Get Past “No” and Get Outdoors with Kids

Getting outdoors is good for kids’ growing bodies and minds. Parents know that. But it still can seem hard to do.

Computer screens call. Schedules fill. Adults worry about safety, or don’t know where to go.

How can families move beyond such obstacles?

Here are some tips from the authors of AMC’s new Outdoors with Kids guidebooks for Boston and New York City. These parents speak from experience: They brought their own children along as they researched their books, each of which describes 100 great places for active outdoor family fun. Their suggestions apply to families anywhere.

1. Keep it Simple.
“First of all, my advice is to not overthink,” says Kim Foley MacKinnon, author of Outdoors with Kids Boston and mother to Sadie, 13. “There are plenty of places to go near your house, wherever you are.”

William de Jong-Lambert, co-author of Outdoors with Kids New York City with his wife Cheryl, agrees. He suggests that families keep goals small. On a weeknight, that might mean 15 minutes outdoors before dinner. On a weekend, “just spend two hours, maybe three hours, and then come home for lunch. You don’t have to commit to a big excursion.”

2. Schedule It.
The de Jong-Lamberts, parents to 9-year-old Riley and 6-year-old Halina, find that scheduling regular times for getting outdoors helps them fit it in. “On Friday nights in all seasons and weather, I meet the gang somewhere outside after work,” says Cheryl de Jong-Lambert. Her husband picks the children up from school, then meets her. “We find that works better and gives us much more time outside than having me go home first and then us all going out,” she explains.

3. Give the Kids Control—and Rewards.
MacKinnon recommends choosing outings with a rewarding goal, like a walk to a waterfall or a great view. Other rewards can help too. She told her daughter’s friends, who came along on many research trips, to bring a lunch and look for a good place for a picnic. Soon they were also looking for a good place to have ice cream at the end of the day. The ice cream “wasn’t really my [original] plan, but eventually it became part of our routine,” she says with a chuckle.

She also followed the young people’s lead on the trail. “Whenever we went somewhere that had a trail map, I had my daughter or one of the other kids be in charge of the map and choose where we would go,” she says. “Giving kids ownership over their day helps.”

4. Make It Fun for Everyone.
MacKinnon recommends that parents invent simple nature games. On one hike after a rainy day, she pulled out a laminated field guide card and challenged the kids to identify all the mushrooms they saw. “They had a blast,” she recalls. “I think they found more than 12 types.” The group also had an ongoing contest to be the first to point out an animal each day: “They loved being first to spot something.”

Parents, too, need to have fun while they’re outdoors. “There are plenty of things that are important to do, but you have to want to do it or it isn’t going to happen,” says William de Jong-Lambert. Given the interest in history that he and Cheryl share, their family often explores places with links to the past. They also enjoy finding parks and playgrounds in ethnic neighborhoods, where they can buy Polish, Korean, Tibetan, or other international foods for a picnic. 

5. Skip the Housework.
To enjoy more time outdoors, Cheryl de Jong-Lambert recommends leaving housework for later. “You have to not let the indoors suck you in,” she says. “There’s always stuff to do, but you have to turn a blind eye to it and go out.”

6. Use Technology to Your Advantage.
If it’s hard to pull your children from computer screens or hand-held devices, harness that interest in technology to get them outdoors, MacKinnon says. GPS and geocaching “is an answer for kids who are techy and want something in their hands,” she says. To get started, you can visit and enter a search radius from a location (such as within 20 miles of your home) to see what caches are hidden nearby. Then read the descriptions to see which sounds like fun for your kids.

7. Invite Friends—or Make New Ones.
“Your kid is less likely to complain in front of their friends,” says MacKinnon, who swears by inviting a buddy to make outings go more smoothly. And for parents who aren’t already comfortable or knowledgeable about outdoor activities, she recommends joining a local group like the Appalachian Mountain Club, to meet other parents, get discounts, and find places to go and things to do outdoors as a family.

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Photo by Istock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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