How to Raise Your Kids to Love the Outdoors

Ali in the snowbank
Our niece, Ali, in the neighborhood snowbank a few years ago—she’s an outdoor-loving high school senior now (photo courtesy of Jenny Granovsky)

If you follow Twin Cities Outdoors, you already love the outdoors. If you have kids, it’s natural for you to want them to love the outdoors, too. How do you raise them to do that?

My husband and I have raised three children who are now in their 20s. We think they’re pretty great, and they all love the outdoors. Here’s what we did that helped foster that love:

Start to Bring Your Kids Outdoors When They’re Young…and Keep Doing It

They can’t be too young for this! Our daughter was born in April, so I had several months to put her in the stroller and walk with her around our neighborhood almost every day.

We started camping with them—sometimes in camping cabins to make it easier in bad weather—when they were infants and toddlers.

We brought them to the beach as soon as they could walk, got bikes for them when they were preschoolers and taught them how to ride, got a swing set and sandbox for the yard, and brought them to playgrounds often.

When you make daily outdoor activity a big part of their childhood, they grow up thinking it’s normal—because it is!

baby and mom in the leaves
Kayla with son #3, Sylvan (photo courtesy of Kayla Rodriguez)

Admittedly, this is a lot harder for us in the winter. I remember the days when I spent more time dressing and undressing them than they were actually outside!

But playing in the snow, ice skating, sledding—it’s all available to us here in our climate. Millions of kids in the world will never know what that’s like (including in our own country).

Make it Part of Your Family Culture and Identity

As you model a love for the outdoors to your children and bring them along, over the years they’ll see it as part of who you are as a family.

For us it’s something like: We Brodins love the outdoors. It’s part of who we are. I can say, too, that because I had parents who loved the outdoors, my siblings and I grew up loving it, too. Same for my husband and his siblings…and their kids.

Go to Amazing Places

I’m not talking about Wisconsin Dells or Disneyland, although those places are fun, too.

I’m talking about amazing natural places like Yellowstone…the Grand Canyon…Lake Superior…even the playground at French Park here in the Cities.

Take them to age-appropriate Wow places at every age, and they’ll grow up realizing there are lots of amazing places in the outdoors.

family at yellowstone grand canyon
Our family and nephew at the Yellowstone Grand Canyon in 2011

Not only that, experiences in these places give us tons of great memories to talk about together.

Establish some Outdoor Traditions

This could be going to the cabin, going to the same campground every year, taking road trips to the same state or national park a few times.

There’s something about going back to an outdoor place you love that gives you a sense of being home-away-from-home.

Our family has been camping at the same campground on the Gunflint Trail since our kids were tiny. We’ve gone other places, too—but we’ve always gone up there at least once a year, usually more.

Nowadays we still try to get up there at least annually with our whole family. But our kids also go there without us now and bring their spouse, sometimes friends. It’s a beloved tradition.

jumping in Lake Superior
Our daughter, Jamie, taking the Lake Superior plunge at the end of the breakwall in Grand Marais

Have Age-Appropriate Expectations

This will mean different things to different families. You know what your kids are capable of. On the other hand, they may surprise you if you raise the bar a little higher than you think is possible.

One of my favorite examples of this is the Marko family. They share about their family’s outdoor adventures on their website We Found Adventure. Because parents Bobby and Maura love the outdoors, they wanted their children to grow up loving it, too.

Rather than leave their young ones behind on canoe trips, hiking trips and camping trips, they adapt their trips and bring them along—and have since they were infants.

Another example is a family from our church who regularly takes road trips in the summer to our famous national parks. This past summer was Glacier. Their youngest daughter was just 3-1/2 and they all hiked the 5-mile Avalanche Lake trail together—even Claire.

little girl hiking
Claire running ahead of her dad, Jake, on the Avalanche Lake trail in Glacier (photo courtesy of Alison Givand)

I’m not sure I would’ve tried that with an under-4 year old—and they didn’t know if she’d be able to do it either. But many times they’re able to do more than we think!

On the other hand, if you want to take your family to the Grand Canyon, you’ll likely all have a better time when your kids are old enough to have a healthy fear of the edge!

Let Them Whine a Little—It Won’t Kill ‘Em

And there are those times our kids will resist getting off the couch and away from their screens.

Part of parenting is giving them age-appropriate challenges we know is good for them, and know they’ll end up loving. Or even if they don’t love it, they’ve done it and maybe will love it next time.

Another family story—in 2011 our family traveled to the Tetons and Yellowstone, along with our 9-year old nephew. On the way we camped in Lander, Wyoming and found a 3-mile hike in Sinks Canyon State Park just a few miles away.

Our middle son, 13 at the time, and nephew got tired of the hike half-way through. They couldn’t just stop, of course, but they let us know they weren’t happy about it all the way back.

boys not having fun on the hike
Our son and nephew NOT having fun on this 3-mile hike in Wyoming—they got over it! (2011)

Our middle son still isn’t the hiker of the family, but he regularly fishes, hunts and paddles the Boundary Waters. And our nephew now loves hiking.

He was along with us again this summer on our trip to Glacier (he’s now 18), and, with his cousins, enthusiastically hiked the 12 miles up to Cobalt Lake and back.

So putting up with some whining was worth it in the long run!

Do What You Can to Make Every Experience a Good One

Here are more things you can do to make each experience as good as possible:

Have the Right Gear

Know the weather forecast and the local climate well. Bring rain gear, be sure you’re all in comfortable footwear, dress in layers, have comfortable backpacks, etc.

kids cross country skiing
Sam, Lydia and Luke enjoying a beautiful cross country ski day in their warm gear (photo courtesy of Alison Givand)

Prepare

In bear country? Have bear spray. Bring a first aid kit. If you’re camping, be sure your tent is weather-proof for rain and wind. What’s the weather forecast? Where’s the trailhead and how long and rugged is it?

Bring the right map(s). Know how long it’ll take. You get the picture.

Bring Food!

Bring snacks they love—maybe even things they don’t normally get, like candy or special treats. Be sure and have lots of water or good hydrating beverages.

Stop for snack breaks, or pack your lunch along and find the most scenic spot to eat.

As They get Older, Invite their Friends

This has been one of the most fun things we did. Remember the traditional family campground I talked about earlier? Once our kids were in middle school/early high school we let them invite a friend along on some of our camping trips.

Not only did it make it more fun for them, now we have a whole slew of 20-somethings who also like camping there! Some of them are kids whose family didn’t do outdoor things, so we were able to introduce them to what an outdoor life can be.

Of course another way to do this is invite other families to go with you.

boys camping
Seth, Jason (our son), Jonathan and Jeremy—boys from three different families having a ball camping together (many years ago! These boys are all in the 20s now)

Add Adventure

Find the coolest things to do wherever you are. The older your kids get, the more options you have. Examples:

  • One of the most popular day canoe trips in the Boundary Waters is just a few minutes from “our” campground on the Gunflint Trail. We’ve done that many, many times with our kids and their friends now. It includes canoeing, portaging, hiking, swimming, even some light rock climbing.
  • On one trip to the Tetons, we took the gondola to the top of a 10,500-foot mountain near Jackson and hiked around the top.
  • Find activities your family will enjoy: horseback riding, whitewater rafting, rent bikes for some trails (or bring your own), paddling…there are so many options.
little boys canoeing
Our boys, Jason and Travis, learned to canoe in elementary school…
big boys canoeing
Here they are with a couple of their cousins, years later, confident paddlers

Let Your Kid(s) be the Leader

This is something that helped another nephew on a hike a few years ago. He was 6 or 7 at the time, and not at all excited about the hike his parents were insisting on (they let him whine a little, but didn’t give in).

Once we were on the trail, this little guy took the lead and from then on had a great time. He found ripe berries, looked at the map to be sure we were on track, would turn around occasionally to be sure the rest of us were doing OK.

It helped him take some ownership of the hike and it turned out to be fun for all of us.

Be OK with Age-Appropriate Risk

Let them play in the rain once in awhile. Let them climb some rocks and trees. Let them get to the edges of places.

on the bridge over the pond
Elliot and Annika explore the waters just over the edge (photo courtesy of Britta Anderson)

One day when our three were 16, 14, and 12 I sent them on a day trip in the Boundary Waters with a 20-year old family friend. They all had BW canoeing experience with us by then, and were ready to head out on their own.

They were four hours past the expected time to meet me at the landing because of a portage they had trouble finding (that’s a long story). And of course, they couldn’t let me know that because they were in the Boundary Waters.

By this time the bright sunny day had clouded over. It was raining, the temps had fallen into the 50s, and would be dark within the hour.

This mom was a bit frazzled, but they made it, and developed a huge amount of confidence and positive attitude skills through it.

(And I learned to along send flashlights and fire starter even if it’s just for a day trip! Thankfully they had their rain gear along. )

Risk-taking is important for our kids to develop self-confidence, resilience, even better social skills. (Read: Why Kids Need Risk, Fear and Excitement in Play)

Be Flexible

“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not break!” I heard the owner of an Israeli tour company say that once.

You are essentially your children’s tour guide throughout their growing up years of exposure to our wonderful outdoor world. Maintain a flexible attitude and you’ll be able to navigate those years more easily.

kids splashing in the rain
Annika and Elliot don’t let rainy days go to waste! (photo courtesy of Britta Anderson)

Sometimes you need a Plan B, C or D when Plan A falls through due to whatever. That’s OK, and sometimes surprisingly fun. You’ll discover lots of new places and experiences by accident along the way that will turn out as good or better than your Plan A.

It may be you’ll need to simplify somewhat to accommodate developing an outdoor lifestyle with your family. Will it be worth it?

It sure has been for our family!

Advice from Another Mom

My good friend, Kayla and her husband, Jeremiah, think so, too. They’ve intentionally raised their three boys believing the outdoors is a wonderful place to be. Kayla shared a little of their story and her advice:

“It seems to me that kids are born inherently to love the outdoors. Parents can either encourage that or allow it to vanish.”

“We’ve made being in the outdoors a priority for our family and we feel the benefits outweigh any challenges that come—and there certainly are challenges!

dad and baby hiking
Dad, Jeremiah, with Rio in the backpack (photo courtesy of Kayla Rodriguez)

“We’ve taken our 3 boys (now 5, 4 and 1.5) since they were only months old to go camping in national parks, state parks, on mushroom hunts, hiking excursions, innumerable road trips, to lakes to hunt for sea glass and water-smoothed treasures and so much more.

“I cannot recommend enough going on vacations where there is no internet—only the use of imagination and creativity to have fun together as a family. The very best vacations we’ve experienced have been where internet connection did not reach us in the wild. 

“Here are ways you can make the outdoors a priority for your family:

  • Ask extended family to make it a focal point of your gatherings…
  • Be intentional to plan vacation time at local state parks:
  • Make sure you have the equipment to be comfortable and safe outdoors:
  • Encourage your kids (and let’s be honest—yourself!) to get out in all elements.
raise your kids to love the outdoors
Kayla and Jeremiah’s older boys, Rio and Winston make their way up the mountainside (photo courtesy of Kayla Rodriguez)

“Something as practical as a double stroller made it possible for us to get out much more when our first two were so little! Shop for outdoor gear when there are yearly sales. It helps to bargain shop for the many things you will need for outdoor activities. Check out local buy/sell pages or hit up big name companies for those holiday sales.

“And give your kids these items as gifts to encourage the lifestyle. A small pair of binoculars has gotten a lot of mileage in our household. Imagination has taken it many places—literally and figuratively.”

kids are born loving nature
Rio geared up and ready for the outdoors (photo courtesy of Kayla Rodriguez)

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Sharon Brodin
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