10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids
By Michael Lanza
As we neared Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park, on the middle day of a three-day family backpacking trip, a man and woman in their fifties stopped to talk with us. They sized up our kids and smiled; Nate was nine and Alex was seven. “We’re impressed!” they told us. “We never had any luck trying to get our kids to backpack when they were young.” We chatted a bit and then headed off in opposite directions on the trail.
After they were out of earshot, Alex turned to me, wanting to clarify a point: “You didn’t get us to do this,” she told me. “We wanted to do it.” Her words, of course, warmed my heart. But her comment also spotlighted the biggest lesson for parents hoping to raise their kids to love the outdoors: Create experiences that make them eager to go out again the next time.
I’m no authority on how to raise kids to love the outdoors, and all kids are different. Offering advice to parents on how to raise their kids treads on dangerous ground—kind of like telling members of my extended Italian-American family how to make pasta sauce. But my wife and I have had good success so far. Our kids are now 16 and 14 and look forward to our regular backpacking, paddling, skiing, and climbing adventures. They also have an impressive list of pretty hard-core trips on their wilderness CVs already, from sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay and descending a technical slot canyon in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, to numerous backpacking trips in national parks like Zion, Olympic, and the Grand Canyon. (See a menu of stories about many of our trips at my Family Adventures page, and see my Book page to read about the year we spent taking wilderness adventures in national parks threatened by climate change.)
I think much of what we’ve learned could be helpful to most parents who want to raise children that love the outdoors. For me, it boils down to 10 basic rules.
1. Give Away Your Baby Stroller
As soon as your toddler can walk, give some friends that stroller and let your child walk everywhere you go, whether around town or on a trail. Sure, walking with a little one requires patience. But it turns children into strong hikers at a young age and gets them used to the idea that they will walk rather than be carried.
I preferred a child-carrier backpack to a stroller, even in urban settings, for those occasions when my kids needed a break from walking. It gives you exercise, is more convenient on stairs, and helps communicate to kids that our family carries packs—that we’re hikers.
2. Don’t Give in to Frustration and Apathy
Let’s face it: Hiking, camping, or doing almost anything outdoors with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers is often more work than fun. Don’t get discouraged; take them out anyway. If you wait until they’re older you may find that your child isn’t interested. Introduce children to the outdoors while they’re very young and make it part of your family lifestyle, so that you nurture in them a long-term love for it.
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3. Take Baby Steps
Don’t push your kids too hard. This one’s especially hard for parents who have always been very active, but pushing them risks creating a negative association with the outdoors. Start small, with short hikes, and work gradually up to longer outings. Think of it as pulling them along rather than pushing them. This also helps prevent the need to abandon plans, which is sometimes necessary (see tip #5) but can be disappointing for everyone involved.
What’s familiar and easy to you may seem scary and intimidating to a kid. Evaluate your child’s readiness for something new based not just on its physical difficulty, but how well your child handled previous experiences that presented comparable stress.
Example: When I considered taking my kids, at age nine and seven, sea kayaking and wilderness camping for five days in Glacier Bay, Alaska, I figured they were ready for it because they had done several backpacking trips, rock climbed, floated and camped on a wilderness river, and cross-country skied through snowstorms. They had managed stressful situations well and understood the need to follow instructions and that trips have uncomfortable moments. Despite how wet and raw it was, they loved Glacier Bay.
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4. Employ Bribery Strategically
Bring along motivators like their favorite candy bar to eat halfway through a hike and a favorite stuffed animal. Do things that create positive associations for kids, like giving them their own gear (headlamp, pack, walkie-talkie, etc.), and letting them be the hike leader or take charge pitching the tent.
Remember: What a child says now does not necessarily reflect how she will feel 20 minutes from now. I’ve been reminded time and time again that a seemingly tired kid is often just a hungry kid. They don’t have nearly the fat reserves and muscle mass of adults, so they need to rest and refuel more frequently, sometimes every hour. Look for warning signs: grumpiness, a slowing pace, growing quiet, or a faraway look. Remind them frequently to take a drink. A 10-minute rest and a fat chocolate bar can swing a kid’s attitude 180 degrees.
5. Tear Up Your Agenda
Whether hiking with kids or on a serious mountain climb, I think people often get into trouble simply because they focus too much on the destination, overlooking that it’s really about the journey. Don’t be so wedded to your agenda that you fail to see when it’s time to switch to Plan B.
Taking children outdoors, especially younger ones, does not always go according to plan. Adults hike for exercise, the views, and to get somewhere; young kids want to throw rocks in a creek. Let them. Explain to kids that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking. Encourage your teenager to invite along a friend. Find a balance that makes everyone happy, giving children some say without relinquishing all control.
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this post, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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