Have you ever noticed that if you want to go right, your kids often want to go left? Or if you want some fresh air or a family walk, they want to stay indoors? Whatever the situation, it’s not always straightforward to get our kids doing what we want them to do.
We all know that plenty of outdoor time, playing in nature, and exercise are vital for the health and wellbeing of our kids. But what if they moan and complain when we suggest going out, or downright refuse to come along at all, as they lounge indoors within the bosom of home comforts, distractions, and unending entertainment?
It’s a tricky one getting kids outdoors these days, but let's face it, we can’t just give up at the first sign of “no.”
Remember, as the adults, we know what’s best for them and they don’t. Try to remember this as you push through whatever resistance comes your way at the mere mention of a walk.
So, how do we do it? How can we get them to come along with minimal fuss and opposition?
Here’s my top tips:
1. Make it fun
This has to be at the very top of the list.
Kids have short attention spans and won’t appreciate a walk because “it’s good for you” like an adult will. They want fun, they want challenge, and something interesting.
But how can we do something interesting during the busy working week, when all that’s available to us is walking around the block, neighbourhood or local park they’ve been around a hundred times before?
Here are some ideas to pump up the fun factor:
· The kids don’t have to “walk” on your walk -Let them bring a scooter, bike, trike, rollerblades, skipping rope, skateboard, or a ball to play with when you get to an open green. Getting them outdoors is what’s important, especially when making a new outdoor habit, so bring whatever will keep them happy (and safe).
· Let them off the leash and path – Kids love to explore so once it is safe to do so, encourage them to walk or run off the footpath. Let them explore the mounds, bushes and dirt paths in your green or park, find new paths and hideouts for themselves, and make an adventure out of your walk. Maybe they’ll find a favourite climbing tree, which will entice them out again another day.
· Bring the fun - Use the Nature Days Activity Finder to have access to easy and fun challenges along your walk. Spot wildlife, play Nature Bingo or Scavenger Hunts, explore plants and trees with a Nature App, make Nature Art, play the footpath Olympics, hop scotch – there’s a treasure throve of ideas there to use.
2. Make it regular
Kids work best with habits.
You’ll be truly surprised how quickly children reclaim the outdoors as their natural playground once they start to go outdoors regularly. And conversely, they will also slip back into a sedentary, indoor, lifestyle within a few weeks if left to their own devices.
So, making a habit to get outdoors together just a few times each week will motivate them to play outdoors themselves more often too. And this good habit once formed can have lasting and life long benefits for your children.
3. Do it together
I realise we are all time strapped, and the thoughts of having our kids rely on us for getting outdoors as they get older can seem a step too far. One of the benefits of them growing up a little, no longer dependent on us for every morsel of food that enters their mouths or game they play, is that we are freer to do our own thing in our day.
However, I've found that once kids start primary school, where they spend the majority of their day sitting indoors in a classroom, they just don’t get enough free play time outdoors, or physical activity. This is not the fault of teachers and our schools, whom are extremely pressured to deliver the subjects in our kids curriculum as it is. It is the entire schooling system in Ireland that leads to this largely indoor environment for our kids.
But once the school bell rings at the end of their day, the reality still remains that our kids need more time playing outdoors and to be physically active. So, it's up to us to make it happen for them.
If we go outdoors as a family a few times each week, this will be a huge step towards engaging our kids with more outdoor play by themselves. And they are much more likely to want to do it, and keep up outdoor play, once the entire family is outdoors together regularly too.
4. Don’t expect too much at the beginning
When it comes to the outdoors, and walks in particular, don’t expect too much.
Leave the Fitbit at home as this will not be a walk to get your step count up. You can expect the kids to drag behind, stop regularly, find interesting items along the way. And it will be more fun for everyone if they have the time and space to explore in this way. So don’t expect continuous movement or for them to “keep up.”
Remember, if they become suddenly fascinated by an odd looking insect or stone, this is the type of nature connection which turbo charges their development. For kids it’s about the journey, not getting to a destination!
5. Change of scenery
Variety keeps things interesting so keep this in mind when it comes to kids.
And this is where the Nature Days Activity Finder really comes into it’s own.
Using the Activity Finder, you have a library full of easy, fun, activities to brighten up the most boring of walks. So, for the kids, it becomes about what fun activity or challenge they’ll do that day, rather than the route you take for your walk.
You can also change your location when time allows. So on weekends, or holidays, explore new territory - city parks, woods & forests, coasts, rivers, lakes, and trails and walks. The list is endless.
6. Bring drinks and snacks
Having three boys, food is never far from their minds. It's a useful tip to pack some healthy snacks and drinks to encourage them along your way. Sitting under a tree or sheltered area, watching the world go by, can be a place to enjoy the nature around them and bond over your shared food.
7. Dress appropriately
Ireland’s weather is unpredictable as we all know, so planning for different weather is vital. If they get too cold or soaked through, kids won’t be keen for your next family outing. So, make sure they stay warm and dry, or cool and protected from the sun in summer.
Remember also to think about your destination and dress accordingly too. For exploring in long grass or woods, cover up in long pants and long sleeve tops to avoid ticks.
Make sure to have proper footwear on too so that kids can comfortably manage the ground underfoot.
If you’re likely to find puddles and mud when out, dress kids in their old clothes or overalls, coats and wellies, so they can truly get stuck in. Just bring a change of cloths so they can change if they get wet. The same applies for adults too. Kids love to see us let go and have fun, so avoid wearing your good trainers or coat when going out to explore with kids. Dress so that you can join them as they explore, and you too can relax, jump in puddles, roll down hills, and share in those precious family memories too.
8. Make everyone a Walking Stick
A walking stick, made from a long, slim, fallen tree branch, is a great asset for every child to have. If you have older kids, they can help par down the bark into smooth, solid, sticks. Tape up the ends as a hand grip for extra comfort. My sons each have their own stick, identified by the different coloured tape on the top, so everyone knows their own stick at a glance.
We picked up our walking sticks from an unexpected little roadside enterprise, run by a boy called Killian. He sells hazel sticks from outside his gate, a few miles outside Foxford in Co. Mayo. With an honesty box for his earning, we always look forward to seeing what sticks he has on offer as we pass that way on our way to my hometown. We’ve never met Killian but we really admire his little business and spirit.
9. Let the kids lead
Having fun with kids can mean letting go of some of our adult rules. Not in a risky way mind you, we still need to keep them safe, but rather in a “letting the hair down” kind of way. So, let the kids lead and make the plan if they want, adults can follow and just go with the flow.
Maybe they will pack the snacks, pick the location, decide the route for your local walk, or pick something from the Activity Finder as a family challenge. The more they can take part and lead, the more they will enjoy it.
And it’s a great opportunity for them to learn some responsibility and planning too.
10. Use tech to make things outdoors interesting
This may be controversial, but I am a fan of tech to some extent. I feel it has a useful place in our lives, so long as it doesn’t lead us around by the nose.
I suggest kids leave all phones and devices at home (unless needed for some other reason), but the adult can bring theirs along. Then you can use the phone to take pictures or use the Activity Finder on the go.
Just try not to have it in hand all the time or get sucked into using the phone while spending time with the kids.
You can also use the phone to bridge the knowledge gap while outdoors, for example identifying plants, insects or wildlife.
When curious about something you find, always ask your kids for their own suggestions first, build a theory, and then check the App to see who was closest. It’s good for kids to question, and figure things out based on the available facts, before using tech to find the easy answer.
Useful Apps to use while outdoors include:
Alltrails – great app for finding walks and hikes in Ireland
PlantNet – App for identifying plants and flowers while out and about
Picture Insect – App for identifying insects
SkyView – App for star gazing at night
11. Let older kids bring a friend on longer walks or hikes
For older kids and teenagers, it can be challenging to capture their interest at all, never mind a boring walk around the block.
We have discussed ways in which to encourage tweens and teens into the outdoors in the Teenagers & Young People area of the site.
But a top tip is to bring their friend or a close relative along. At this age, young people yearn for connection and so bringing their friend along feeds this need, while also keeping them entertained on the trip too.
12. Encourage older kids with rewards
Again, I cover this in the Teenagers & Young People area but my top tip is to use a reward system with your teen. This may not be every parents’ preferred method, so do that suits your family best. But I am believe in creating Win:Win situations for everyone involved.
So you want your teen to come along on the family hike? Show your teen what’s in it for them and their opportunity to earn this reward. After a while, you may have to rely on this way of motivating them less, but it can be very useful at the start.
I don’t, however, recommend getting into bargaining with them about every move they make. In the home, there will be certain non-negotiable tasks and behaviours which are expected from everyone in the family. The rewards are for extras.
13. Make traditions
Traditions are a great way to create an emotional tie to certain outdoor family events. It could be summer camping, family BBQ’s, fishing trips, hikes in the holidays, nighttime hikes, Christmas wreath making or holiday adventure sports. Whatever it is, creating these bonds of tradition leave the children with lovely memories in the outdoors which stay with them for life.
14. For longer hikes or days out, be prepared
Finally, if you have older kids and are venturing on longer hikes, preparation is key.
Check out the route using an app like Alltrails. I also research the walk in other sites too so I am certain of where it starts, the parking situation, length of route and very importantly, how steep the climb is (if any).
Consider the weather and plan for it.
Bring food and ample drinks.
Wear appropriate cloths and footwear.
Be realistic - if you are not used to longer hikes, less is more if you ask me. Start off with a short hike and see how everyone manages. Then, you can gradually build up your miles as the kids get more experienced and older.
Bring a small first aid kit of plasters, insect sting spray, etc.
Tell someone where you have gone and when you expect to return.
The thing to remember is that kids love the outdoors and are hard wired to have fun. They can just loose touch with it in today’s frantic world of distractions. Once you begin to reignite this outdoor connection, it will flood back and they will once again rush outside to play without a second thought.
So, get the ball rolling by spending more time outdoors as a family. And check out 7 Steps to creating a child friendly garden for tips on how to make your outdoor space more fun for your kids.