An Outdoor Guide for the Indoor Mom

My 10-year-old self loved many a summer days – air slick with freedom, elbows slick from cherry popsicles. An entire universe whirling by from the banana seat of my lustrous purple Huffy.

Cicada symphonies. Gingham feasts. Chlorinated hair.

And then, I grew. From inches higher, the neighborhood creek seemed far less adventurous than the latest episode of Hey Dude. There were Brio issues to read, prank calls to make. Mascara became important (I was not yet privy to a waterproof formula).

And with the flip of an unseen calendar, I became an indoor girl.

Years later as a newly engaged 19-year-old, I’d grow teary at the sight of the Grand Canyon. Ken wipes my eyes with the hem of his tee. I know, right? is what he says, and I do not have the heart to tell him that my tears are not of wonder but of disappointment. It had looked better on the Nature Channel.

Right, I say, ignoring sweaty toes.

Thus begins the era of living life from the observation deck, perfectly content. Why ski when you can chase down the sloping plot of a new memoir? Why swim when I can dive deep into a riveting convo right here under the umbrella, sweaty glass of Chardonnay at the ready? Why hike when you can… not hike?

But then Bee was born, and with it, adventure.

girl and sunflower

She, like most 5-year-olds, is first and foremost an explorer. A wandering wonderer, a doting daytripper. This morning she runs over to show me 4 mosquito bites from last night’s frog hunt. “Right here Mom, do you see Mom, just there above the wrist of my leg?”

And so, like mothers have the bias to do, we shift. We flex a bit, first in the ribs to make room for their head, next in our days to make room for their whims. We bike. We sled. We catch grasshoppers and snowflakes. We muddy rain boots and chase bunnies and name clouds.

We even hike, would you believe it?

I’d love to say that I wouldn’t have it any other way, but in truth, if left to my own devices I’m far more likely to be found on the beach with a Joan Didion rather than a yellow pail. But I do know this: a child’s inherent love for nature is a gift to encourage, both in words and deed.

And so, if you’re like me and are in need of a bit of outdoor – shall we say? – coaxing, consider this your official guide to enjoying this great green earth with your littles in tow.

kid rain boots

Start small.

One of the secret tricks to habit formation is to pair a new habit with an already-established one. Want to finish 100 jumping jacks a day? Tackle it while the tea kettle warms. Ready to try your hand at 5 affirmations? Say ’em in the shower.

Likewise, start small by attaching a short outdoor adventure to a routine you’re sure you won’t skip out on. If you never miss your first cup of coffee in the morning, try pouring it straight into a Thermos and shoo everyone outside right away. If you know you’ve got to make a grocery run every week, tack on an extra hour to kick around a soccer ball at the nearby park. Never miss a Sunday service? Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy afterward.

Keep an adventure bag in the car.

Stuff a backpack with water, bug spray (our fave is here), Band-Aids and a spare change of clothes for you and the kids. This way, the next time you drive by a farmer’s market or a new-to-you pocket of woods, you’ll have everything you need for an impromptu adventure.

Pair up.

A bit of research is guaranteed to churn up a handful of activities in your area, so no need to go at it alone here. Check your local community calendar often for outdoor-friendly events: a free hike with a naturalist at a nearby nature preserve, a short tour of downtown gardens, day camps at the zoo. While self-education is of utmost importance, it’s always nice to have a helping hand to guide you along the way.

little girl dangling legs

Care for an herb garden.

For city dwellers or those with limited schedules, considering bringing the outdoors straight to your door by caring for an herb garden. Mint is notoriously simple, as are most of the greats: basil, rosemary, dill. Go on; line up a windowsill full of tiny planters and marvel at all you learn.

Bring special snacks.

And I’m not just talking for the kids.

Listen, there are days in which the way of the will can be hidden even from us grown-ups (especially from us grown-ups?). There are days in which we’re just not feeling it, in which we’d rather high-tail it to the sofa than stare at a shivering leaf for another 20 minutes.

And yet, we are the leaf leaders, the pond marvelers, the grass watchers. We are the shapers. And so, when the great outdoors feel less than great, I rely on the fine art of bribery – of the smalls and of the self. A pocket of pretzels to dole out on a trail. A stick of beef jerky in the woods, a picnic of gouda and cherries, sourdough. Later, the hope of ice cream.

It works, is what I’m saying. My favorite snacks are right this way.

Educate yourself.

If the great outdoors feels intimidating and unfamiliar to you, consider investing in a few inexpensive guides or resources to brush up on your local knowledge. We keep a set of laminated field guides (birds, flowers and trees) at the ready for identifying unknown creatures, and there are a slew of lovely posters designed to keep you in the know. Or: make it fun for the whole family with an ongoing, simple game of Bird or Bug Bingo.

kid smelling sunflower

Find your spot.

We creatures of habit have a particularly hard time veering far from our own comfort zone, don’t we? My own secret: carve out something cozy. Snag a place that’s familiar and easy – a nearby creek, a backyard tree – and claim it as yours.

My daughter has a specific spot in the woods she asks to visit almost daily, and because it’s comfortable and well-trodden and we know precisely what to expect when we make the 5-minute trek, it’s an easy yes.

Adventure needn’t always be adventurous, is what I’m saying.

Try a nighttime walk.

If your days are less available for traipsing around with little destination, all hail the nighttime walk. Grab a few flashlights and explore a sleepy world where toads are aplenty and fireflies emerge. Darkness has a way of slowing us down, of re-calibrating the beat of a fast-paced day. Take advantage of the quiet pace and roam just a few minutes after the sun goes down. (Bonus? Sleepier kids = simpler bedtime.)

Make it a habit.

Automate what you can. If you know you’re more likely to visit the local watering hole if you keep a membership, by all means, keep a membership. Sign up for the botanical garden’s mailing list. Schedule weekly trips to the farmer’s market. Carve adventures into your day by making them a habit and a priority — a regular non-negotiable. Then? Stick to ’em.

kid holding heart rock

Little by little, you’ll notice small wins (Fresh air! Longer naps! Vitamin D!) that will boost your momentum as you fall into a new outdoor-friendly rhythm. And if you’re anything like me, in no time at all, you might find yourself at the Grand Canyon tearing up over way more than sweaty toes.

Tell me, what are your favorite ways to adventure outside? I’d love to hear!

  • In your planning pages, there is a line about drinking two glasses of water when you wake up before anything else goes into the body. I think you said “just drink it already”. Not sure that’s verbatim, the pages are in my mess of a library at the moment. This gentle advice resonated with me. Why hadn’t thought of that myself? This has lead me to regularly taking a new vitamin supplement, washing dishes without grumbling, hanging my clothes back on the clothesline instead of taking the lazy way of the dryer, keeping birdseed in my bird feeder to see what birdies might stop by, watering my husband’s vegetable garden, and watching my cat visit with his new buddy, a little opossum. These are my little slices of outside while living on a busy city street corner. Since my little ones are big ones now, I just have to make my own adventures, and that is okay.

    • Oh Tina, I LOVE hearing this. And I think we all have to make our own adventures one way or another — why let only the kids play? ;) Your own morning adventure sounds delightful. :)

  • not necessarily a favorite but a really fun idea: when my sons were younger I created a check off outdoor scavenger hunt around the neighborhood. As I was driving to and from the house I noted the ducks crossing the road, the purple flowers growing at that neighbors house, the smell of Jasmine as I drove by with the window open, the brightly colored mailbox, etc. then I opened up Word and created a ‘list’ of things I’d send my boys out to scavenger for and check things off. It got them out of the house. I went with them and took photographs, and documented out time together. Years later they still recall those scavenger hunts

  • My adventure outside is on a raft in my friend’s pool and looking up at the sun and the marshmallow clouds that change shape. I hear the sound of birds that flit from branch to branch- the squirrels flying from the the huge oak tree to the maple. The sun as it reflects on the water and the buzz of the bees. In nature, I find the universe at work- each intricate pattern of life that we forget about in the mad rush of doing instead of being.

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