Getting Kids Into the Outdoors Starts in the Backyard

From executives at the National Outdoor Leadership School and Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

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The following was produced with our friends at L.L.Bean, who believe that, on the inside, we’re all outsiders.

Any parent who grew up ruling the neighborhood streets on their bike, climbing trees, or flipping over rocks to see what they could scare up will want their kids to do the same. And while they might worry that there’s more competing for children’s attention today than ever before, the truth is, getting kids to go outside, is still as simple as … going outside. Instilling a love for nature and the wonders of the great outdoors can start right at home and doesn’t require breaking the bank on the craziest new camping gear. (Not that we’d turn down one of these incredible tents. So. Many. Tents.)

There are lots of little ways to ease kids into outdoor exploration before setting them free like the wildlings they are. A guy who’s practically required to know all of them is John Gans, the executive director of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The school teaches survival skills, risk management, and leadership in traditional and outdoor classrooms. Gans himself was a NOLS student in 1979, a counselor in 1981, and has been executive director for the last 22 years. His star pupils are his children, including a 24-year-old daughter who’s now a NOLS instructor. To be fair, they didn’t have much of a choice.

“I took all my kids camping before they were one year old,” Gans recalls. Easy enough for the career outdoorsman, but what about the novice whose idea of outdoor living is a screened-in back porch? Gans says even a simple living room play fort can lay the foundation for outdoor exploration and curiosity. And you were gonna build one of those after lunch, anyway.

“It sounds silly, but it inspires them,” he says. “And it translates quickly to going to the outdoors. Kids have a natural curiosity for camping. They love it. If they show enthusiasm, get them involved.”

They will show enthusiasm because of course they will–pillow forts rule. At that point, it’s on the parents to channel their inner Boy Scout and always be prepared. Specifically, to lead by example. “The parents have to not show trepidation,” says Gans. “I’ve had instances where the parent is more nervous than the kid. People underplay the importance of that, because the child may not be doing so well–but it’s the parent who’s not doing so well. So a parent should be comfortable.”

Another parent who’s extremely comfortable, specifically in a pair of hiking boots, is Ron Tipton. The 65-year-old president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has hiked the AT and hundreds of miles of others over the last 40 years. His father was a hiker of a different sort: a mail carrier. The two went on a random hike one afternoon when Tipton was home from college and he was instantly bitten by the outdoor bug. Tipton says small hikes are the ideal, relaxed setting for young kids to get their first taste of fresh air.

“Make it fun,” Tipton says. “Camping and hiking can feel like a chore, so with our son, we played a lot of games. We would pretend he was a bear hiding in the woods—we made it an adventure.”

Rather than seeing screen time as a barrier to nature, Tipton actually encourages using technology as a bridge. “There are map apps and National Park apps that kids can enjoy remotely before heading outside,” he says. “That ties the social media element they’re familiar with to the excitement of heading outdoors with the family.”

Once you’ve got their interest, you may find you quickly outgrow your backyard. Gans says that’s precisely the moment to hook them with a little game he likes to call Outdoor Bingo. It’s his adaptation of the National Parks’ Junior Ranger Program, which awards kids badges for things like spotting wildlife or completing a day hike.

“Outdoor Bingo is the same thing but on your terms. It can simply be visiting a national park or doing something at a city park, and the kids have to check off the list,” he says The game keeps kids invested in their budding hobby by giving them something to look forward to beyond a Friday night backyard campout. Just be sure you’ve earned your merit badge in homemade merit badge making so you’re prepared for them to complete the list.

Gans points out that the benefits of an outdoorsy lifestyle go far beyond a vest full of flair. Physical fitness is an obvious one. But the biggest perk, he argues, is that their newfound recreational abilities promote leadership skills.

“The outdoors teaches leadership because it constantly forces you to make decisions and those decision have consequences. Even simple things like if you’re hiking up a trail you have to decide to go right or left. Inevitably, you’re making decisions constantly.”

Finally, there’s one foolproof failsafe: candy. Roasting s’mores is a staple of outdoor life that you should absolutely utilize to your ultimate advantage. “Not to promote the junk food agenda, but snacks and food play a major part,” Gans says. “Roasting hot dogs, s’mores, and marshmallows is always a big hit. It makes kids comfortable and gives them a fond memory.”

Sometimes you have to take the well-worn path to find the road less traveled.

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