We hear it all the time “kids need less screen time, more outside time”. Intentions aside, in today’s world of social fears, urban living, and over-scheduled lives, it’s hard to get your kids outside. It’s hard to get ourselves outside! We don’t need more lectures on why kids need outdoor time. Instead we need practical solutions on getting them out.
I know I want my kids to go outside more. I want them to play and roam and explore. And I tell them so. But, they don’t always agree… especially as they get older and get more involved in living their own lives.
At first, it’s easy. You just bundle the kid up and carry him outside. Eventually they get too heavy and too independent. Now, your hikes are at their pace. As the kids approach school-age you might struggle to keep them motivated while hiking or entertained outdoors. By kindergarten you’ve probably already employed an arsenal of strategies: over-exaggerated excitement, treats, coercion, bribes, and mandatory family time.
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Below you’ll find my top 10 suggestions on how to get your kids outside when they’d rather stay in. These suggestions are suited for kids under age 12. Keep in mind that all kids are different so some of these tips will work with certain kids, while others won’t. Keep trying. Getting your kids into the outdoors is important; you don’t want to give up on this.
10 Easy Tips: how to get your kids outside
1. Follow their interests
You may need to do some creative thinking. I promise there is a way to get them outside by drawing on their current interests. Just because you enjoy hiking, biking, or bird watching doesn’t mean they’ll find enjoyment. In fact, ‘dragging’ them outside to partake in activities they don’t enjoy usually has a negative effect and makes them resent going outside. You don’t want that!
Instead, think about what your kids like and go from there. If they like a certain sport, then easy, just go out and do that with them. If it’s reading they’re into, maybe you could find outdoor locations similar to their books or read outside at a park. If they like to draw, go use nature as artistic inspiration. If they are mechanically inclined, go out into nature and search out machines on walks or bike rides. Or, go into the forest and start building with them. Build forts and bridges and catapults from fallen logs and rocks. If they like cooking, go pick fresh ingredients. If singing is their bag, take a birdsong course. If you have a house of superheroes, take your nerf guns outside for a neighborhood game.
We sometimes encourage our children to play games outside that they make up from whatever cartoon they’re into. Right now, my five year old goes outside to play cavewoman. She ‘catches birds’ (bubbles) from the air and uses rocks and logs to make caves to live in. When my son was younger, he’d go into the backyard to ‘bend the elements’ and fight invading forces with his ‘earth powers’.
2. Go outside with them
Your kids will want to go outside more if you go play with them. Have fun, let them see you smile and enjoy yourself. Ask them what they’d like to do outside instead of telling them what they’ll be doing.
One strategy which works well for us is the ‘summer bucket list’. At the start of the summer holiday we brainstorm outdoor activity ideas on a piece of Bristol board then tack it on the wall as a reminder.
Another strategy which we’ve found effective is designating a day (or a few days) of the week for ‘family adventures’. Each family member takes turns deciding on the activity and destination. This way, the kids know they’ll get to choose one day and there is more excitement in going outside as a family.
I’m sure that most kids would not turn down your offer to be their outdoor playmate. Just give it a try.
3. Invite friends to play outside
If they don’t want to play with you, then perhaps they’ll get excited about playing with friends outside. Get involved with community outdoor playgroups. Hike it Baby, and Family Nature Clubs are online communities which organize outdoor family activities in cities all through the United States and Canada. Do a google search and see what you find.
Get to know the families with kids in your neighborhood and encourage outdoor meet-ups with the kids. The more parents that you know in your neighborhood, the more comfortable you’ll likely be in allowing your kids out to roam and play.
If allowing your kids to roam free isn’t for you, arrange regular play times and invite friends to join your family on outdoor adventures. Better yet, arrange to go camping and hiking with other families with kids for big outdoor fun. I particularly enjoy this strategy because it gives me much needed adult socializing time as well.
4. Provide safe places to play and explore independently
As mentioned above, there is likely a safety aspect to how much your kids go out and what they do out there. You might be totally okay with sending them out the door and not hearing from them all afternoon. However, I know that there are many of you who don’t even allow your children to play in the fenced backyard unsupervised.
Well, here’s the quick and dirty – your kids need to feel safe to enjoy their time outside and they can’t feel safe if you give off the “you’re-not-safe-outside” vibe. Maybe you need to spend some time exploring your own fears of the outdoors. Or maybe you need to find a place where they can play outside that you do feel they are safe. Do what is needed in the backyard for your fears to be lessened: have the wasp nest removed, fence the pond, or lock up the garden shed. You can find somewhere else that you feel assured of their safe play: a local fenced-in playground, your family ranch, or their schoolyard.
Kids will enjoy themselves more if they feel some freedom from your well-intended watchful gaze. They need to learn to challenge their bodies and take risks. Outside is the best place for this to happen. So, give them the freedom they need to play and explore outdoors.
You might also want to consider ensuring they know some basic outdoor safety stuff too. Like, for example, how to react to meeting strange people and animals when out playing, what plants they can touch, eat, and play with and which to avoid, and what to do if they find themselves lost.
5. Use outdoor toy rotation strategies
Have you heard of toy rotation or busy bags? The idea is simple: kids are more eager to play with toys they can’t always access. So, for example, you might have 3 outdoor toy buckets into which such things as bubbles, balls, kites, skipping ropes, skateboards, badminton, and water guns are placed into. Then only have one bucket available to your kids at a time.
When buckets are replaced there will be some excitement for the ‘new’ toys and this will entice them to go play. Some families might rotate these activity tubs daily, weekly, or whenever the kids ask for a new bucket.
A few rotating outdoor play buckets we have are Megablocks (which are a surprising hit for all ages), the baby pool and water toys, and fort building materials. Here’s a long list of many more outdoor activity buckets and how we use the outdoor rotation technique.
6. Make an outdoor activity jar
This idea works well for kids who have a hard time making decisions or who need some initial guidance in their play. You could fill a jar with pieces of paper each listing an outdoor play idea. They choose an idea and head out. Have the kids help come up with the outdoor play ideas. If you want this jar to be successful without your involvement, then make the ideas easy to act on. For example, go to the park for 15 minutes (assuming your kids are allowed to go alone), water the plants, build an airport in the sandbox, set up a water gun shooting range, pick a dandelion bouquet. Some other ideas might include sidewalk chalk, bubbles, balls, Frisbees, and water tables.
To get you and your kids started, I’ve created a simple list of outdoor activities that you can put into your own activity jar. Click, confirm, download, print, cut, and play:)
Taking a look at this list of outdoor activities and themed outdoor buckets might give you some additional ideas for your activity jar.
7. Get them interested in outdoor games and sports
Take some initiative and try out new things. Rent a canoe for a day. Try geocaching, plan a ski vacation, or go on a guided bird-watching walk.
Also keep your eye out for used outdoor gear like badminton rackets, croquette and bocce ball games, slack lines, skateboards, roller skates, and kites. You can ask to swap these items with other family and friends. For our kids, new and novel toys and games will usually get them excited to go outside and try out new things.
If you don’t have the time to get your kids trying new outdoor activities, then find someone who can. Perhaps a grandparent would love to regularly take the kids out fishing or to the farm. You could register your kids in Scouts, Girl Guides, outdoor clubs, and sports leagues.
8. Make outdoor play part of the daily routine
Do you have a regular daily routine? If so, where can you add more outdoor time to that schedule? If it seems like there is no room to add more outdoor play then you need to evaluate your priorities.
For me, it was very important that my children take more responsibility at home. So, I had them be responsible for making their lunches every day. After 3 months of kid lunch making it occurred to me they were using prime outdoor play time for this task. While I wanted them to be more independent, I wanted them to be outside more. I offered them a choice. They could play outside and I would make their lunches or they could come inside after school. However, making their lunch would then be their responsibility if they chose to come inside. Both kids have been eager to take me up on this offer. They get an extra 30 – 60 minutes of outdoor play while I have a quiet kitchen to myself to prepare dinner and their lunches.
Perhaps you need to consider mandating outdoor time before they partake in specific indoor activities such as screen time. This isn’t something we do, but I have heard of families who have success with this system or similar outdoor reward points arrangements.
9. Do everyday activities outside
This one is simple, yet, so effective. If you have a balcony, patio, or backyard use it to do homework, eat meals, do crafts, read books, and play games. If the weather is nice and your kids sit down at the table, consider if they could do the same activity outside.
If patio furniture or a formal outdoor living space is holding you back, don’t let it. Find some shade and throw down a blanket and a few pillows.
To make these outdoor activities easier, have an outdoor blanket easily accessible. When you see your kids sit down at the table to play or the couch to read, remind them of the outdoor option.
I even try to do my computer work and reading outdoors when the weather is cooperating. I find the kids rarely stay in if I’m out. They’ll haul out their homework or games or start something outside if I’m there already. We also try to eat all our meals outside. Summer is short where I live and I like to take advantage of every precious patio minute.
10. Hide the remote!
When all strategies fail, sometimes you just need to hide the remote. If the temptation to veg in front of the TV isn’t available, then outdoor pursuits might seem more enticing… for the whole family.
Introducing new activities and routines to kids can be a challenge. Adults, too, can be resistant to change. Don’t give up. Get your kids outside every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes more than the previous day… eventually, heading out the door as a family will seem regular and expected. You’ll soon figure out what each person enjoys and how everyone can be motivated to enjoy more outdoor family adventures.
P.S. If you’d love to hear more about the benefits of outdoor play or if you’d like to take a mini-course on strengthening your family’s connections with nature, then Take Them Outside is for you. Join our newsletter to make sure you’ll stay freshly reminded of the fun to be had just outside your door. You’ll receive tips, news, goodies, and recommended reading delivered right to your inbox every few weeks.