Raising a child to be a great outdoorsman is never going to be just something you decide to do one day when the kids are bored.
It’s a way of life rather than a hobby, and, as with any other lifestyle choice it needs to be taught, or learned, from early childhood.
Children learn by example. So putting the ‘great’ into the ‘great outdoors’ right from the off will make sure it becomes second nature to them.
Throw away the stroller.
This is probably the singularly most important ‘step’ you can take on the road to raising children with a love of the outdoors, and all of its inherent pleasures. It will take time, and patience, and may feel as if time is standing still sometimes, but it will pay dividends in the long run.
Well, maybe not throw it away, but donate it to a friend, or to charity. Little kids come with little legs, so everything will take twice as long, but get them used to walking everywhere as soon as they can. Not only will this firmly implant in their minds that they can and should walk, rather than be carried or pushed in a stroller, but it will also turn them into seasoned trekkers, and they won’t find subsequent long hikes intimidating – they will literally take them in their stride.
Back it Up
Of course, nobody can expect little ones to walk for hours at a time, so think about investing in a good back carrier. There are so many benefits to using one on long walks or hikes – for instance, when the children are flagging they can be carried, so the journey can continue unhindered, (and it’s a lot easier to negotiate tricky terrain with them safely ensconced on your back rather than in a stroller!) They will also come to see backpacks as the norm on family treks, so they won’t find the idea of carrying their own stuff alien.
Go at Their Pace
Having said all of that, it is important to take things slowly. Start out with short walks – leave the car behind and walk to the store, for instance. Build them up gradually, otherwise, if you try to do too much too soon, you risk turning them off the whole thing entirely. Once they are happy and able to walk short distances, then tackle a short hike – nothing too testing – but you will need to go at their pace. Kids love the outdoors, and will want to stop and look at everything! Let them. Being given the time and space to explore nature will set them up for a lifetime of loving it. It also gives you the chance to see the world through a child’s eyes as well – something we all lose the ability to do as we grow up. Focus on enjoying the journey, not reaching the destination.
Consider buying them equipment which they can easily carry, so nothing heavy. Torches, for example, and their own backpack. But don’t try and hoist too much onto them too soon. In fact, it is often better to wait until they ask to carry their own equipment. Let them choose a backpack (if they’re only toddlers this might even be a ‘character’ one, but if that’s what they choose then so be it – they will enjoy it all the more if they have chosen it themselves), and the chances are they will want to put their own torch, walkie-talkie, or snacks inside and carry them.
You need to employ a little reverse psychology sometimes – if you ask them to do something it is automatically seen as a ‘chore’, but if they ask you then it’s a choice.
Fire up their Imaginations
Fire. We’re all fascinated by it and it’s an essential part of camping, so why not combine those two elements and teach them how to build one? In doing so, not only will they learn how to make, but they will also learn how to respect, fire – an important lesson in life.
Even the smallest of children can get involved. Teaching them about appropriate clothing for fire building (i.e. no loose strings or flammable materials such as nylon), and setting ground rules such as never running around a fire, will stand them in good stead for life.
When it comes to actually lighting a fire, keeping that for the older kids is a good idea. Younger ones can get involved by collecting firewood and building the fire – show them which wood is the best (dry, snaps easily) and how to actually build it.
Sitting around a campfire and toasting marshmallows is the stuff memories are made of and will be something your children will want to continue with their own children.
Taking a Bow
Hiking is all well and good, and for adults, it can be enough in itself. We hike because it gets us outside and it’s good exercise. But it’s not always that cut and dried with kids. They want to see a point to it. So how about taking a trek into the wilderness with a bow and arrow?
If you are skilled with the sport then you’re good to go – just lead by example. But if you’re not, then a few lessons beforehand will give them something to practice when you’re out on your adventures together.
Archery teaches children so much – concentration, discipline, patience, and coordination, not to mention the physical strength and stamina needed for the sport. Whether for target practice or for hunting, archery is the perfect activity for the budding outdoorsman.
Keeping on Track
Whether you want your children to hunt, or to just observe wildlife, tracking is an essential skill for spending time outdoors. There is a lot more to tracking than just the animals’ prints, such as droppings, trails, runs, beds, and feeding areas, and learning about it turns every hike into so much more than a walk. Reading about it at home, and then putting it into practice outside, will give any child a great sense of purpose, and interest in their surrounding areas.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
Fishing. Men have been taking their sons fishing for as long as anyone can remember. It’s an ancient skill, and therefore one of the key skills that any little outdoorsman should learn. But remember – fishing takes a lot of patience, and junior might not be keen to sit around for hours holding a stick! (Make sure you have a few tricks up your sleeve for if they get antsy – something to distract them if they get restless because they are much more likely to come back to it if they’ve had a break.)
When introducing them to fishing, find a spot where the chances of catching a fish are high – while sitting contemplating the world might be enough for you, it is likely to put the little ones off forever. It doesn’t matter what they catch, even the smallest tiddler will be a huge trophy to them, so join in with their excitement! It will make them want to repeat the experience over and over again. You don’t even need expensive equipment – turn it into a lesson in wilderness survival by using a suitable stick for a rod, and string – either from your supplies or even a shoe lace or hoodie string. A hook can be made from all sorts of things – a paperclip, a bobby pin, or a ring pull from a can for example, and there is no better bait than a worm, so show your child how to dig for their own.
Sleeping Under the Stars
Nothing quite beats the thrill of sleeping under the stars. But if you are going to turn it into a lifelong passion for your kids, there are a few things you can do to ensure they will take to it.
Try going for just one night. You want to ease them in gently, and not only will it acclimatize them gradually, but it will also show you any areas that need adjusting, like whether you have brought too much or too little equipment if the kids are warm enough, and if they are comfortable. Of course, half the fun of camping is roughing it, but if they are sleeping on a mat which allows them to feel every stone or bump on the ground they aren’t going to sleep, and the last thing you want is an overtired child the next day. If it is just a one-nighter, and they don’t sleep, at least you are heading home the next day rather than hiking on somewhere else. You’ll then be able to gauge what went wrong and improve things for the next trip.
Raising children to be outdoorsmen is a marathon, not a sprint. Ease them in gently and let them see what a fantastic way of life it can be. Take things at a nice slow pace – don’t expect them to run before they can walk.
And remember, it will be a steep learning curve for you as a parent – hiking and camping will have to be done at their pace, which means you will have to slow right down.
See it as a learning experience for you as well as for them, and you won’t go far wrong.