Getting active outdoors has proven payoffs for body and mind.

Boy holding giant paper camera next to girl doing handstand with bouquet of paper balloons tied to her foot
Credit: Photograph by Priscilla Gragg

If your family has ever piled into the car after a day at the beach, sun-kissed and blissful, this will come as no shock: new studies confirm that spending time outside is a powerful way to feel better. In one study, even five minutes of what researchers call "green exercise"physical activity in naturewas shown to boost mood and self-esteem in all age groups. British researchers, using an app called Mappiness that allowed subjects to report their mood and location, found that people reported more positive feelings in natural environments than in urban areas.

According to Marti Erickson, PhD, a developmental psychologist and cofounder of the Children & Nature Network, exploring a park or trail is a particularly fine opportunity for the essential parent-child bonding known as "affective sharing"—oohing and aahing together over a novel sight or experience—because you're free from the distractions of our hyper-stimulating world. So go ahead, take that ramble along the shore or stroll to the local green spot. It could be one simple path to happiness.

Make Happy Happen

  1. Set a get-outdoor goal together. Visit every park in town (or every state park in your state!), explore a new outside activity each season (kayaking, ice-skating), or try to spot 50 kinds of trees or birds (for a digital assist on the latter, check out App We Love, below).
  2. Join a club. Having fun with other families is a great way to get kids jazzed about the wild. That's the idea behind the nonprofit Children & Nature Network's Family Nature Clubs, which can connect you with existing clubs or provide a kit of information on how to start one. Groups of families come together to splash in rivers, hike in parks, or go on bug safaris. "Often you'll see kids running off together in excitement," says Erickson.

Hang Out with Fido

There's magic in a little dog cuddle! Results from a preliminary study at the University of Missouri, Columbia, suggest that a few minutes of stroking your pooch prompts the release of a number of feel-good hormones in humans. And cat lovers, take heart. Similar research has found other pets are powerful stress relievers, too -- at least when they aren't clawing the sofa.

App We Love

Lure your kids on a mood-boosting hike by turning it into a birding quest. Merlin Bird ID, from Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, will ask five simple questions about the bird you spotted (What color is it? What is it doing?), then come up with a list of possible matches, each including photos, sounds, and other details, from its catalog of 400 of North America's most common birds. Free, iOS and Android

Family Fun