I know how very important it is to get outside more, and especially to get outside more with kids.
Being outside can relieve stress, strengthen immunity, calm anxiety, and improve short term memory, to name a few benefits. (Source.) Playing outside also helps build children’s physical health, cognitive and social/emotional development, improves sensory skills, increases attention spans, and just generally makes kids happier. (Source.)
Charlotte Mason, an educator, author, and inspiration for a modern day homeschool movement, lived from 1842-1923. She famously said, “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” In other words, if you don’t have to be inside, be outside.
Dear Charlotte, I love you, but do you get how hard that can be?
In a world full of screens, computers, indoor offices, temperature controlled settings, and almost every imaginable convenience, going outside seems like one more task to get done. Like exercise, time outdoors has turned into that thing you feel like you really should do, but you just don’t feel like it.
When you add in a noisy horde of young kids who can’t zip their own coats, find their missing gloves, or have 3 pairs of soaked shoes but no dry ones, the idea of going outside goes from a regular task to a full blown mission impossible.
Not to mention that once you finally get them all outside, one of them needs to go to the bathroom.
I love nature, but I don’t love getting ready to go out.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t enjoy getting ready to go outside, especially in the cold weather. I want to stay warm and cozy, and quite frankly, I am nearly 10 years into getting kids ready to go outside every day. It’s still a long, exasperating process most times.
Last year, my husband and I started a weekly family hike initiative in the wintertime. He was enthusiastic; I was reluctant. It was going to be cold. And the kids would complain. And we would all be tired and miserable by the end. Didn’t he know that?
However, lo and behold, those family hikes turned into one of our very favorite activities, and we made some of the best discoveries and memories on those occasions. They led into weekly family bike rides in the summer, and countless impromptu walks at the park or on our road.
Our schedule has changed and it’s hard to get in a full weekly hike with all of us together these days. But I still try to get the kids and I out every single day as long as it’s not totally frigid, and we still attempt family nature outings whenever possible.
I may reference hiking a lot because it’s one of our favorite family pastimes. However, I encourage you to try different outdoor activities til you find one that works for your kids’ ages, your family’s preferences, and lifestyle.
Here are some of the things this reluctant mama has learned over our year of seriously prioritizing time outdoors.
You may need to be proactive in order to get outside more. Look for opportunities and seize them whenever you can!
- Watch for sunny spot in a rainy day.
- When the kids are listless, initiate a nature walk
- Build outside time into your regular school routine (sidewalk chalk math, walking poetry, snowflakes under the handheld microscope, etc.)
If you live someplace with a nice yard, it’s relatively easy to get the kids out anytime you’re home. However, even if you live in the city, you can seek out opportunities to be out of doors.
- Choose to walk instead of driving or taking public transportation whenever you have the time. (Or get off one stop early!)
- Go geocaching in the city.
- Play old street games, like hopscotch or four square.
- Plant a mini-garden in whatever tiny space you have.
- Look for trails or self-guided walking tours in your city.
- Visit the nearby parks.
- Take a drive to a nearby state park or natural attraction.
Get proper clothing
My husband was always preaching the virtues of proper winter layers to me, and I never believed him, insisting that I would always be cold unless I was wrapped like a marshmallow in layers of puffy down coats and snowsuits.
However, once again, he was right. We all invested in thrifted layers- proper long johns, a wool or fleece pullover and hiking pants, wool socks, good shoes, and a coat that wasn’t too puffy- and lo and behold, it was warm! I could walk for much longer without tiring than if I was trying to hike in snow pants.
(Here is a great article on layering kids up for the cold weather if you’re looking for specifics.)
In the warm weather, good clothing translated into good shoes and lightweight, breathable layers that would minimize the discomfort of sweaty summer heat.
You don’t have to buy a bunch of new, expensive gear to get started. We spent about $50 on secondhand goods for our entire family of six, and filled in the rest with pieces we already had. These became our weekly hiking outfits.
I cannot emphasize enough how much more enjoyable our experiences became when we had proper clothing. We were all warm, comfortable, and happy- and it helped us to stay outside for longer with much fewer complaints.
Teach the little ones independence
If you can teach your kids the order of layering up, and how to get on their coats, gloves, hats, and shoes without you, you’ll find the process of getting ready much easier. Yes- it takes time to teach them these skills- but in the long run, it will save you having to oversee every step for every child. Here are a few resources to help:
- The “coat trick.” It goes like this: lay the coat down, hood at the kid’s feet, zipper side up. Have the child reach down and put their arms in the coat sleeves, then stand up, put their arms up, and flip the coat over their head. Voila! It took care of everything but the zipping.
- The shoe tying trick. This Youtube video shows kids how to tie their shoes easily- it has seriously helped the laced-shoe avoider in our house to get their shoes on when they need to.
- Organized outdoor supplies. Creating a station, where kids know where their outdoor clothing belongs, will help them to find what they need when it’s time to go. This can be simple: hooks in the mudroom, a basket on the floor, an assigned spot in the closet, or boots lined up by the door. Find a system that works for your home and family size.
Teach basic safety guidelines
I’ve found that some of our time in the great outdoors was stressful, simply because my children didn’t yet have awareness of certain risks. Half of our time outside was spent with me rescuing the stray toddler from eating poisonous leaves or falling in a creek. (Not really, but it felt like that sometimes.)
To be clear, we want our kids to take healthy risks within reason, but we also don’t want them to be foolhardy. Unfortunately, young kids don’t always know the difference between something really fun and really dangerous, so it’s important to teach your kids some basic safety principles, such as:
- Staying within view or within shouting distance of each other (depending on age and maturity)
- Road safety (crossing, walking, biking, awareness of traffic)
- Which plants not to touch or eat (poison ivy, poison hemlock, etc.)
- Checking footings and handholds near ledges or on difficult sections of trail
- Awareness of wild animals and what to do when you encounter them
- What to do if you’re stung, bitten, or have a tick.
Obviously, there could be any number of safety guidelines for your kids to learn, depending on their ages and what kind of activity you’re doing. We personally teach our kids these things as we go, and try not to worry too much in the meantime. We don’t want our experiences to be overseen by fear, but rather, by reason and sensibility.
Let them explore
The flip side of teaching your kids about safety is actually letting them explore the great outdoors- and take some healthy risks.
It can be so, so hard as a worried mama to sit back and watch your kid climb a high tree, or go towards the edge of a stream when they can’t swim, or cross a rickety rope bridge. I know how those rising nerves can bring terror to your heart. And yet, I also know how wonderfully good it is for kids to really be able to explore.
“Risk is a crucial catalyst of development,” says Jennifer Fink in this article on risk-taking. According to Fink, risk taking tests kids’ physical skills, and develop their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Joanna McClanahan says in this article that healthy risks help children to develop self-esteem, social skills, creativity, and resilience.
When we try to safe-guard our kids from every possible danger, we are actually doing them a disservice. Yes, it’s hard to sit on your hands and hold your tongue when your child is doing something- well- a little dangerous.
I’m not suggesting that you encourage foolishness. Only you know your child, what they are capable of, and what feels safe to you. Always use your own judgment.
However, if the risks are relatively small and the gain is high, then it’s time to step back and watch your kids at their risky work. Watch how they test, experiment, and grow from the experience. Watch the rush of exhilaration and wonder as they freely explore the world around them. You might just find yourself letting them do it more.
Get an outside buddy
Do you have a neighbor or friend who also wants to prioritize time outside with their kids? Tell them about your efforts and ask them if they’d like to join you.
Plan a monthly outing at a park or in your yard. Try a new sport together. Go for a walk once a week while the little ones are in strollers. In this way your adult friend becomes an accountability partner of sorts, and your kids have other friends who they do outside things with.
Make it fun.
Look for treasures. Balance on fallen trees. Identify plants or animals. Skip down the trail. Race your bikes. Try a new outdoor sport. Sing with the birds. Take up a new outdoor study or hobby, like geology, botany, gardening, or foraging.
Try to get in the spirit of exploration with your kids. Join them when you can instead of just waving them outside. Or, let them go on their own if they are able!
Most of the time, the outside air does us a lot of good and we don’t usually have a complaining problem. But sometimes, after a long batch of hours out in the dirt or on the trail, or after carrying a screaming toddler for the last half mile, it’s easy to fall into the car exhausted and fed up.
We’ve made it a point to celebrate with our kids. “Wow, that was a lot of hard work!” we tell them. “I know it was hard, but you did really great and you are getting stronger each time we do this.”
We honor the end of a big outing with snacks, hot chocolate in the winter, or a cool treat in the summer. We talk about the highlights of our outing.
If it’s a short time of playing outside in the yard, perhaps you don’t need a lot- just enjoying your kids’ free play and encouraging them in it can be wonderful.
Whatever you do, frame it positively and end on a happy note. It will help your kids feel excited to do it again the next time.
Just do it.
It’s easy to make excuse after excuse, or procrastinate on going outside. But you should really just do it.
Just go get outside. Bundle the kids up now and make the effort. It’s hard to get out, and it isn’t always going to be perfect, but it’s generally going to be well worth it to make the effort.
Want to get the kids outside more? Start small by aiming for a short time each day- maybe 20 minutes to start. Then add up more. As you and the kids get more used to the routine of getting ready and going, you’ll find the time out of doors to be more enjoyable and more easily attainable.
How do you and the kids get outside more? I’d love to hear your advice!
For further reading & inspiration: