A warm June breeze gently tousled blonde ponytails and rippled the surface of the lake. I rested my canoe paddle across my (eight month pregnant) lap and breathed a happy sigh. My two year old leaned against me to plunge her child-size paddle into the water and I could smell sunscreen on her sticky-warm skin. The big girls giggled as their paddles clapped together, then hushed as Dad pointed out moose grazing along the shore.
Those sweet moments of savoring both the beauty of nature and the wonder of life together as a family are the WHY of taking our children outdoors. We experience the outdoors side-by-side with our little ones to form strong family memories and create a unique family culture, and to kindle an interest in nature, exploration, and adventure, as we instruct them in skills, character, and knowledge of the natural world. For our family, there is nothing more rewarding – or more fun – than sharing an outdoor adventure.
That said, the logistics of getting outdoors with small children can be daunting. After seven years and four children, our family has discovered simple ways to make outdoor exploration do-able during this season of raising little ones.
Invest in basic equipment to make venturing outdoors easier. While good equipment can be expensive, its value is truly priceless. Depending on your interests, a comfortable baby carrier and sturdy Chariot-style chassis are probably the two most important pieces to own. We love the versatility of our Chariot, and have used it for everything from cross-country skiing into Granite Hot Springs, to bike riding on the park road, to jogging up Cache Creek. Whenever we have been blessed with a new baby, I have “worn” my infant snugly in a cloth Beco carrier, zipped into an oversized coat if the weather was cold or snowy.
Adjust your expectations. Choose activities that are family friendly. Obviously, little ones can’t mountain climb or back-country ski with you – but there are many activities that do lend themselves to tiny tagalongs. We have chosen to hike, bike ride, car camp, and canoe in the summer. During the winter we devote weekends to cross-country skiing. We know plenty of other families who find creative ways to make downhill skiing together feasible; for us, cross-country allows us to stay together and explore less crowded areas. Find activities you enjoy and tailor them to meet the needs of your family!
Start small. It is important to remember that every adventure is new to your little ones! You may have hiked to Hidden Falls a dozen times, but if it’s the first time your preschooler is trekking on her own strong legs, it constitutes an adventure. Bend down and see the world through their eyes. Taste the sweet snap of a wild huckleberry, throw pebbles in the river, look with wonder at every wildflower, throw snowballs, and take off your shoes to feel the cold water tickle your toes.
The flipside of starting small is that our children have much greater strength and resiliency than we think. Don’t underestimate them! Tell your children that they are strong and courageous and they will become strong and courageous. The canoe trip I described earlier was actually an epic, all-day adventure that included four lakes and three portages. Our kids trooped gleefully alongside us from String Lake, to Leigh Lake, to Bear Paw Lake, to Jackson Lake. Then just 6, 4, and 2, our girls shared in the excitement of our grand adventure and were delightful boating and hiking partners. Call your kiddos to new heights and watch them follow you with eagerness! Dancy Tolson, a local mama, adds that her little ones always go farther and faster when friends are around to share the exploration.
Turn mishaps into adventures. Things go wrong. It pours rain when the forecast called for sunshine. Parents make mistakes. Important items get forgotten. Roads are closed and we have to find an alternate route. The planned-for campsite is already occupied. But, if we, as parents, maintain a cheerful and optimistic attitude regardless of the circumstances, our children will follow suit. They will see us facing adversity and labeling it “adventure,” and they will turn their sweet faces up into the falling rain and laugh as their hair gets drenched. Becca Block, mom of three, says she turns bad attitudes around with cheerful songs and games as they hike or explore.
During last summer’s fire ban, my husband and I forgot the camp stove on an overnight trip. That meant we had no way to prepare s’mores – or anything else! Rather than fret, we called on our girls to be creative. Within a few minutes, they had built a pretend fire out of twigs and pinecones. With much gusto and laughter, they pretended to roast marshmallows and giggled as they scooted away from the imaginary smoke plumes. We ate cold s’mores, and we made a precious memory.
Having ample food and water is an important part of making outdoor adventures fun for little ones. They need energy to keep going, and to maintain cheerful attitudes along the way. We always bring chocolate. Whether it is in the form of cookies, hot cocoa, or a Symphony bar, chocolate is a necessary part of our day. It provides quick energy for weary toddlers, and motivation to take those last few strides to the summit. And, it’s a tradition. A simple and sort of silly piece of our family culture.
Just as food and water are important, it is also imperative to be prepared for weather changes with appropriate clothing. This might go without saying, but be sure to pack warm clothes, blankets, raingear, sunscreen, hats, or whatever weather-appropriate garb might be needed. My husband, Erik, claims he has never been cold in the wilderness; he has only been underdressed.
Recently, a simple statement from my oldest daughter affirmed to me that our time “adventur-ing” as a family has truly shaped who we are. On a warm Saturday afternoon, the girls had the opportunity to attend a free movie at the theater. When I mentioned the option, they thought for a moment before Elisa spoke for them all. “Mom, movies are fine, but we’d rather play outside. We’re Wachobs. That’s what we do.” I laughed until tears pricked my eyes, then picked up my phone to call my husband. Yup. We’re Wachobs. That’s what we do.