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Practical Tips To Raise Kids That Love The Outdoors


by Darren Dobier October 27, 2017

In today's fast-paced digital world where our kids are wanting to spend more and more time inside watching TV, playing video games, and messing around on smartphones/tablets, it can be a challenge to raise youth that are interested in the outdoors.  If you're a parent or grandparent struggling with how to entice your kids to get outside and then keep them outside, here's some practical tips we've found success using with our own children and others that attend DIRO activities.

1.  Make It Fun

This may sound obvious but putting it to practice is often difficult.  It's extremely important though.  If kids, especially young kids, are not having fun, you will not have fun either and the likelihood they will want to do it again is small. I've caught myself many times getting too serious about teaching kids something, making sure they are doing things "right", or pushing to get through my agenda regardless of what's going on.  I've gotten better at recognizing when things are not going well and adjusting my approach.  Most of the time, a healthy dose of silliness and fun brings even the most disengaged back.  Here's a few of my go-to strategies:

  • Take turns hiking in funny ways.  Maybe your shoes weigh 100 lbs, it's really slippery, or you step with one foot and hop with the other.  Encourage kids to try and be funnier with each round.
  • Encourage play.  If you're on the water, let them splash and get wet.  Bring squirt guns and pretend you're pirates causing mayhem for other pirate ships.  Stop and climb a tree, make snow angels, walk in the mud, and hop across rocks in a shallow stream.  The more unscripted the better.
  • Sing silly songs.  You may not see as much wildlife with this one but most youth will have a blast with this one.  Even teenagers reluctantly participate and then have a great time.
  • Encourage them to find sticks, on the ground of course, and make a fort.
  • Skipping rocks is a blast!

boys playing around

2.  Make It Interesting

Most children don't appreciate the tranquility of being out in nature like adults do.  They want to explore, experience new things, and learn something they can tell their friends about.  However, it's may not be the same things you find interesting or want to learn about.  If you want lifelong adventurers, you need to make it interesting to them and have faith that at some point, they'll find what you enjoy interesting too.  Often times kids will just migrate to something they find interesting and you just have to allow time for them to investigate it and ask questions.  Other times injecting a few props may spur new interests:

  • Bring picture-based trifold pamphlets on identifying trees, flowers, birds, animal tracks, or poop.  Then as you come across things, encourage the kids to figure out what they are looking at.
  • Bring small, rugged books to help further identify things. I carry a book on flowers that is organized by color.  When they see a flower they think is pretty, they take out the book, page to the right color, and narrow in on what plant it is.  If they are young, I then have them hand me the book and read something short about the plant.  If they are older, I have them tell me something interesting.  
  • Find a forked stick and have them use it as a dousing rod to find water.  They probably won't find water using it but they sure have fun trying.
  • Give them a compass, set a bearing, and have them make sure the group keeps walking on that line.
  • Imitate bird or owl calls and try to get the critters to talk back

Let Them Lead

When out in the wilderness, it's important to keep kids safe and not get lost.  That responsibility truly rides on the adults present.  However, it doesn't mean they need to lead the entire time.  Children love to pick the trail to explore, where to paddle,  where to snowshoe, etc. Let them!  For many, including myself, this is challenging sometimes because we have a set schedule or plan of how the day will go.  Stopping every fifteen minutes to look under rocks or smell flowers throws that plan off, and can get frustrating.  To help avoid this, always allow extra time and remember it's the journey, rather than the destination, that is important.  Not only will you help children learn to love to explore, but you'll help foster their leadership abilities too.

Use The Right Gear

In the past, there wasn't very much child specific gear.  Now there is more and more available.  This doesn't mean you need to spend a ton of money on high-end expensive stuff but going the extra mile to make sure kids are comfortable will go a long way to their enjoyment of the outdoors.  There's nothing like a cold and wet kid to put a damper on a day hike.  Here's a few recommendations:

  • Invest in a rain jacket and pants.  Kids grow quickly and rain gear can be expensive.  Try to find from other families, garage sales, thrift shops, or use a poncho instead.  In an ideal world you'd have breathable outerwear for all your kids but that's not realistic to most so get the best you can find and afford.
  • Use a child appropriate backpack.  Adult packs don't sit well, encourage overloading, and are uncomfortable.  It's important to keep the weight and size low.  Little ones should only carry some toys and a stuffed animal.  Once they get a little older, they can carry their clothes and sleeping bag but remember to still keep it light.
  • Choose youth/small sized kayaks.  Kids are much more confident and successful on the water in a boat that fits them and a paddle that is not too big.  Adult sized kayaks tend to catch wind more, are heavier, and wider making controlling them more difficult.  At our events we pair kids under 100 lbs with XS kayaks and give them paddles with smaller blades and skinnier paddle shafts.  It's amazing what a difference this makes.
  • Choose a smaller water bottle for smaller hands.  Not only will they be able to handle it better but it will fit in the pockets of their backpack better
  • Find a headlamp made for youth.  Kids will blind you with their light and leave it on throughout the night...GUARANTEED!  Youth headlamps are not as bright, are simpler to use, and turn themselves off after awhile.  Little things to be less grumpy about!

kids snowshoeing

Make It Cool

As you're out and about point out how cool it is that they are doing it because it is!  Positivity can go along way to making the experience a great one and one to remember.  Even in challenging situations try to find the positive and reinforce it:

  • "Just think about how few people have paddled to this waterfall in the rain!"
  • "How many kids can say they hiked 10 miles in one day!"
  • "The kids at school are going to think you're crazy for going winter camping!"

Bring A Buddy

Letting your children bring a friend will enhance their experience.  You may be the funniest, most interesting, cool adult in your kid's life but there's nothing like letting kids explore and have fun with other kids.  Invite their friends, cousins, and neighbors and let them roam.  If this sounds overwhelming to you, invite their parents as well.

Be Prepared For Them Getting Tired

Undoubtedly, you will out exploring and hear the dreaded, "I'm tired."  This can quickly escalate into lots of whining and not much fun for anyone.  To minimize this have a plan to bring the pep back into their step.  Sometimes it just takes a quick break and a snack.  Other times it takes a more creative approach.  I've found using goofy marching chants works wonders.  The key is to get the kids involved and to have fun.  It takes their mind of being tired and lets them be silly.  Maybe the military has something here.  Mine goes something like this and has saved me countless times (even with teenagers):

Me:  "A left, a left, a left right left. A left, a left, a left right left."
Me: "Sargent Sam is turning green."
Kids:  "Sargent Sam is turning green."
Me:  "He found a bug in his canteen."
Kids:  "He found a bug in his canteen."
Me:  "Sound off"
Kids:  "Sound off"
Me:  "Sound off"
Kids:  "Sound off"
Me:  "Bring it on down."
All: "1, 2, 3, 4.  3, 4!"
(REPEAT:  Replace the blue lines above with other silly names, colors, situations.  Take turns leading and coming up with the chant!)

 

Mix It Up

Let your children experience lots of different things to do outside.  Remember that just because you like it doesn't mean they will.  Giving them the opportunity to try different things will help them "find their outer space".

Incorporate The Outdoors Into Their Daily Life

The more kids get outside, the more they'll want to get outside.  Take time to get outside at least weekly even if it's just the backyard.  You may have to put rules around screen time to help the transition happen.  Additionally, you may need to help them figure out what to do but after a few times they can usually get creative on their own and with their friends. Just make sure you make it consistent and intentional.

Further promote the outdoors by suggesting adventurous activities for friend or birthday parties, summer fun days, and family gatherings.  These can be as simple as throwing a ball around the yard or more elaborate like a kayaking birthday party.  Mix it up and have fun with it.

girl on fat tire bike

Summary

There are countless benefits for children to play outside.  Anything you can do to help them learn to enjoy being out in nature will have huge wins as they meander through life.  It will also have benefits for our society as they will learn the importance of protecting green spaces for them and their future families to enjoy.  Keep it simple.  Keep it fun.  Let them explore!




Darren Dobier
Darren Dobier

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