It likely happens each spring, when the weather turns warmer and the snow melts. Without fail — like moths to a flame — children are drawn to the wonderfully messy puddle.

What child could walk around a puddle?

So, before you shoo them away, remember that a puddle is more than just water. It is science, physical action, emotional, problem-solving, self-awareness and language all rolled into one experience. Have you ever seen a child emerge from a puddle unhappy?

Our time — both children and adults — in nature has been rapidly decreasing. In fact, our outdoor time has decreased by half in the last 20 years. Children are spending less and less time in unstructured, free outdoor play than ever before. Congruent to that is their mental health. We are seeing young children with increasing mental health issues. Though I'm not qualified to make that connection, research tells us that children need outdoor/nature time to develop wholly. It has been reported that just 5 minutes of "green time" (outdoor) can produce rapid improvements in mental well-being and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young. As parents, we just need to watch our children outdoors to validate that!

So…come this spring at the first sighting of a puddle…stop what you're doing (for nothing would be more important), dig out your and your child's boots and head outside.

If you don't have good rain boots for the kids or they have outgrown them from last fall, here's a simple trick: use plastic bags. It creates an inexpensive lightweight vapor barrier to keep the feet dry.

You won't have to prepare anything; you won't have to think up activities, you won't have to do anything but follow your child's lead.

Connect with your child as you march through the puddle. Jump with one foot or jump with two.

Visit metroparentmagazine.com/hikes for six hiking destinations that are ideal for younger kids, with short, easy trails. Some of these also offer paved trails - great for strollers. And be sure to wear shoes that can get muddy!■

Jeanne Labana of Milwaukee has been an educator for more than 25 years.

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