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Gretel Van Wieren: 10 Tips for Getting Your Kids Outdoors

November 19, 2019

On today’s blog post, author Gretel Van Weiren shares with us some tips for getting kids outside. Her new book, Listening at Lookout Creek, reveals her spiritual practice as it has evolved with her—and her family’s—changing lives. Listening at Lookout Creek additionally explores the development of her own deep connection with the natural world—and that of her overscheduled teenagers’, despite their hyper-tech, hyper-busy lives.

10 Tips for Getting Your Kids Outdoors


We all know the data, mostly from personal experience: kids today are spending an inordinate amount of time on screens indoors and it is not healthy. We also know that time spent off screen outdoors is incredibly beneficial for childhood well-being. One recent study showed that just 15 minutes spent outside, whether in an urban park or a forested area, had significant psychologically restorative benefits. So how do we get our kids outside in today’s hyper high-tech world? This is a question that I have pondered since my own three children, now teenagers, have been small. Here are some ideas that I have gathered over the years.

1. Take food. This is a trick that I learned from my father, who on almost every fishing expedition would bring a snack that we were not otherwise allowed to have at home. Even with teens, I have learned that taking food on outings makes a huge difference for morale and serves as an enticement for future outdoor activities. My son Carl likes jerky, and daughters, Inga and Clara, chocolate.

2. Invite friends. This is a great one for kids of all ages, most of whom are happier when they are with their friends. Pack a picnic, meet at a park or sporting event, go on a bike ride or hike. And when they are together, give them the freedom to do what they want and try not to intervene (within reason, of course).

3. Ask them what they want to do. I cannot tell you how many times my kids have refused to go outside because it was my idea, not theirs. Sure, tell them that they need to go outdoors at some point during the day, but let them do what they want to do and on their time. When they do get up the gumption, which I promise they will, even if with some gentle prodding, be truly open to what they choose—even if it involves the phone some of the time.

4. Do it with them. I am convinced that mother used to send me and my three sisters outdoors immediately after school (and I mean within 10 minutes) because she wanted some peace and quiet to make dinner. And believe me, I completely understand the need. But studies show that it helps to get kids outside if you are willing to go with them. Learn to be, at least occasionally, a “companion in wonder,” as naturalist Rachel Carson famously termed it. You will enjoy it more than you think you might, and be healthier for it.

5. Work it into their study schedule. This is something that I started to do when my children entered high school and began to have so much homework and so many extracurricular activities that there was virtually zero free time to do anything else. We live in Michigan, so the weather dictates this activity, but for a good chunk of the year, I have a small table set up outside the front door where they can sit and do homework, even if for a few minutes. A neighborhood park with a picnic table, coffee shop with outdoor seating, or quilt spread on the grass also works.

6. Reward them. Repay them with something that they like when they do go outside. I am not talking about a new iPhone or car. You would be surprised, actually, at how small the remuneration needs to be for this to work. Think extra time on the x-box or simply promising them that you will not badger them for the rest of the day. Yesterday, for example, I made Carl a milkshake after he had voluntarily taken our dog outside.

7. Take their phone. Or, better yet, have a designated drawer in the house where they (and you) put the phone when a little stress reduction is needed. I know this is an incredibly unpopular proposal, especially among teens, but remember, you are the parent and are likely paying for a significant portion of their livelihood, including their phone. The time frame does not have to be long—15 minutes or so will do. But tell them to unplug and go do anything outdoors. I promise, over time, they will notice a difference in their mental state. Eventually, I have learned, they may even come to do it on their own.

8. Do chores. Make sure you give a list of options. It can be as small as taking the dog or garbage out or collecting the mail. Monetary compensation is always a good incentive. But so is simply reminding them that they are an integral part of the family unit who is needed to make it all work on a day-to-day basis. I cannot tell you how many times I have forced my children to do yardwork and they have come away seeing the value in it, for themselves and the noticeable difference.

9. Surprise them! There is nothing like a good surprise to make your children appreciate the outdoors. And again, like many of the above, it can be something very small. A short walk with an ice-cream cone on the first day of spring or permission to stay up late to see the full moon.

10. Make outside somewhere they want to be. In his popular book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, journalist Richard Louv quotes a child he interviewed who said that the reason that he prefers it indoors is because that is where all the plugs are. Make your yard or patio a place that is enticing to be. Add a hammock, pot of flowers, bird feeder, or comfortable chair. And again, bringing food outdoors always seems to work.
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