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7 Ways to Opt Outside All Year Long

The greatest gift we can give is the gift of time. What better way to grow closer to a child, spouse, friend or potential friend, than to leave behind the jarring pressures and electronic static of everyday life, and simply go for a walk in the woods together?
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The greatest gift we can give is the gift of time. What better way to grow closer to a child, spouse, friend or potential friend, than to leave behind the jarring pressures and electronic static of everyday life, and simply go for a walk in the woods together?

On Tuesday, REI, the nation's largest consumer co-op and specialty outdoor retailer, shocked the corporate world by uttering retail blasphemy. A longtime advocate for connecting children and families to the natural world, REI announced that all of its 143 stores and headquarters will be closed on November 27, aka Black Friday, a day of mammoth retail price cuts and holiday mania.

The co-op will encourage its 12,000 employees to seize the day to Opt Outside (#OptOutside), to reconnect with family and friends outdoors. It invited companies across the nation to do the same. But why not take the next step? Why not seize other days throughout the year to connect with nature, and most importantly give kids the gifts of time and nature?

Here are seven ways to opt outside this Thanksgiving and all year long:

1. Hold a holiday or family celebration outdoors.

​Bring your next birthday, anniversary, or family reunion into nature -- whether it's an urban neighborhood park or a mountain stream. Kathy Ambrosini, an environmental educator in New York, suggests this holiday approach: "Change it up this Thanksgiving! Invite family to come early for a pre-feast walk. Those who stay overnight can join you for a walk at a neighborhood preserve in the morning." Do it twice, and make it a new family tradition.

2. Put nature on the calendar.

If you plan the family's sports commitments and vacations in advance, do the same for time spent in nature. Try skipping organized sports for a season and use that time to get outside. That suggestion won't work for everyone, but for busy families, taking time for nature requires taking time -- and putting it on the calendar.

3. Adopt a park for a year.

​Many parks charge for admission, but compared to many forms of recreation, they're still a good deal. Take a family of four to the movies, spend around $80; buyingan unlimited annual family pass to the national parks costs the same. And the pass is free for members of the military and those with permanent disabilities. The National Park Service also offers a lifetime pass (currently a $10 onetime fee) to people age sixty-two and older (think grandparents). To locate a park or other natural federal land, go to the Find a Park web page of the National Park Service or to FindYourPark.com.

4. Moon walk.

​Writer Cindy Ross is a long-time devotee of full-moon walks. "We've walked by balmy summer moons in T-shirts, with katydids singing and lightning bugs flashing in a multi-sensory display." But the best moon walks, she says, are under the winter moons. "I started out going on full moon walks for myself... but I also did it for my children, so they would grow up to realize there is much magic in the natural world and most of it is free."

5. Play hooky.

​That's right. Hooky, preferably with the teacher's permission. In his book, Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Ben Hewitt suggests that parents of school-aged children "take them out of school for a day." And take the day off work yourself. He suggests unplugging all screens at home, and for at least part of the day, heading for the woods, a park, the middle of a hayfield, with no agenda.

6. Lose the cell phone; get a better connection.

​Tech isn't the enemy, but it can certainly be a barrier. Vow to periodically leave your cell phone in your pocket, ringer off, cancelling all the beeps, tweets, and repeats, so you're more present with your child. Limit access to texting, computers, and TV part of the day or week. For example, schedule Saturday as a "Smartphone and iPad-Free Outdoor Play Day" for the kids and the parents as well.

7. Go further--plan a techno-fast/vacation.

Commit to a few days away from digital life. On your own or with kids, go camping, rent a cabin, or house-trade with someone who misses traffic jams. When my wife, Kathy, and I head out, I set my computer to send out this e-mail auto-reply: "I'm taking a brief break from all communications electronic... OK, here goes. Pulling the plug..." For emergencies, we bring Kathy's not-so-smart flip phone but leave it in the car. By the fourth day, our sleep patterns return to normal. The world waits.