Nurturing the Connection: 5 Tips for Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids
About Megan: Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and the author of The Wonders That I Find, a children’s book about a girl named Geneva who teaches her parents a thing or two about appreciating the small things in nature.
The house where I grew up was in suburbia yet it backed onto a protected wetland and forested area that contained a matrix of trails and secret forts. My sisters and I would take off for hours with other neighbourhood kids and play in those woods. We explored on foot, by bike, and even on skates when the hidden ponds would freeze in winter. If we weren’t in the woods, we were running around the yard, playing ball at the park, or tobogganing down nearby hills. We were outside, all the time, as content to bike past the rows of houses to the neighbourhood park as we were to play on the forested trails.
As a mother of two young girls I know that times have changed. I notice a remarkable difference from my childhood in the ways that parents need to navigate the amount of time kids spend outdoors versus indoors. I know it’s not just me; there are many books written about a growing disconnect with nature (such as Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods). What these resources tell us is that, as parents, we have a lot against us. Screens have greatly impacted our children’s abilities to tolerate unstructured, imaginative play without immediate reward. Free-range play has been plagued by fear and a cultural shift towards increased supervision and rule-setting. We’re busier than ever. It can feel daunting just getting our kids out the door.
Yet, time outside has been linked to better mental, physical and emotional health for all of us. It may take a shift in our own thinking, but the outdoors can become a part of daily life for our kids and a healthy, enjoyable habit. But, how do you do that? Where do you start?
For many parents, nurturing a love for the outdoors in our children may not come easily. Here are some tips for raising outdoor-loving kids:
1. Start Small, Start Close
Outdoor experiences don’t need to be elaborate. When my kids were very young, simply getting them out of the door in appropriate outdoor gear felt like a triumph. I wouldn’t plan much beyond the front door, but I invested in a few tools to help kids engage with their surroundings: a shovel and pail, sidewalk chalk, a magnifying glass and bug kit that allows them to catch bugs to inspect then let go. And if your kids are anything like mine, I need to get them out the door just before things get “squirrelly.” Make it an expectation and commit to twenty minutes. Before you know it, twenty minutes might stretch to an hour or two. With practice and experience, you might leave the front stoop or yard and start planning a walk or drive to a local park.
2. Pack the Night Before
This tip has been tremendously helpful for making my outdoor excursions less stressful and way more fun for all. When I’ve got a bigger day planned, such as a hike or a beach session, I get as much as I can ready the night before: picnic, snacks, water bottles, hats, equipment and various layers. (When I had kids in diapers I’d always have a “go kit” ready that I’d restock as needed with baby and infant essentials.) This makes it easier to get out the door without added stress so everyone starts off on the right foot. I promise that when you’re in a good mindset, the experience will be more enjoyable and you’ll all want to do it again.
3. Bring the Outdoors In
Two ideas here! First, introduce your kids to the plants in your home and what it takes to care for them. Point out how leaves lean towards the sunlight, what they look like when they are parched, and how quickly they respond when they are watered. Take pictures to show a before and after so your kids can see the difference. (Don’t own any plants? Get one or two that your kids can care for!) Second, purchase or borrow some children’s books about nature and read them with your children. There are plenty to choose from! The key with both of these tips is to encourage your kids to make connections between their indoor learnings and the outdoor experience. Do they notice plants outdoors that need to be watered? Can they go look at that thing they’ve been reading about? If you live in an apartment or don’t have a yard, you may need to find a local park or garden to explore.
4. Make It a Game
Unstructured time outside is important to encourage, but if you’re trying to get from A to B or you have listless kids, throw in a few games! One of our favourites while hiking is to bring a few small stuffed animals or toys with us. Adults take turns hiding them along the trail, so that kids can find them (starting every 50 metres, then trying to stretch it out). If you’re alone with kids, you could have them close their eyes while you hide them at shorter intervals so that you can still stay close to them. Our other favourites include impromptu scavenger hunts (“Find me ten dandelions, four clovers, and three types of trees!”) and the Alphabet Game (picking a category like “food” and naming objects in alphabetical order). We bring “trail gummies” along as a reward along the way. Another way to increase the fun factor is to bring a friend. I notice my kids light up when there are other kids to share the experience.
5. Put Outdoor Time in the Bank
We all go through slumps, whether the weather is bad or people are overcoming sickness. It can become habitual not to go outside as much as we need to. If you’re looking to kickstart a better habit or stay more committed to time in nature, consider having your kids cash in their outdoor time for screen time, meaning they need to earn their time using screens for games or entertainment. Help them make healthy choices by understanding these are devices to be used in moderation. You set the limits! Maybe two hours outdoors equals 30 minutes of screen time when they have finished schoolwork and chores? This can be as important for adults as it is for children, so consider including yourself in the challenge.
Most importantly, have fun and slow down to your kids’ pace so that the experience is a positive one they’ll want to repeat.
photo credit: Paul Zizka