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Small-Scale Adventures

Not every family outing has to be a big-deal production. Here’s how to get your kids off the couch and into nature the low-key way.

It’s one of those stunning fall days. The sun is shining, birds are chirping, the air smells great. And there’s your kid: Parked in his usual space in front of the television or computer screen with his mouth agape and his eyes glazed over.

When you were a kid, you lived to hear the screen door slamming behind you. You loved messing around outside, tooling around on your bike and exploring out-of-the-way spots. So why is getting your own kid over the threshold so darn hard?

Well, for one thing, there’s a lot of very entertaining technology to compete with these days: Good luck dragging Jane or Jimmy away from a Level-7 Cyber-Clone battle (particularly if he or she is winning). Then there’s the fact that, for safety reasons, you may not really want your kids outside wandering around alone. Just as likely, your modern-day, urban kids don’t really know quite what to do with themselves once they hit the fresh air. Maybe there’s nowhere in the neighborhood for them to play or explore anyway, and no troop of friendly neighborhood kids for them to run with. Maybe they aren’t big into sports or outdoor athletics and tend to balk at being made to move under their own steam.

Whatever their objections, you know you’ve got to get them outside somehow. You want them to learn some outdoor skills, to start appreciating nature – and you’d also like to see them getting a little fresh air and exercise.

Oh sure, you can start masterminding some week-long hiking and camping expedition. Hauling the kids off to Yellowstone or the Boundary Waters is all fine and dandy, but trips like these are way too daunting to do very often. There’s the gear, the planning, the packing, the driving, the expense – to say nothing of getting time off work and school.

Face it: Most families can swing big outdoor adventures or camping trips once, maybe twice a year, max. And at that rate, your kids are still going to know far less about John Muir than they do about Justin Timberlake. Plus, if they don’t get at least a taste of the outdoors now, it may start getting a lot tougher to entice them into longer trips and outings down the road.

What you really need is a strategy for nudging your kids outside on a regular, daily basis – without it feeling like a forced march to them, or an ordeal for you. Take heart: Family-adventure expert Michael Hodgson is here to tell you it can be done.

Keeping It Simple

“Most parents think that for their kids to have fun outdoors, they need to plan large-scale, pricey trips and outings,” says Hodgson, author of The Outdoor Family Fun Guide, Camping for Dummies, and many other nature-oriented titles. “They don’t realize that most kids are just as happy – if not happier – doing much smaller, simpler activities close to home.”

The key to creating successful small-scale adventures, according to Hodgson, lies in being willing to do outdoor things with your kids, and in cultivating an environment of collaborative exploration. It’s not enough, he says, to haul your kids out and “lecture them about the wonders of nature or the importance of exercise.” Rather, he says, “You have to genuinely be interested in discovering and being active in the outdoors yourself,” he says. “You have to be willing to participate.”

That may mean getting down on the ground to look at a bug, or up in a tree to check out a nest. It may also mean getting up to your knees in water sometimes. “You have to be willing to get dirty or muddy with your kids,” insists Hodgson. “You have to be okay with getting back into the SUV with some crud on your boots, and about coming home for dinner with a little frog slime on your shirt.”

As the frog-slime reference suggests, neighborhood nature forays (such as “stream-walks”) are among Hodgson’s favorite family activities. Stream-walks in-volve donning old tennis shoes and investigating neighborhood streams or riverbanks to check out whatever is living (or washed up) along its banks. No streams or creeks in your hood? You can still accomplish the same class of exploration by going out on foot or bike and then stopping to poke around along railroad tracks, in ditches, around trees and brush, or under dead logs in parks.

Basically, you amble along, stopping and looking at stuff, pointing out your cool finds (and total gross-outs) and having fun along the way. If you’re a nature lover, you might start teaching your kid to ID some common plants and animals. If you’re clueless about such things, you might cop to that ignorance – but express curiosity and pick up a guidebook so you can learn together.

Hodgson insists that it doesn’t really matter what you do, or even how much time you spend on any given occasion. A 10-minute walk before dinner to check out some cloud formations or a spontaneous investigation to see what’s living under the porch may be all you can fit in some days. “What matters,” he says, “is that you’re hanging out with your kids outside and having fun together.”

On the other hand, he acknowledges, kids do get bored pretty easily (one reason why they’re so attracted to the short-span stimulation offered by TV), so you should be prepared to motivate them with an offer worth entertaining. The proposal of a simple walk or bike ride might be sweetened by the promise of one-on-one time alone, the possibility of learning a new skill, like knot-tying or popping wheelies – or it might be an outright bribe (“we’ll get pizza on the way back”).

Finders Keepers

Fortunately, once you hit on an activity your kids do enjoy, things get much easier. In fact, you may have trouble holding them back. As an example, Hodgson mentions geocaching – a high-tech treasure-hunt activity that has lately grown enormously popular with kids and adults alike.

Geocaching involves using a global positioning device (GPS) to locate small “caches” of treasure hidden in out-of-the-way (and not-so-out-of-the-way places). Now hidden in virtually every community and geographical environment in the United States, caches typically consist of plastic containers or boxes containing small toys, tokens, trinkets or coins. Many also contain a notebook that allows finders to document the date of their discovery (you can find out more about the sport and about related sites at www.geocaching.com).

According to the rules of the game, if you locate a stash, you get to take the object of your choice from the container – but you also have to add a trinket of your own. Over time, the assortment of objects naturally gets bigger and more diverse. Of course, the real reward in geocaching lies in the time spent outside together, traipsing over hill and dale. Along the way, kids can learn some valuable outdoor and orienteering skills and are likely to encounter various flora and fauna they might otherwise never see.

If your kid shows an interest in navigating, notes Hodgson, there are also orienteering clubs all over the country, including some that teach various nature, camping, outdoor survival and search-and-rescue skills. And then there is adventure racing.

In addition to highly competitive expedition races like the Eco-Challenge (www.ecochallenge.com), there are now an increasing number of local, family-friendly versions that let you and your kids orienteer, hike, climb, mountain bike, canoe or kayak through a three- to four-hour course as a team. The environment at such races is generally friendly and supportive enough that most families wind up laughing their way through the tough spots. Check with your local REI, sports shop or outfitter to find out more about local events.

Making the Best of Outdoor Time

If you aren’t certain what kinds of activities your child is most interested in, begin by choosing some that you enjoy, and then aim to pass your feelings of joy and enthusiasm on to your child.

Once you get your kids out there, though, you should follow their lead. Even when you have a great plan or idea in mind, explains Hodgson, if your child shows interest in something else outdoors, you have to be willing to play along. You may have mapped out a terrific two-mile nature hike, but you should be prepared to scrap it (or at least adjust it) should your child become fascinated by exploring the anthills on the sidewalk before you reach the trail.

That’s a lesson that Mike Helfman, an avid cyclist, camping nut, nature enthusiast and parent of two, has learned over time. After spending a couple of years trying to drag his small son and daughter on aggressively paced, destination-oriented hikes, bike rides and Boundary Waters camping trips, he eventually gave in to their different rhythm and perspective. Some days that meant contenting himself with feeling the sun on his back and watching the smile on his kids’ faces while they spent hours splashing and wading in a creek he’d figured they’d be hiking right past.

“When you have small kids in tow, you really have to forget about trying to get from point A to point B, or pushing to achieve a certain speed or distance,” emphasizes Helfman. “The priority is the experience, not the achievement.”

Your Own Back Yard

So, now that you’re excited and ready to get out there and explore the great outdoors with your kid, where to begin? The key lies in developing a few types of activities that can easily be done close to your home, during small blocks of free time and without a lot of planning.

Your back yard is a familiar, unintimidating space in which to begin teaching your children about the outdoors without overwhelming them. Helfman highly recommends back-yard camping as a fun activity in itself and as great preparation for longer trips.

Feeling safe and close to home will help your children build up the confidence they need to take on larger-scale camping trips. Also, depending on the size of your back yard, there may be various nooks and crannies your kids could find pretty interesting if encouraged to give them a closer look. After all, everything looks more interesting by the light of the moon (or by headlamp).

The back yard can be an interesting place during the day, too, Hodgson suggests. “Building a bird feeder and creating a wild garden of native plants in one corner of the yard are both excellent ways to bring a certain amount of wilderness into an urban environment,” he says. Too complex for your taste? Then work with what’s there. Turn over some rocks and see what’s underneath. Dig up some worms. Look at a flower or leaf under a magnifying glass. Watch the way ants build anthills or bees pollinate flowers. If you’re not sure how these fascinating creatures do what they do, check out some books from the library. But whatever you do, open your own door and check it out.

In The Neighborhood

With just a little more planning and time commitment, there are probably several places in your neighborhood where your child could learn valuable outdoor skills and build confidence in the process. Don’t overlook local parks. On a nice day, your kid would probably be perfectly content to roll down a big grassy hill with you or enjoy a picnic.

Keep in mind your children’s perspective on the world, too. A big hill at a local park might seem like a mountain to them. Decide you’re going to go “mountain climbing” and try to reach the top. Go on a nature “hike” across the park or through a bunch of trees. Bring along plenty of water and some nutritious snacks to enjoy during breaks.

If you live in a colder climate, be on the lookout for off-season alternatives. Last winter, after building a huge snowfort with his kids in the back yard, Helfman began seeking out other interesting, inexpensive activities they all could do together. He hit pay dirt in an unexpected location: a nearby state university campus. The school’s sports and fitness center had recently installed a new indoor climbing wall and was offering inexpensive climbing-club memberships to locals. Children under 12 could join for free.

When they saw the wall, both Helfman’s son, 8, and his daughter, 12, were eager to try this new, vertical activity, which let them use their bodies in a totally different way. They found the ropes and holds challenging – and a little scary at first – but their balance and confidence grew quickly in the controlled, safe environment. The climbing wall also taught the entire family a team approach to safety and emphasized the importance of cooperation and trust. Best of all, the gym was accessible and convenient enough that climbing sessions could be done without a major effort or planning; the family could just pick up and go whenever they liked.

The climbing gym quickly became a favorite family destination and eventually led Helfman’s kids to express interest in outdoor climbing. This year, the whole family completed their first real rock-face climb.

Safety First

No matter what the setting, from a jungle gym to a national park, remember to always keep your child’s safety in mind. Scope out the area for possible safety concerns, from poison ivy to fast currents. Keep an eye on your children and encourage them to always be conscious of their surroundings.

Rather than trying to keep kids totally shielded from all potential sources of danger or anxiety, Helfman recommends giving them first-hand information and supervised experience. Letting children help start campfires or assist you in assembling a first-aid kit can help them to recognize and understand potential dangers without fearing them. “When you start teaching them about safety techniques at an early age,” Helfman says, “it becomes a permanent instinct and a natural part of their lives.”

Whether you’re heading out the back door or off on a full-scale family adventure, remember to stay positive. By encouraging your kid to get off the couch and out the door now, you’re allowing him or her to build skills and confidence that video games just won’t provide. Making outdoor activities a normal part of your family’s life not only makes your kids healthier, it also promotes time spent together, which strengthens your family’s connection – with each other and with the planet.

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