To “unplug” used to mean taking a step away from a worn routine and forgetting about life’s worries. Now it means something a bit more literal — to pull the cord on the electronics in your life, turn off your damned phone, stop checking email, and get off the ’gram. This all is increasingly difficult to do, but it’s critical. Our digital life connects us in ways never before seen, but it also has health ramifications, from psychological addiction to disrupted sleep.
The simplest path from anxiously wired to carefree and happy is simple: Turn off the phone and get outside. While the answer is easy, people still sometimes need a push out the door, a reason to step into the great wide open. We’re sympathetic. It is, after all, nice to relax with some good air-conditioning and a long movie. That said, there are plenty of reasons to go play outside. Yes, 100 seems like a lot, but it’s just the tip of the glacier.
Why should you unplug and get outside?
Because a picture of the Grand Canyon will never do it justice. After all, hiking down into the canyon, while not the classic photo op, is the real experience. Instead of just looking out at the vistas, kids can get up close and personal with how the river carved out this epic landform. The Point Imperial trail, a four-mile round-trip that passes through the northern tip of the park, is an easy hike, so it’s solid for families. It reaches the highest overlook on the North Rim and offers great views of Nankoweap Creek.
Because petrichor, the smell of rain after a long period of warm, dry weather, is one of humanity’s favorite smells. Geosmin, the main molecule behind the scent, has even been used by perfumers. But there’s nothing like the real thing.
Because kids are spending an average of six hours a day in front of screens, as opposed to only three hours, in 1995. (Teenage boys are spending up to an astounding eight hours.) They’re isolating themselves from social activities with friends. A recent study showed that 61 percent of teens would rather text or video-chat with friends than socialize in person with them.
Because it’s fun to play paleontologist. If you visit Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio, you can get a permit from the visitor’s center to collect trilobites, brachiopods, gastropods, and marine fossils.
Because even a movie as badass as Free Solo can’t do the grandeur of Yosemite’s El Capitan justice.
Because it can make your kids better at sports. If you’re raising an athlete, there are any number of outdoor activities that can help their skills more than everyday drills. Take slacklining. It’s an inexpensive, easy hobby that can help kids improve their balance and core strength — things essential for every kind of sport.
Because the blue light from screens royally messes with a kid’s sleep schedule. According to Harvard researchers, just over six hours of blue light exposure can delay sleep up to three hours; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to two hours a day as a result.
Because hot springs are way less boring than hot tubs. One of only two legal swimming spots in Yellowstone, the confluence of the Boiling River hot spring and the Gardner River lets you swim around to find the right mix of hot and cold water from the two sources.
Because they’ve probably seen the epic New Zealand expanses in The Hobbit movies, but the kids have never had their breath taken away by the clouds that shroud Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park. Check it out in the summer — it offers over 6 million acres of backpacking, hiking, and even RV tours.
Because kids who spend time outside are more likely to protect the environment as teenagers and adults.
Because being in nature improves eyesight — unlike being in front of a screen, which can harm it. A report from Optometry and Vision Science found that “kids who spent more time outside during the day tended to have better distance vision than those who favored indoor activities.”
Because if you teach a kid to fish, you’ll have a partner for life. If you take the time to teach them to cast, you’ll never fish alone again — and have an outdoor activity you’ll both love for years to come.
Because too much screen time leads to more snacking and less sleep. They’re so distracted by screens that “[kids] aren’t paying attention to clues that tell them they’re full,” says Dr. Tara Narula, in a segment released on CBS This Morning, “and the blue light from the screen affects their ability to go to sleep.”
Because a mild suntan is actually the body’s best effort to fight the cancerous effects of UV light.
Because kids love leaves. And there’s no better place to celebrate them than the White Mountain National Forest, particularly in fall, when the leaves are turning and the sunset peaks through them to end a crisp New Hampshire day.
Because you should see the look on your kids’ face when freaking sharks swim over their heads in the Gatlinburg aquarium. Don’t stop there, though; Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a foothold into the Smokey Mountains and a host to off-roading, hiking, biking, and other adventures.
Because the only thing better than a flurry of birds is a blizzard of birds. Oregon’s Klamath basin is bombarded by Snow Geese every year, as they stop in on their way to breed in Siberia.
Because screens flat-out make kids unhappy, and nature does the opposite. A recent study found a 71 percent increase in psychological distress in young people over 10 years, and the authors partially blamed the omnipresence of digital media and lack of sleep (which, naturally, go hand-in-hand). Another study found that the happiest teens use their phones for less than an hour a day. And a 2014 survey in Frontiers in Psychology found that nature just plain makes people significantly happy.
Because summer camps know what they’re talking about when it comes to outdoor experiences, and they don’t allow cellphones.
Because zip-lining high above the forest floor is infinitely more exhilarating than a video game. Adventures on the Gorge, in Lansing, West Virginia, has zip lines that give you great views of the most biodiverse spot in Appalachia along with the thrill of traveling high up at high speeds.
Because vitamin D, the “sunshine” vitamin, lowers the risk of asthma.
Because it’s easier to bond without distractions. Meaning when the TV, phones, and tablets are off the table, your family will grow closer.
Because the pastel-colored rocks in Antelope Canyon in Arizona are very beautiful indeed.
Because jumping off cliffs is fun. The Hamilton Pool in Texas is a swimming hole worthy of a long weekend with the family. Once you jump, you won’t want to leave.
Because tiny screens are omnipresent — even for the youngest kids. One report found 42 percent of young children now have their very own tablet device, up from 7 percent four years ago and less than 1 percent in 2011.
Because trees are an anti-psychotic. A 2014 study concluded that being surrounded by greenery had a positive effect on mental health.
Because there are places on Earth that look more alien than a rover tour of Mars. Take the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone, with its deep blue in the middle, and green and yellow on the border, rich umber swirling around the edges.
Because kids in nature do better in life. Studies show they perform better in school, have higher levels of self-discipline, are more cooperative with others, better problem-solvers, more creative, feel more connected with nature, and become tomorrow’s conservation stewards.
Because birding in Red Dead Redemption 2, while cool, doesn’t come close to the real thing.
Because screens can become literally addicting. One report found that 78 percent of surveyed teens check their phones at least once an hour; 50 percent self-reported they were “addicted” to their phones.
Because nothing will bring more pleasure to a kid than watching Old Faithful blow its top at Yellowstone State Park. The geyser erupts roughly every 35 to 120 minutes, for a minute-and-a-half to two minutes at a time. Take an afternoon to hike Yellowstone, wind up at the geyser, and see what happens.
Because your dog wants you to.
Because nothing screams “Screen break!” like the empty coasts of Amelia Island in Florida. Visit this underrated beach gem for splash hour in the gorgeous surf or quiet reading time on the pristine shore.
Because caves double as museums when they contain ancient drawings. The Native American pictographs found in northern Alabama offer detailed, spiritual depictions of what life was like 6,000 years ago. And seeing it in the exact place it was drawn is an experience no museum can touch.
Because there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. At least that’s what they say in Sweden, where outdoor time for kids is a way of life. Preschoolers take naps outside even during the winter, and there are even some preschools where kids are outside almost exclusively.
Because screen time and school performance are inversely related. A 2006 study in Pediatrics studied 4,508 kids and found that poorer school performance increased as weekday television screen time went up.
Because the iconic San Diego zoo is filled with over 3,000 animals representing about 300 unique species, offering an awesome opportunity for the whole family to learn about whole new sides of nature. Plus, the nearby town of Escondido has a safari park, giving you guys even more chances to animal-watch.
Because a paintball match on a real range makes even the most intense Nerf battles feel quaint.
Because screen time increases a kid’s chance of being sexualized too early. A study in Psychological Science found that kids exposed to sex in the media were more likely to have sex at an earlier age — and not be responsible about it.
Because ghost stories by the campfire will always trump horror movies.
Because Greek myths are just awesome. Teaching your kids the constellations — and trying to find them in the sky together — is the best way to stargaze.
Because there’s no wrong way to spend time outside. Kids can run around to their hearts’ content, hang out by the fire playing cards, or anything in between.
Because, bonfires. Beaches and parks like Asbury Park in New Jersey have regular bonfires professionally started and managed so you and the kids can just sit back and enjoy the flames.
Because stationary bikes don’t go anywhere.
Because lots of apps claim to be educational — but few have evidence to back it up. In fact, a 2018 report showed that very few apps teach preschoolers the way they need to learn.
Because learning to work with your hands starts outside. Build a fire, ride a bike, catch a ball — these basic outdoor activities are all building blocks for lifelong DIYers.
Because there are still parks from Maine to Hawaii that don’t have cell service. They’re among the few places where it’s easy to get kids to put away their devices naturally and happily.
Because birds are more closely related to dinosaurs than crocodiles.
Because the sun sets every day. But if you make a little effort, like hiking around Land’s End, San Francisco, you can witness the vast Pacific ignited by the setting sun from a private vista.
Because geocaching is a real-life treasure hunt that gives kids a connection to nature and the people who left those treasures behind.
Because climbing new trees is a challenge the local jungle gym just can’t replicate.
Because screen time isn’t good for adults either. Market research group Nielsen found that adults spend a gob-smacking 11 hours of the day in front of screens. That’s a ton of blue light exposure that harms your sleep cycle and social life.
Because those who spend time in nature are happier. Science says so.
Because gathering in Arches National Park will be your best family photo opp, ever. Don’t skip the Windows Section of the park, the heart of the whole area. Frank Bethwick, leader of a 1933–34 scientific expedition to Arches, once said, “These arches are of thrilling beauty…one marvels at the intricacies of nature.”
Because too much gaming can lead to real-life aggression. A wide survey of more than 17,000 kids, aged 9 to 19, found that kids who played a little too much Grand Theft Auto were more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for fighting. They’re better off on the playground.
Because you’ll sleep better. More sun means more stable melatonin levels which means more sleep. Spending your day traipsing around the woods doesn’t hurt either.
Because outdoor activities become lifelong hobbies. Skiing, rock-climbing, off-roading, and surfing — these are just a few of the activities kids start doing on vacation with the family, and then keep up for the rest of their lives.
Because kids are spending about half the time outside that their parents did. A study from the U.K.’s National Trust found that children are playing outside an average of just over four hours a week — compared to the 8.2 hours their parents spent outside when they were kids. The change starts with parents.
Because natural rock slides beat water-park slides any day. There’s an element of risk that comes with flinging yourself down a rock formation that just isn’t there at the water park.
Because street lights and screen lights are both a form of pollution.
Because too much screen time could literally stunt a kid’s development. A study in JAMA Pediatrics found that children who spent an excessive amount of time in front of screens advanced slower on average, by the ages of 3 to 5, than kids who had less exposure. The inverse effect is generally found in kids who went outside often.
Because there’s no better place to get lost in an incredible forest than in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Not to get literally lost, though — there are over 700 miles of trails for you to find your way back to civilization. If you should so choose to.
Because simply being outside with your kid can improve your relationship with them. A 2013 study showed that camping with your kids could both improve your parenting skills and reinforce a strong, familial relationship.
Because being outside is full of teachable moments. Where else can you learn to overcome a fear of, say, spiders? Or squirrels? (Some of us were afraid of squirrels…)
Because screens can mess with our kids’ sense of reward. In fact, a study in Psychological Science showed that kids who viewed Instagram photos with more “likes” had greater brain activity in “neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention.”
Because if your parents didn’t take you to the Grand Canyon as a kid, to go pontoon-boating down the river, and to gasp at the red rock surrounding you everywhere, your childhood was incomplete.
Because another episode of Spongebob Squarepants will make them no less bored.
Because you can (and should) eat what you grow outside. Gardening definitely counts as spending some time outside, and growing a garden with your kid is a good way to teach them responsibility (and make a tasty, all-natural meal at the end).
Because even the kids think screens are a problem. A 2018 finding from Pew Research found that 54 percent of teens think they spend way too much time on their phones. Seems like only a few gentle nudges outside might be all it takes to get them out there.
Because there’s a right way to make a s’more. And it takes trial and error to find it.
Because stalactites and stalagmites like those found in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns are fascinating. The cavern was formed between 4 million and 6 million years ago, when water with hydrogen sulfide started seeping through the cracks in the limestone, which was once the bed of a vast lake that covered New Mexico.
Because too much screen time is having a profound effect on our kids’ brains. A 2014 study found that preteens who spent just five days without screens were better able to read emotional cues.
Because snapping a pic of your kid next to the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is just too good an opportunity to pass up. That big guy is over 275 feet tall — and estimated to be 2,500 years old.
Because building a fire is a far cooler skill than mastering a character’s special move in Super Smash Bros.
Because you don’t have to go far to experience the natural world. In addition to the National Parks system, there are state and local parks everywhere, not to mention the hundreds of acres of parkland in the middle of even the biggest cities in the country. If you’re wary of going somewhere super remote, a walk and picnic in the park is a great way to easily introduce your kids to the outdoors.
Because playgrounds are better than couches, boulders are more fun than jungle gyms, and rock walls tower above them all.
Because being outside can improve attention spans in kids. A 2009 study found that kids with ADHD focused better after a short nature walk — even better than walking around a neighborhood.
Because nature builds resilience. Getting caught in the rain or hiking on an unseasonably hot day sucks, but experiences like that can equip kids to deal with problems as they come up in their normal lives.
Because the best place to read about the outdoors is in the outdoors. It turns out Hatchet is best experienced backlit by headlamp.
Because backyard camping counts, and your kids can still run inside to use the bathroom.
Because survival skills are empowering. Knowing how to use a compass and start a fire may not be necessary for our daily lives, but knowing they can do things like this makes kids feel empowered in a meaningful way that tech simply can’t.
Because too much time spent inside — and in front of screens — can lead to vitamin D deficiency. A 2009 report found that an astounding 7.6 million U.S. children were vitamin D-deficient. Vitamin D deficiency in children can have effects on their bone health, metabolism, and more.
Because traveling by airboat is loud, fast, and fun. An airboat (aka fanboat) tour of the Everglades is one of the best ways to explore the “River of Grass.” You’ll be in a craft that’s small enough to get up close to alligators and other wildlife and fast enough to thrill kids who would’ve preferred a visit to a theme park.
Because being outside is a great way to de-stress. A 2004 study found that even the sight of some natural green significantly decreased the stress levels of stressed-out kids with ADHD.
Because everyone needs to experience true darkness. Texas’ Big Bend, the darkest park in North America, is a great place for stargazing. Seeing the Milky War and stars that are normally blocked by light pollution is a great way to wow kids and help them start to understand the vastness of the universe.
Because spending time outside instead of in front of a screen can make kids more caring, empathetic, and decent in the long run. A 2009 report found that people who were more immersed in natural environments were more social — and less selfish.
Because foraged berries taste way better than the store-bought variety.
Because being outdoors can build a better sense of community than being on an online forum. A 2015 study showed that Canadian kids living in greener environments have a stronger sense of place and feel they belong to a healthy community.
Because too much screen time can actually change a kid’s brain for the worse. A large study from the National Institute of Health looked at brain scans of kids who spend more than seven hours a day in front of a screen and found they have a thinning of the cortex, or “the outer layer of neural tissue responsible for processing information from each of the five senses.”
Because being a more active kid leads to being an active, healthy adult. A groundbreaking 2014 study of World War II veterans found that people who were active when they were young visited the doctor less throughout their lifespan.
Because it’s not just nature kids can learn about. Take Valley Forge National Historical Park: You and the family can visit the site of a pivotal Revolutionary War battle and explore huts built to George Washington’s specifications. All while exploring 3,500 acres with 315 animal and 730 plant species.
Because being outside encourages healthy risk-taking. In Harvard Medical School’s blog, Dr. Claire McCarthy noted that if parents keep their kids inside and don’t let them take risks, “they won’t know what they can do — and they may not have the confidence and bravery to face life’s inevitable risks.”
Because water fights are the best. Whether they’re fought with water guns, water balloons, cannonballs, or a garden hose, there are few things kids love more than some aquatic combat. And given the non-waterproof nature of most of the stuff in your house, it’s an activity best left to the great outdoors.
Because bombing down a fire road on an off-road vehicle is far superior to driving in a minivan to the movies.
Because natural wonders have stories to tell. Take Devils Tower, Wyoming, which is full of American Indian stories like this one: Two little girls climbed on top of a rock to escape a bear. The Great Spirit saw them and made the rock grow high so the bear couldn’t reach them, his claws leaving grooves in the side of the rock.
Because four presidents aren’t the only figures worthy of a giant rock sculpture. Mount Rushmore is great, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t drive the half-hour (or hike the seven hours) to see a feat of artistic engineering. If completed as designed, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be the second-largest in the world (yes, even bigger than its neighbor). As it stands now, it’s still an awe-inspiring sight you should definitely visit the next time you’re in southwest South Dakota.
Because gardening is good, messy fun.
Because you don’t have to go to Australia to see a coral reef. The 221-mile reef along the Florida Keys is the only living coral barrier reef in North America. There are shallow reefs for snorkeling and deeper reefs for scuba diving, and in addition to the wildlife, there are plenty of shipwrecks to check out.
Because it’s where the strongest memories are made. Your kid won’t remember the YouTube they watched at 4 p.m. by the end of the day. But they sure as hell will remember the time they crawled into the tent after falling asleep stargazing outside.
Illustrations by Alycea Tinoyan for Fatherly. Cameron LeBlanc and Ben Radding contributed to this article.