When I picture my fondest summer memories throughout my life, all of them are outdoors. Every single one.
Summer weekdays spent biking back roads to the pool, swim practice in the exhilaratingly frigid water, playing cards and eating penny candy on picnic tables, and lots of capture the flag. Collecting shells and splashing around with my siblings and cousins at the beach. Playing "house" outside with all of the neighborhood kids and then sipping lemonade under the sun. Spending time at a lake building sandcastles on “secret” beaches, borrowing rowboats, and eating wild blueberries. That wild time my mom took us sailing on her first trip without an instructor. Vacations hiking and discovering hidden swimming holes. Every joyful summer memory I can recall took place outside.
What is it about the outdoors that makes us remember things better? Is it that all the good things happen outside? While I wouldn't argue too much with that, my understanding of memory and learning provides a different answer: you need sensory input and attention to start a memory, and the stronger the input and less distraction simultaneously experienced, the more impactful the memory.
When we are outside, our senses are alive. Our hearing isn’t dulled by the background hum of appliances; we notice the faint bird calls in the distance and the slight breeze rustling the trees. Our sense of sight isn’t overloaded by screens; we take in natural light and images near and far. We aren’t in perfectly controlled temperatures; we feel the sun on our faces, the wind on our backs, and the cool water on our skin. We’re less distracted, and we actually notice and experience what is going on around us. Our bodies are primed for making memories in nature. That’s why our favorite memories happen outdoors.
People often think about their children’s summers and want them to be the epic. We hear, “You only have 18 summers with your child, so make the most of them.” Oh the pressure! This seems to imply that the recipe for making summer memories that last a lifetime involves jamming pack every second of our children’s summers with everything possible and not wasting any time! What an overwhelming and exhausting thought.
I fell prey to this pressure this summer and created an enormous list of things I wanted to do with my daughter and places I wanted to visit together. Many parents I know have similar lists. If you created a list, did you complete it? I certainly didn’t. But did we have a memorable summer? Yes. Most of our time was spent outside, so I know I will remember these moments, even if my 1.5 year old can’t. Swinging in our hammock in and out of the shade of the leaves. Watching her gleefully splash around in the pond as geese floated by. Eating ice pops together as they melted under the heat of the sun. Stomping in puddles. These simple experiences are the memories that will last forever because they happened outside, together.
What are your best memories from this summer? What are your best memories from your childhood? Humor me, and close your eyes to picture them. Are your fondest memories also outdoors?
Next summer, I’m not going to make an epic list and try to design grand day trips in order to make one of my daughter’s precious 18 summers at home spectacular. That’s because I’m learning it’s the wrong recipe. Next summer, I’ll ditch the epic list of ingredients and simply focus on being together outside, naturally making memories to last a lifetime.