Families Go Outdoors Begrudgingly?!? When Kids Don't Want to Go Outdoors

By Auntie Shelley

“I’ve tried to get my kids outside more, but they hate it.”  

“We’ve barely made it to the trail and already our kids are complaining.”

“It just takes so much effort to get them out the door.  They fight us the entire time we’re getting ready.”

Sound familiar?  You’re not alone.  

I have some confessions to make.  

Our children don’t always want to go outdoors.

I don’t always want to go outdoors.

There have been many hikes, canoe trips, bike rides, nature walks - insert any form of outdoor physical activity - where we have joked that it would be more accurate if we named our website “Families Go Outdoors - Begrudgingly”.  Our kids can drag their heels, fight about getting their gear on, and audibly express their displeasure with the best of them.  Just ask our neighbours.

The fact that our kids spend a lot of time outside doesn’t mean that they always like it.  We believe they need it in order to be healthy, so just like we make them brush their teeth, eat their veggies, and clean their rooms, we make them go outside.  It isn’t optional.

The thing I’ve learned (ok, I’m still learning it) is that once we get out there we always feel better.  The kids may whine and complain at the start, but a game of forest hide and seek, finding a salamander or snake, a good splash in a puddle, and everyone feels better.  If all else fails, the promise of a treat once we get to a certain point on the hike or on the way home can also help - just don’t forget the treat!

Over the years we’ve come up with a few strategies that help make it easier to get outside with positive attitudes:

  1. It’s not optional.  Once we say we’re going out, we’re going out.  No matter how much fussing, fighting, whining, complaining there is, we are going.  Yes, we have been spotted carrying a tantruming child out into the wilderness.  And yes, Dan has been spotted dragging a sour-faced wife into the forest ;)  Kids will pretty quickly learn that it’s not worth fighting if they never win.  This isn’t to say that we never battle to get our kids outdoors, but it is certainly less of a battle than if they thought there was a chance they could get out of it.
  2. Be prepared as much as possible ahead of time.  The quicker you can get out the door, the more your kids will enjoy going outside.  At some point we’ll share more about how we organize our house/gear to make getting out easier, but for now let’s just say that if a simple walk or day hike is preceded by hours of preparation, searching for gear, parent’s yelling, etc. then kids aren’t going to want to go. 
  3. Invest in the right gear.  No kid wants to end up soaking wet and cold.  They also don’t want to be told they can’t jump in puddles or mud.  Investing in good quality rain gear, proper base layers, comfortable footwear, etc. means that your kids will be comfortable no matter what the weather.  
  4. Be okay with gear getting dirty or damaged.  Proper nature exploration is a full contact sport and kids won’t want to explore if they are going to get in trouble for getting muddy or accidentally ripping their clothes.  We don’t allow our kids to be careless with their gear, but if something gets damaged that’s okay.    
  5. Be ready to explore nature.  A sturdy net, spotting scopes, containers to collect specimens, a nature bag, etc.  Make sure your kids have the tools they need to observe and explore nature and be willing to stop or change plans if they come across a great nature find.   
  6. Anticipate and prepare for challenges.  We know that on long canoe trips there will almost always come a point when the kids’ morale is low and they will need some serious encouragement and motivation.  Years ago we started the tradition of telling “legends” in anticipation of this.  The “legends” are stories that revolve around a group of kids in the wilderness that are facing a challenge.  In order to overcome the challenge they have to be attentive to clues along the way and work together cooperatively.  At the end there is always some kind of reward or treasure.  We prepare for these legends ahead of time and bring the reward or treasure with us so that when morale gets low, we can set up a situation or challenge just like the one in the legend.  When the kids start to see the clues from the legend they are motivated to improve their attitudes and work together, just like the kids in the story.  Of course knowing there’s a reward at the end doesn’t hurt either.

    I also try to remember to stick a lollipop or two in my lifejacket on long paddles so that if a little one has trouble coping I have something to distract them with.  Throwing in a chocolate bar for Dan doesn’t hurt either.

    When snowshoeing I have found that having hand warmers and pocket full of “magical warming jellybeans” can quickly head off a full blown “my hands are freezing and going to fall off wig out”.   
  7. Lead by example.  If we complain about getting ready, our kids attitudes quickly deteriorate.  When we exude enthusiasm our kids are more likely to get excited about being in the outdoors.
If mom's not happy, nobody's happy!

If mom's not happy, nobody's happy!

Finally, if all else fails and your kids still don’t want to be outside at least you can take comfort in the fact that you’re building their character ;)