From elementary to high school, discover ways to encourage and incorporate outdoor experiences into every stage of your child’s life.
It’s not that I wasn’t an outdoorsy kid, but that I wasn’t raised in an area typically known for its “outdoorsy pursuits.” I couldn’t scratch my itch to surf or mountain climb in a matter of hours like those in California. I was raised in Northwestern Ohio, where I guess I could have backpacked through the endless cornfields if I really wanted to. Instead, I got creative, and here’s how you can encourage your kids to do the same.
Discovery (Elementary Age 0-10)
Children mimic the adults they see around them. To develop a young one’s love of the great outdoors, start by taking a keen interest yourself. This stage is all about you and your child discovering the outdoors together.
Find Local Events Open to the Public
Most park systems offer an array of fun and educational programming designed for youth and adults alike. I can still remember bright summer days as a young child learning to identify plants or how-to fish from a friendly park ranger. Other local organizations like the Sierra Club, hiking or paddling groups and city recreation departments regularly plan outings for the public. Best of all, most of these events are free of charge and are welcoming to new members. It feels good to share the experience of the outdoors with someone new!
Children have their whole adulthood to be afraid of getting wet–why not let them enjoy playing in the rain while they can? Too many young people I work with are scared of what they may encounter outside simply because they haven’t spent much time there. Creating space for unstructured outdoor play at a young age can help replace fear of the outdoors with a healthy respect and love for it.
Encourage your kid to play outside with their friends—I dare you to see what kind of dirt they can get on themselves. Playing is the best way for a child to learn. And while they may come inside a little dirty and smelly, the fun and curiosity they experienced will outweigh the stains and odors.
Regular Family Fun
You don’t need to go way out in the woods for your kids to develop a hearty adoration for outdoor recreation. Incorporate everyday outdoor activities such as a bonfire or cookout into your family’s weekly routine. Roast some marshmallows or hot dogs, teach your child how to be responsible around a fire, collect fireflies and pitch a tent in the backyard. There is no wrong way to do it as long as you are being safe and having fun together. Humans are meant to be outdoors—the sooner you can get your kid out there, the better.
Exploration (Middle School Age 11-13)
At this age, children begin to explore their environment more of their own free will and understand how they fit into the grand picture of life.
I can think of no activity that regularly encourages students to be in the fresh air more than playing sports. Learning how to move your body in an open space while teaming up with people your age is one of the best ways to experience the outdoors. In addition to spending time in the sun, sports offer opportunities essential to the development of healthy youngsters: learning to effectively communicate, decompressing after a hard day of school and providing ample exercise for a growing body. My life some twenty years later is still being enriched by the skills, memories and self-discipline I learned on the soccer field as a kid. And, better yet, I’m still friends with most of my old soccer buds.
Explore Your Area
As I mentioned before, Northwest Ohio, where I grew up, is known more for its monotone farmland than its beautiful vistas and exciting landscapes. No matter. I still felt “the call of the wild” as a young boy and took it upon myself to explore as much of the world as I could get my hands on.
“Your child does not need to be trained as a climber, surfer, backpacker, paddler or camper to be an outdoorist. All they need is to get out the front door.”
I waded in the creek, ran through the cornfields, ate apples in my Uncle’s orchard and got muddy enough to warrant some motherly discipline on multiple occasions. What a grand existence. As the saying goes, you don’t miss what you never had, and I wasn’t missing anything.
Your child does not need to be trained as a climber, surfer, backpacker, paddler or camper to be an outdoorist. All they need is to get out the front door.
Quick Tip: Check out Discover The Forest, a website created by the Ad Council in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that helps connect you and your children to local forests and parks in your area!
Respect the Environment
Middle school is an age when children begin to learn that they can exert influence on their environment. For kids, this can manifest itself in the attempt to cut down trees, squash bugs, and in general, try to be the ruler of the woods. While all of these activities offer a lesson, encourage your kid to develop a healthy respect for nature.
You can begin by actively teaching them the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace in your backyard or on a family-outdoor outing. Roaring fires can be started using only what is already dead and fallen on the ground, bugs are much more interesting alive than dead and eating those unidentified berries may not be the smartest idea. Learning to respect and take care of the environment is learning to respect and take care of one’s self.
Be the Adult
Many of my students would prefer to play video games than spend time outdoors. I should know I was one of them. It can be difficult to resist the dopamine rush and the adrenaline-fueled exhilaration afforded to us by our screens. That said, if we take some time to step away from them, we’ll be sure to find there is much more excitement to be experienced in real life. Though, for your kid, this may require some help from you.
“If you feel that your child is slipping into unhealthy habits, don’t be afraid to restore the balance.”
As an adult, you should feel empowered to set boundaries on your child’s time. I’ve had several students who were initially resistant to the boundaries set by Instructors on an Outward Bound course, but quickly grew to appreciate the clarity and ease following expectations afforded them. An appreciation that allowed them to be more aware of the adventure surrounding them. If you feel that your child is slipping into unhealthy habits, don’t be afraid to restore the balance.
Independence (High School Age 14-18)
Take a Family Trip
It doesn’t matter where you go or for how long, just go and get outside together. When I was a kid, we didn’t take many large trips out of state, but I still remember fondly exploring every inch of Ohio. Overlooking Serpent Mound is an experience I will never forget. In a single moment, I felt connected to all the people who had ever lived there or seen this place before me. I have heard that gazing into the wide expanse of the Grand Canyon has a similar effect.
Quick Tip: If you’re planning to visit a national park, check openings and visiting guidelines prior to your trip on the National Park Service website.
Quick Tip #2: Did you know you can rent gear from REI? Check out your local REI or a gear shop to see what rental programs they have in place.
Set Them Free
Once your kid has reached a certain age, it may be time for them to go out and explore on their own. For me, it happened once I turned eighteen and graduated from high school. I applied to be a camp counselor far from my home at a camp that I had never attended. The first few days were rough, but soon after, they morphed into one of the most incredible summers of my life. After graduating college and moving to a big city, I found myself thinking about that summer and missing it more than ever. Under the shadow of skyscrapers, I could hear the outdoors calling again. I applied to be an Outward Bound Instructor and, to my surprise, got offered the position.
Outward Bound turned out to be the single most influential experience that I ever chose for myself. It has made me a better teacher, a better citizen and a better man. It turned out that I didn’t need the fancy tools and all the best know-how. All I needed was a hunger for adventure and a passion to learn.
I never would have developed that hunger if it weren’t for my parents pushing me out the door when I was a little boy. Maybe your child needs an Outward Bound course, or a day at the park, or splash in a puddle for an hour. However you do it, the gift of the outdoors is one of the best gifts you can give them.
About the Author
Christian Vogelgesang has been instructing for the North Carolina Outward Bound School for over two years. His favorite part about the job is watching a crew rise to meet a challenge. When he isn’t instructing, he can be found playing music or playing pranks.