with coffee and a pointy cat, trying not to look in the direction of my workout clothes, which were balled up in a corner.

Finally I tried another way. Less ambitious, more…tiny. In this case, doing some research would have been helpful because I would have found something like this.

What I did was this: I got a gym bag. I put my workout clothes inside. I left the bag on the dining table when I went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I saw it there, taunting me like Mickey.

After a few days, I opened the bag and put the clothes on. And once I had done that, it just seemed silly not to go outside.

And the rest is…ongoing. Every morning, I put on the clothes and head out for a brisk walk. When I return, in 20-30 minutes, I feel awake and ready for the day. And also ready to do things like bend over and walk up stairs without wheezing.

My kids have noticed all these things. After (insert number of days here), it becomes just something that is done in our family.

Sometimes there are advantages to kids watching everything we do.