We have a child who, to put it mildly, can be difficult at times. She’s intense, opinionated, stubborn, and argumentative. I love her for it. Her spunk will serve her well in life, but it can be a challenge. Fortunately, she’s not always this way. She has an alter ego when she’s in the great outdoors.
When she’s outside, she’s light and carefree—still determined and competitive but playful. When I say outside, I don’t mean in the backyard or at the local playground. She’s at her best in forests, on sand dunes, and in other wide-open spaces.
It’s like she’s breathing in contentment, and breathing out frustration, as she navigates trails, races down the ski hill, or ambles along the beach hunting rocks at the edge of the surf. This brings Heather and me great pleasure. It’s exactly the sort of transformation we sought when we made the decision to uproot everything in search of a slower, meaningful, purposeful, and intentional life.
More than five years ago, our family moved from the suburbs to a small town. It was a difficult decision to make, as we had to move not just our family but our business as well. It was a voluntary move made on a bit of a whim. Despite some growing pains along the way, we’ve never looked back.
Our new hometown of Traverse City is a small town (although a growing “Zoom boom town”) in northern Michigan on the shores of Lake Michigan. People who live here ski in the winter and hit the beach in the summer. They hike and bike, swim and SUP. Regardless of their activity of choice, and no matter the season or the weather, they spend as much time outside as possible. In other words, it’s a great place to live an outdoor lifestyle.
That lifestyle is what drew us here. We wanted to provide a different type of upbringing for our three young girls: one that focused on adventurous time spent in nature. So for the past five years, we’ve been committed to finding fun and imaginative ways to spend as much time as possible out in nature. Over time, we’ve grown from a family that considered a trip to a local park an adventure, to one that hikes and camps, fishes and skis.
We’ve grown closer as a family as we’ve grown to embrace our new lifestyle. And our strong-willed daughter? We still have our moments but almost never outside.
At first, we didn’t know exactly why we wanted to raise outdoor-loving kids—it just instinctively seemed like a good idea. If we did have a specific motivation, it was the hope that by starting them early, our girls would grow up physically strong and healthy, with a lifelong love for outdoor activity. Over time, we’ve come to learn that the emotional benefits of more time in nature outweigh the physical ones.
Emotional Benefits of Time in Nature
It builds confidence. When we first started taking our girls out on hikes, it was a struggle. We’d have to cajole them along, and they often wanted to be picked up and carried. It wasn’t long before we could hardly keep up with them. They’ve gained confidence in their own abilities and increased their stamina, which has led them to want to embark on longer and more challenging adventures. Sure, there are some bumps and bruises along the way, but in the process, they’ve learned what it takes to adapt and operate in different environments, and that they’re capable of more than they (or us, frankly) thought was possible.
It promotes creativity and imagination. Nature play is unstructured and adventurous. It requires kids to be in tune with their senses and aware of their surroundings. Whether we’re on a trail or a beach, exposure to the stillness and starkness of nature promotes a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment offers.
It fosters connection. Many of the distractions, from screens to toys, that are everywhere inside, are removed from the environment outside. Time spent outside is for testing boundaries, creating shared memories, and drawing closer to one another so that when tough times (such as those we’re now experiencing) come along, children know they can count on their family for support. Nature gives us time together, and that’s the biggest reward of all.
Spending more time outside as a family is great, but it’s not always easy. With all of the alternatives available to them, kids often resist the idea of a “boring” afternoon exploring with their parents and siblings. And it’s not always easy for parents to find the motivation or energy to pull things together for a family outing on the weekend.
Here are five ideas to help you spend more adventurous time outside as a family.
Prepare in advance. Time is precious, and feeling the pressure of trying to plan something fun and adventurous while time slips away on a Saturday morning is not a good way to start the weekend. Just as you plan your shopping list, spend 30 minutes during the week mapping out your outdoor family activities. That way you can have a set agenda, the supplies you need, and driving directions set in advance. That way you and your family can get out the door and off to your adventure free of stress and full of anticipation.
Embrace all weather. Humor columnist Dave Barry once wrote, “The problem with winter sports is that—follow me closely here—they generally take place in winter.” I think we can all identify with that sentiment to some extent. Sure, it’s easy to curl up on the couch and binge on Netflix for hours on end when it’s cold outside. Now that we’re living in northern Michigan, however, we’ve come to learn that a big part of beating the winter blues as a family is getting outside and being active regardless of the weather.
As the old Scandinavian saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Create something together. Some of the most rewarding time outside is spent building things with kids. For example, our girls look forward to planting a vegetable garden every spring, which pays outdoor dividends all summer (assuming we can keep the pesky deer at bay), as they feel responsible to tend to the garden as well. We’re also constantly building fairy houses in the wooded trails near our house. Creating something doesn’t require a table saw, ladder, and carpentry skills (of which I have none), it just means working with your kids on simple projects outside that your kids care about and, consequently, will tend to.
Schedule your own time. If you’re motivated to raise kids who love the outdoors, you probably love the outdoors yourself. It’s important, therefore, to schedule your own time for outdoor recreation. It’s obviously more difficult to find that time once you have kids, but it’s necessary in order to stay motivated while nurturing your family’s love of nature. Plus, it’s good for kids to see their parents hurtling down the trail on a mountain bike, or cruising across the bay on a paddleboard. It gives them something to be excited about as they become older and ready themselves to take on new adventures.
Let go. As the parents of three young girls, we obviously want to keep them safe, but we try not to hover too close when we’re out exploring. We want them to be creative, imaginative, and adventurous, and to step outside of their comfort zones when they’re out on the trail. That’s what being a kid is all about.
Kids need the freedom to roam, gradually, in order to develop their own relationship with nature. For kids, the fun is off the trail, not within its groomed contours. Unfortunately, off the trail is where scrapes, bruises, and dirty fingernails happen. But we know that if we don’t allow our kids the freedom to explore and test their own boundaries, then they won’t become the outdoor-loving kids that we’re hoping to raise. It’s tough to let go, but absolutely necessary. After all, that’s how our little ones grow up to be strong, confident, courageous adults.
Jay Harrington is an author and lawyer-turned-entrepreneur who runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.