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How I Got My Stubborn Toddler to Love the Outdoors

It took a lot of patience and a lot of detours.

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Hiking has been a part of my life since high school.

When I became a dad, I realized I wanted to pass on my beloved pastime to my kids. I also realized that when dealing with toddlers, the legacy of beloved passions can be a tricky one to hand down. Especially if, like me, you’ve got a strong-willed daughter.

But I’m strong-willed, too, and hiking was something that I knew I needed my daughter to love. We took our first hike together more than a year ago and many since. They were not always easy. In the process, I’ve learned a few things about how to help her feel safe and foster her sense of adventure and exploration.

My first hike with my daughter took place at an easy loop trail at the University of North Florida here in Jacksonville. I didn’t have any sort of procedure in place for teaching her how to love hikes; I figured that she’d love it as much as I did because she’s my kid.

For the most part, I was lucky. That’s how it worked out. However, there were a few things that happened that made for a more successful inaugural hike.
First, my little one wanted to bring her toy stroller with her and, although it seemed antithetical to enjoying nature, I let her. I think she was able to enjoy the experience because she had something that could keep her busy as she ambled down the trial.

The toy stroller kept her happy. But it also kept her occupied and focused on problem solving. Sometimes big roots stuck up from the ground and grabbed the stroller’s plastic wheels. My daughter had to decide if she was going to back up and take a different route or just lift the stroller and walk over.

These small situations kept the hike interesting and taught her to adapt. If she became really frustrated, I stepped in and helped her figure out a solution.
It was important to me to choose a trail that I’d already explored extensively. I knew what the terrain was like and I knew where to take her and where not to take her. In Florida, trails can have a few hazards that might freak out your toddlers: big banana spiders, the webs they make that span the trail, alligators sunning on the side of a lake. It’s Florida, after all.

It sounds obvious now, but it really wasn’t then: the most significant thing about our first adventure was that my daughter learned what a “hike” was. So, in the future, when I said, “Let’s go on a hike,” she knew what was going to happen and was, in most cases, excited about it.

But when she wasn’t excited about it, I had a few tricks up my sleeve. One of them was using the environment of the hike to strengthen her sensory experiences. If she was fussy, I’d stop at a pine tree, for example, pull off a couple of needs, rub them between my fingers and let her smell the piney, citrusy scent.

Making the hikes educational keeps her interested, as well. When there are at least two different species of trees along the trail, we’ll walk up to both and I’ll tell her to feel the bark. This is great when there are pines and oaks next to each other be because the bark is so different. We run our fingertips over the bark and pull off a chunk of it so she can feel the difference between the trees.

While my daughter is usually happy to charge down the trail, she does have moments when she gets scared. It can be intimidating for a toddler to stare at a slice of trail cutting through towering trees; sometimes she seems scared by the unknown.

In those situations, I’ll pick her up and carry her along. After about one or two minutes, she tends to relax. Then, I’ll entice her with something about the surroundings. I’ll point out a butterfly or a bug.

In most cases, she’ll want to get down and examine whatever it is we’ll look at. From there, she’s usually good to go.

But what’s most important is allowing her to engage with the environment. I encourage her to pick up sticks, throw pine cones, pick flowers and, when she wants to plop down and build sandcastles or dirt piles, I’ll gather up materials for her and let her build.

It also helps when I let her “lead the way.” For trails marked with blazes on trees, every few minutes I’ll ask her if she can see a tree with color on it. She’ll scan the trail and point out the tree, and then I tell her those colors help us to know which way to go.