As an adventure loving mama, the early years with your tiny training partner are going to be a combination of slow, interrupted ambles in the woods (punctuated by stops for nursing, diaper changes/potty breaks, snacks, and the need to examine the fascinating structure of every stick and rock) with the occasional passing off of your darling progeny to your partner, grandma, or a sitter so that you can get out alone long enough to run fast, scream real loud and come back feeling human. In other words, it is largely about getting yourself back out there so that you don’t lose everything that was important to you pre-kid.
And maybe, like me, you also hope that you will ignite the spark of outdoor exploration in your child too. That they will find joy and fulfillment in a life outside. That as they grow bigger and stronger they will not only enjoy keeping up with you , but that they will one day hike farther, ride faster, and climb higher than you can.
We all know, however, that children hit phases of life where they become rebellious. Where anything and everything that their parents ever held dear gets jettisoned faster than hippies ditching weed when the cops show up. How then, do we instill the love of adventure that we have, without triggering the pushback?
While my child is only just 3, and I can’t claim to have “raised” an adventure loving kid yet, I do have about 15 years of experience (between classroom teaching and working as an outdoor educator) of observing other families’ tactics and outcomes and think I have spotted a few things that work, and some that don’t.
My best tips for raising adventure loving kids.
Get them out early and often: The sooner and more frequently children are exposed to the outdoors the more comfortable they will be there, and the more they will view it as being normal. This doesn’t have to mean epic big wall climbs or weeks spent camping in extreme weather. Evening walks before dinner, afternoons in the backyard, Sunday family hikes at the nearest nature trail work well. The right amount of time will be something you feel out for your own family. We envisioned ourselves as the family who would camp with the tiniest newborn baby. In reality we camped once in our colicky, non-sleeping child’s first year. It was hell. He already basically never slept, in an unfamiliar place it was a non-stop scream fest. At first light I declared the trip over and we were going home. Other families report that their young babies sleep considerably better in a tent than at home. Everyone is different, so play it by ear. (Don’t worry, our 3 year old is now a champion camper. He calls our tent the “camping house” and becomes quite displeased when it is time to take it down and go home.)
Let them see you enjoy outdoor activities: I spend a lot of time beating the drum about the importance of getting mama (and papa) out to experience their favorite activities for their own health and sanity. But taking care of yourself in this way has a hugely positive impact on your kids too. Not only because when you are happy and fulfilled you have more energy and patience for your children’s needs, but also, when they see these activities having a positive impact on you they will learn by watching that playing outside is fun and rewarding.
Respect their interests: If all we do is push our own agenda onto our kids, we will create the push back and rebellion that we are trying to avoid. Watch your children and listen to what they tell you is important to them. This starts in the earliest toddler years with letting that hike turn into hours of splashing in the creek instead, not always having to push through for the exact itinerary you envisioned. Once they are old enough to show what they enjoy, it means supporting those things. My son has been talking about skiing nonstop the last month or so. Every day he asks when the snow is going to come so we can “go skiing at the skiing place”. Folks...he went skiing exactly once last year with his Grama. Once. They were out for like...20 min. It was way too cold that day. He is still obsessing. So, I guess we will do a lot of focusing on skiing this winter. I’m also noticing a natural inclination to climb EVERYTHING. So, I recently dug out my 20 year old climbing gear and am working on building those skills so that I can teach him how to do it too.
Acquire top quality equipment for them: Look, I don’t want to be out in the cold and wet in crappy cotton sweatpants and a hoodie, neither does my kid. If they are cold, wet, miserable and fighting against heavy, barely functional walmart grade equipment, they are going to have a bad time. And a bad time means not wanting to do it again. I get it. Kids grow fast, and their interests change. The last thing parents want to do is dump gobs of money into stuff that will only be useful for a little while. But if we really want to raise kids who think outdoor adventure is fun, we need to get comfortable with the idea that we WILL be spending serious cash on their gear. Also, get creative! If you know the quality brands of mountain bikes for kids, you can keep an eye out for second hand versions. Heck, you can probably resell it later for nearly what you paid AND pass that awesome bike onto another stoked little kid. Find other outdoor loving parents who will swap gear. Maybe they will loan you their oldest kid’s climbing harness for this season and you can loan their youngest your kid’s outgrown snow suit. Win-Win. Many ski shops offer season rentals on kids equipment. You pay one reasonable flat fee to use the skis for one winter and return them at the end of the season. No need to buy brand new ones every year. But whatever you do, outfit the kids with the best equipment you can manage and everyone will have more fun.
Push them, but not too much: Just like adults, children need to build their physical and mental capacity for physical exertion little by little. As they are asked to hike a little further this week than last week, they build muscles and their own knowledge that they are capable. As parents, we will sometimes need to move the bar a bit for them. If you know they can hike a mile, try a mile and a quarter next time. But always move incrementally and have a bailout option in mind. The last thing you want is for your kid to decide that hiking with mom is akin to a death march and will be a miserable experience.
Make outdoor time fun: Let them have the super sugary cereal when camping. Save special toys for outdoor hang out time. Teach them fun games to play on the trail. Hiking isn’t fun to kids the same way it is for adults. The more you can inject fun out there, the more they will want to do it.
Beware hedonic adaptation: Humans are ease and comfort seeking creatures by nature. It is an understandable part of our DNA. Life for our ancestors, the ones who gave us our genetic makeup, was hard. Really hard. A daily battle for enough food, and water to keep on living while trying to stay warm, dry, and protected. Being able to identify ways to make life easier and more comfortable is a survival advantage. Once we become accustomed to a certain comfort level, we begin to expect that level and want things even more comfortable. Seeking ease and pleasure is normal. But in our modern world where we have more ease and pleasure available to us at every moment of every day than our ancestors could have ever imagined, we may have to be intentional about limiting our constant comfort and entertainment. I don’t want my child to be miserable of course, but letting him get slightly hot or slightly chilly and teaching him how to handle those situations will help him learn that slight discomfort won’t kill him, and teach him how to prepare and take care of himself. I want to let him get a little bored sometimes. Being outdoors can be thrilling for sure, but it is usually brief moments of thrilling accentuating hours of monotony. Learning to deal with the boredom is good for us all.
But don’t ban the screens: Lest you think my previous point was going to lead to a sanctimonious rant about the evils of screen time, it isn’t. Like anything we forbid, screens will simply become more attractive if we fight too hard against them. Like many parents who value unplugged time, I too have a natural tendency to want to just live out in the trees in some Walden-esque manner eschewing technology and protecting my little snowflake from the evils of the flashing pixels. But let’s get real. We are modern humans who live in the real world. Forbidding all screen time or technology use is not only unreasonable, but it will be counter productive. It can even create an obsession with the forbidden fruit. And really, your child will, without a doubt, use technology someday as part of their job. Fingers in the ears and singing “la la la” isn’t serving anyone.
Surround yourselves with like minded families: If your family and your kid are the only ones in town who spend their weekends mountain biking and climbing, it will seem “weird”. Having a community of other adventure loving families around will help them see that being an outdoor family is normal.
Of course, there is no perfect formula for raising kids that love nature and adventure as much as they love indoor activities and screentime, but I do think adopting these practices will help point them in the outdoor direction.
How do you encourage a love for the outdoors in your kids? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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