5 Tips for Raising Kids that Love the Great Outdoors

Temps were in the mid-60’s and sunny all weekend, so those projects we put off all summer could wait a bit longer. There’s no way we were going to be organizing closets or installing shelves in the garage when we could be outside enjoying the last gasp of rich color in the trees and brilliant blue sky.

It was a great weekend spent hosting friends from Colorado who came to town to ride in the Iceman Cometh mountain bike race through the Vasa Trail system. Over 5,000 participants descended on Traverse City for the race, which – coupled with the beautiful weather – kept the downtown buzzing all weekend.

It was also an opportunity to get the family outside enjoying nature.

On Saturday morning we loaded up the girls and our dog, Izzy, and headed west on M72 toward the Sleeping Bear Dunes. The drive cuts through rolling fields, farms and forests, although a blanket of fog limited the views until we reached Glen Lake, where the fog lifted and gave way to crystal clear skies. We turned north on M22 through Glen Arbor (sleepy this time of year) and headed to Port Oneida in Sleeping Bear.

We began by hiking up Pyramid Point. It’s about a mile and a half hike up to the scenic overlook point which offers massive views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. Our girls did great on the trail which cuts through meadows and maple-beech forests. It’s not a difficult hike for most adults, but presents a challenge for the little ones who had fun scampering up the ascending trail. The payoff at the top is worth the effort, and we rewarded our hearty crew with a picnic lunch which they enjoyed while Heather and I soaked up the views.

After descending the trail, we headed over to Port Oneida Beach, one of our favorite secluded beaches in Sleeping Bear. Izzy immediately charged into the lake and insisted that we keep throwing a stick into the surf so she could retrieve it. The girls were there to search for Petoskey stones, and we found six. Stone hunting, however, quickly gave way to ladybug hunting when the girls discovered a swarm of them fluttering around the beach.

Sunday was just as spectacular and a bit warmer, so we headed north up the Leelanau Peninsula and enjoyed the scenic drive through farms and orchards while catching views of Lake Leelanau. We were headed to the Whaleback Natural Area, which is part of the Leelanau Conservancy, and is located just south of the town of Leland. Whaleback offers a beautiful hike with a gradual ascent through big hardwood trees up to a viewing platform overlooking Lake Michigan that sits atop a 300 foot bluff.

After hiking and exploring in Whaleback, we drove to Leland and strolled through the shanties and smokehouses in Fish Town, and the girls peered over the docks while trying to catch glimpses of fish darting to and fro.

It was a great weekend spent outside in northern Michigan. But it wasn’t easy. Like many kids, if our girls (particularly our three year old twins) had their way, more time would be spent inside and in front of the T.V. Don’t get me wrong – they love the outdoors. It’s just that their memories are short, and so it often takes some cajoling to convince them that exploring nature is the best of the many alternatives (T.V., playing “baby” in their bedrooms, coloring, etc.) they perceive as available to them.

As parents, many of us want to raise adventurous, outdoor kids, but our kids often have another agenda in mind. We’re by no means experts on the topic, but since we are trying to raise a nature-loving family, we do think quite a bit about these issues. Here are some tips that have worked well for us to make time spent outdoors fun and rewarding.

Make it a Game 

For most adults, fresh air and beautiful scenery are reason enough to head out for a hike. But kids often need something more to nudge them out the door. In our experience, finding or creating adventures that excite them is the best motivation.

On Sunday, before heading to Whaleback, we had the girls create “adventure maps” that they could follow while hiking. Maddie’s map was fun of dangerous obstacles – jumping frogs, angry pirates, bears and quicksand – that the girls had to navigate as they made their way up the trail. The twins carried their own construction paper maps, filled with indecipherable scribbles, that in their minds posed just as much peril.

Whether we’re building fairy houses at the Fairy Trails, planning a scavenger hunt in the forest, or creating adventure maps for a hike, it helps to engage kids in some creative fun. If you can turn the outdoors into a playground where your kids’ imaginations run wild, their bodies will follow.

Focus on Expectations vs. Outcomes

Sad but true: hiking, camping, fishing or almost any other outdoor activity with small children is hard work, and often not that fun. But it’s time well spent, and necessary, if you want to raise kids that love the outdoors over the long-term.

To make this time more enjoyable, it’s important to focus on expectations, not outcomes. If you head out to hike a one mile trail with your family with the expectation that you’ll quickly reach the scenic overlook point at the end of the trailhead, you’ll almost assuredly be disappointed. You’ll spend most of your time hurrying the kids along as they stop to draw lines in the dirt with sticks, gather stones, and gaze at bugs. It won’t be fun for you or them as none of your expectations will align. You want to keep moving, while they want to make frequent stops to play and explore.

Instead, don’t focus on the outcome – in this case the scenic overlook point – and set out with the expectation that if your kids have fun along the way, then it’s a day well spent, regardless of whether you reach your original destination.

Schedule Time

Because time spent outdoors with small kids is often hard work, it’s important to schedule time for it. After a long workweek, it’s easy and understandable to just want to relax and unwind on the weekends. There are many Saturday mornings when Heather and I simply want to lounge around and flip the T.V. on for the girls, instead of filling up the sippy cups and strapping them into their car seats to head to a beach or a trail.

In order to overcome this tendency, we try to plan our adventures in advance, and discuss them with the girls in order to excite them about our upcoming plans. That way, come the weekend, our agenda is set, and there’s less time spent on our phones perusing activity calendars trying to figure out something to do as the day’s inertia sets in. In most cases, if you plan it, you’ll do it.

Then Schedule Your Own Time 

If you’re motivated to raise kids that love the outdoors, you probably love the outdoors yourself. So that means that you need to schedule your own outdoor recreation as well. 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 your kids to see you and your spouse hurtling down the trail on a mountain bike, or cruising across the bay on a paddle board. It gives them something to be excited about as they become older and ready to take on new adventures.

Let Go

As the parents of three young girls, we obviously want to keep them safe, but try not to hover too close when we’re out exploring. Scraped knees, blisters and dirty fingernails are part of the drill when you’re on a hike. We want them to be creative, imaginative, 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.


For kids, the fun is off the trail, not within its groomed contours. Unfortunately, off the trail is where the scrapes, cuts and bruises happen. But 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.

Life, AdventuresJay Harrington