The following was produced with our friends at L.L.Bean, who believe that, on the inside, we’re all outsiders.
Ultramarathon runners and smell-the-roses strollers hit the trail for the same reason: Being outdoors energizes them. In fact, being outdoors energizes everyone–including parents of growing kids. If anything, children stand to benefit more from the restorative power of fresh air than anyone else. By going outside, they not only get the benefits of time spent in nature, they are also trained to use the one coping mechanism that always works.
That’s part of the reason Facebook Director of People Growth Brynn Harrington and her husband, Sean, issued an audacious challenge to themselves and their three children, Finn, Zoe, and Maeve (now nine, six, and almost two, respectively): summit a peak a week together in 2016. Trail by trail, the Harringtons realized that just by being outside, they were building a foundation of skills and confidence that will help their kids navigate even more complex challenges in the years ahead.
Not every family will log 52 hikes in a year but, as always, the lessons are in the journey, not on the mountaintop (although you can’t beat the view). Fatherly recently asked Brynn for advice for parents who want to get their kids outside. What followed was a conversation about appreciating nature, forming habits, overcoming obstacles (and tantrums), and time travel.
Was it always your intention to include your children in your outdoor activities?
We’ve both always loved being outside, and when we first had kids, we were terrified we’d lose that part of ourselves. We religiously each trained alone and signed up for races alone until one day we realized although we were spending time doing things we loved, we weren’t with the people we loved most. It became an intention to figure out how being outdoors could work for us, as a family. We decided the only way was to integrate our kids into the activities we loved. We started by traveling. We trekked around French vineyards with our first son, Finn, at six weeks. We figured, if we don’t bring our kids we can’t do this stuff! And as we did it more and more, we realized we could make it work without being complicated.
How did the 52 hikes idea come about?
One day we were hiking with two of our kids and Finn, who was seven, started asking endless questions about time travel. Could he build a time machine? The speed of light. How might it all work? Not your everyday conversation. He was deeply excited and inspired. Later, Sean and I realized Finn got undivided attention that day in a way he usually doesn’t when life is crazy with work and everything else. Two distraction-free hours on a trail gave him space to simply talk about what was on his mind. We said, ‘Our kids clearly need this. How can we make it more of a practice?’ I believe in setting goals so I said, ‘How about doing a hike a week somewhere different in the year ahead?’ After a long debate about whether or not we could do it, we set the goal.
How did they take to it?
There were complaints, which was inevitable, but the impact on all of us was immediate. With no phones or tech to keep them busy, we saw the kids get the stimulation they craved from everyday pleasures–finding a stream or a rock, seeing a view or some kind of animal, organic conversations. They were able to notice the small things. And they were excited about them.
Did it affect their relationship with others as well as their relationship with nature?
We’d often bring other families with kids who weren’t used to hiking or even being outside and the parents would say, ‘This is going to be a huge fail.’ But we were generally all surprised. Kids have an amazing capacity to bring other kids along. Friends’ kids almost always rose to the challenge, and before we knew it, they were nearly out of our sight on the trail.
We were so afraid they’d get frustrated but if you just position it as normal, it becomes accepted and fun. It gave the kids a chance to be leaders.
It couldn’t have all been that perfect.
And it definitely wasn’t! Early on, we did a five-mile hike outside Big Sur with absolutely no idea how difficult it would be. We were scaling boulders and three miles in, our daughter laid down on the trail, cried, and told us she was done. We had two other kids and couldn’t physically carry her down, so we let her kick and scream for 20 minutes, took some deep breaths, and in the end, she rallied. A few hikes later, when she faceplanted into a pile of manure, she was already more resilient.
What was the most striking change you observed at the end of the year?
They viewed being outside and using their bodies as part of their everyday lives. They were so much stronger at the end than when we started and they didn’t even realize it had happened. At six and eight, Zoe and Finn could easily walk five-to-six miles and even did an eight-mile hike. Not because we pushed them to go far, but because it had become their new normal.
What were some of the most unique or memorable hikes?
An urban hike up Twin Peaks in San Francisco. We reached the summit, scrambled down, and got ice cream. (Laughs) Another one was along a trail I ran on as a kid in Wisconsin, which was very special. A big part of the whole experiment was about finding the joy of discovery no matter where you are. It’s a cool motivator to give kids an active role in discovering where they live. The notion of identifying with something bigger, having a sense of roots as a family–they knew it mattered to us and vice versa. There’s a pride in having a shared identity that sets kids up with a strong foundation.
Were there lessons for them off the trails as well?
It takes consistency for something to feel effortless and it’s harder to start than maintain a habit. Ultimately, it’s about making something a part of your normal versus a big, special event. For example, our kids’ homework at school is to read for 20 minutes a night. The same idea applies. It’s not, ‘Read this novel in a month!’ It’s 20 minutes a night like always.
What surprised you most about the whole experience?
When they saw us doing things we loved, even when they were complaining, cranky, struggling, the kids learned to honor the fact that parents need to do things for themselves. I think it’s so important to let your kids know you as you are–not as a parent but as a person–and I believe ours did.
How did you handle the logistics of planning a new hike somewhere different every weekend?
The big thing for us was forming consistent habits. At first, we had to force ourselves; having a goal helped us stay focused. By the end, we didn’t think about it. It was just, ‘Where are we going this weekend?’ We’d plan something cool and go. Rain, wind, whatever.
But what if you weren’t surrounded by beautiful, family-friendly trails?
I’d say to think about how you can realistically integrate kids into the stuff you like doing. That won’t be hiking for everybody. If you’re just trying to get kids outside, take a 30-minute walk after dinner. Our family does that and it’s awesome; they feel cool just being out in the evening. Walk kids to school, take them to the pool, on a bike ride, whatever. Find consistency within the constraints of your life and let kids see the joy in you. If it’s not fun for you, it definitely won’t be for them.
What’s the next audacious outdoor family travel goal?
I’ve got to be honest – we’re focusing on the day to day right now. Hiking distances is harder with a toddler who doesn’t want to sit in a backpack, so for now, we’re just focusing on getting outside as often as we can – cycling, going to the beach, walking to get a treat downtown. For this year, the simple life is more than enough.