Written by Julie Parker, SHREDLY Marketing Mind // Photo by Julie Parker
Standing beside a sluggish creek, watching the late afternoon sun light up amber grasses in that height-of-summer way, I clinked cans with my best friend and grinned. We were relaxed, happily chatting and soaking up the scene, when our 3-year-olds burst out of the tall grass a few yards away. They were giggling, running towards us, best buddies sharing their own moment of joy. It was only as they got closer that we realized just what they thought was so funny.
The kids had painted themselves, quite thoroughly, in gooey, black swamp mud. Hair, faces, up to their elbows. A cold, creek bath followed immediately.
As a mother of two little ones, getting out of the house and into nature is an essential part of our lives. My kids (and me) are much happier when we are out mucking around on our own micro adventures. It gives us all time to relax, unplug and get happily worn out. Yes, it takes some effort and motivation, and generates more dirty laundry, but it is always worth it. These are my top tips for spending time outdoors with kids and how to make outings more fun for everyone.
Photo by Julie Parker
1. Stop and Smell the Dandelions
On a recent trip to the Utah desert, I found a mellow one mile hiking loop to take my daughter on. It meandered across some sandstone, down into a ravine, and wound back through a field of cactus… or so the description said. In reality, I have no clue what that hike was actually like because the entire trail bed was made of marvelous, soft, red sand. As soon as we stepped foot on it, my daughter plopped down and got her sandcastle on and happily played in the middle of the trail all morning.
As important as making a plan can be, knowing when to throw it to the wind is equally valuable. Let your kids be the guides, and if they want to pick up every rock, make dandelion crowns, skip, run, frolic or lay on the ground, then make time for them to be their funny wild selves. Sometimes, it’s about the journey, or just playing in the dirt 200 yards from the trailhead. The destination might not always happen, and that’s just fine.
2. Just Add Water
Pretty much every activity is better with a water source. Whether you’ve got a swampy pond, glistening lake or bonafide ocean beach, there is something about water that lights up the imagination in kids. Our favorite spot is a shallow bend on a slow river with a patch of grass on the shore. It’s totally unassuming, and a five minute walk from the car. We’ve spent countless hours splashing in this little area. If you’re planning a hike for older kids, a lake destination can be a welcome treat on a hot summer day. Just don’t forget to pack a swimsuit and a change of clothes (or two), because if your kids are anything like mine, they are going to get soaked and filthy and have twice as much fun because of it.
Photo by Ri Ganey
3. Team Up
If you’re feeling intimidated by the idea of exploring nature with your kids, find another friend or family and plan an outing together. Not only can you share the work of planning (and hauling snacks), but you’ll also get to share the fun. Kids, especially of mixed ages, can also help motivate each other to explore in new ways, or push beyond their comfort zone. And, when the littles are busy building forts, you’ll have another adult to hang out with.
4. Be Prepared
If you’re planning to leave cell service range, or go more than a mile from the car, some extra preparedness will add a layer of safety. Pack an adequate first aid kit that goes beyond the standard boo boo bandages. There are many pre-made options, but be sure to carry pediatric formulations of any medications you might need. Always bring extra water, food and layers for the whole crew as well as an emergency headlamp and blanket, just in case. Bring any supplies that are specific to your local environment, like a cactus removing comb in the desert. And as always, let people know where you’re going, who is with you, and what time you expect to return home.
With older kids, you can talk to them about what to do if they become lost or separated from you (find a safe spot and stay put) and give them a whistle to use in case of emergency. I generally keep to moderately trafficked trails that are easily accessible and within cell range when possible. If I decide to go on a more remote adventure, I feel safer with a second adult, in the off chance that someone needs to stay behind while another goes for help.
5. No Adventure is Too Small
Photo by Ri Ganey
Plan your adventures to support your child’s interests and preferences and you both will thrive. Some kids love riding in a backpack for hours of hiking, others shriek like it is torture. Some will immediately take to riding bikes on a trail, while other kids will be slower to make that transition. Some kids love to hike for miles, others (mine) just want to search for snails. Whatever it is you seek to do with your kids, make it an adventure that meets them where they’re at and follow their lead.
Starting small and close to home takes the stress off of both of you, and gives you and your little ones more time to enjoy nature together. If your first camping trip is a state park 20 minutes down the road, but you pitch a tent, enjoy the stars and get s'mores all over your faces, then that’s a win. One of the true beauties of being outdoors with kids is that they don’t need instagram worthy vistas, they’re just as likely to appreciate the tiniest wonders around them.
Photo by Julie Parker
6. Just Say "Yes"
As parents, we have to say “no” more than anyone wants. But being outdoors can be a great opportunity to say “yes” to your kids.
-Yes, you can touch that caterpillar.
-Yes, you can play with rocks/sticks/mud/pinecones.
-Yes, we can check out this little side trail.
Whatever it is, if it’s not dangerous, or can be done safely, I try to indulge my kids' desires in the outdoors.
When we’re hanging out in a new area I like to define some boundaries for safety, as opposed to the classic, “stay where I can see you.” I’ll give my kids physical references like, “stay between this tree and that boulder” or, “don’t wade deeper than your knees.” Once the boundaries and ground rules (sticks point down, throw rocks only where there are no people) are set, I let them loose to do their thing. I try not to intercede unless there’s a safety issue, or they ask me to play, and we can all take the time to soak up the surroundings in our own way. My own personal rule is no phone, except for pictures, get all the pictures… but otherwise I challenge myself to enjoy the screen break.
7. Invest in Appropriate Gear
Photo by Ri Ganey
I don’t want to hike in ill-fitting shoes, and I don’t want to wear heavy, uncomfortable clothes on the bike, so why would my kids want to? I strongly believe that investing in quality gear for kids will make their days in the outdoors more enjoyable. For younger kids, anatomically appropriate footwear is the most important item to help them feel confident in uneven terrain. As kids get older and go on longer outings, things like a youth specific chamois for biking and quick drying, performance fabrics can make their days much more enjoyable. My daughter loves her SHREDLY Littles Shorts because they’re fun, functional, and have a zipper pocket for storing treasures (on occasion even some worms). For adults, a larger back or hip pack might be necessary to carry extra everything for the crew. If you’re getting after it with babies or toddlers, a comfortable kid carrier is a must-have. Extra accessories like a tow rope, Kids Ride Shotgun seat, or off-road wagon can help get the crew from point A to B, but they’re not essential, and best to wait until you know what kind of adventures you like best before investing in more pricey equipment.
Now, grab your kiddos and go out there and get dirty in the wild! Stay out until every piece of clothing is wet or filthy, and every snack is eaten, and I promise you will come home happier.