How to enjoy the outdoors with toddlers

You know how some smells trigger strong emotional reactions? One of strongest for me is the smell of a campfire. As soon as I smell that earthy smoke, I’m transported back to my childhood in the mountains. I grew up at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Many of my childhood summers were spent exploring tree stumps of giant sequoias, watching my father tie dry flies for fishing, and building sandcastles on the shores of lakes. I loved the time I spent getting into the dirt and the wildness of the world around me. From a very young age, I was taught to love nature, to listen to it, and to respect it.

Now, I’m blessed to live along the Wasatch front in Utah, where I can be on a trail in the mountains in under thirty minutes. The mountains smell different here, but they are no less beautiful.

John Muir said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

Why? Because, at least for me, being in nature feeds my soul. It helps me put life back in perspective, calms my anxiety, and reminds me of the good in the world.

Now, I will be the first to admit that having two little kids under four complicates my attempts to get out and commune with nature. I can’t just pick up and go on an all day hike, and packing for a family camping trip requires a lot more than just a backpack, a sleeping bag, and a bag of marshmallows.

So, how do I enjoy the outdoors with toddlers?

It’s really not as complicated as we sometimes try to make it.

Step 1: Go outside.

Step 2: Let the enjoyment come.

Because it will. Getting outdoors with my kiddos is one of my favorite ways to kick a bad mood and to pass the time on days when I can’t stop staring at the clock hands creeping along. On days when we spend meaningful time outside, everyone is happier. We get exercise, sunshine, and notice more of the magic and beauty in the world around us.

In case you’re still a little unsure about the logistics of galavanting off with your toddler in tow, here are a few things I’ve learned that will help you enjoy an outdoor adventure with toddlers:

Let them lead

Whenever possible, let your kids set the pace and the goals of your adventure. The surest way to ruin a hike is to push kids to hard or too far. Obviously, you’ll have to pick where you’re going (although sometimes I’ll ask my three-year-old if he wants to visit a lake or a waterfall so he has some ownership in the choice), but once you’re there, make sure you focus on the journey rather than the destination. Even if you’re just at the park or walking around the neighborhood, let your toddler take the lead and decide where to go and what to look at. It’s good for them to feel like they are in charge occasionally, especially in those tricky toddler years when they are fighting desperately to have control over their little lives.

Set realistic expectations

Once I had kids, I had to alter my expectations of what “hiking” meant. It involves a lot more stopping to look at wildflowers, pointing out birds and squirrels, and cheerleading as we walk. It also means slowing down and realizing that I may not get a great workout if I want to make it a good experience for my kids. Once I let go of my desire to “get to the top”, I found that there was something to be said for slowing down and taking time to notice all the little things.

Play along

Run, play, laugh, explore. Whatever you do outdoors, be present. Get down on the ground with your toddler and examine the ant crawling by, compare the colors of the flowers, try to mimic the birds’ songs that you hear. Our kids don’t need a lot…they just need us. When they see how much we love nature, they will develop that love, too. One note: sometimes just walking in the woods (or anywhere) gets a little tedious for little ones. They get tired quickly and need something to occupy their minds. We love to do scavenger hunts or play I Spy as we go along. This helps keep the mood playful, even when they’re getting tired.

Teach them

Even toddlers can begin to understand and develop respect for nature. I love this saying:

As our little ones learn to respect nature, they will learn to love it as well.

Feed them

Hungry and thirsty kids (or parents) do not make for an enjoyable outdoor adventure. Make sure that you bring plenty of water, granola bars, or whatever works best to boost your family’s energy. I have also found that keeping a package of fruit snacks on hand for when my toddler starts getting tired can be a good way to motivate him to keep walking. We’ll pick a landmark and when we get there, I’ll give him a fruit snack to eat. Then, we’ll pick another, and another, and another. By the time we’ve finished the fruit snacks, we’ve made significant progress on our walking.

Just go, and go often

It doesn’t have to be elaborate. You just have to do it. You don’t have to go all the way to the mountains or the beach (although I highly recommend it as much as possible) to explore and connect to the earth. It can be as simple as going to the park or taking a walk. It can be slowing down and watching a sunset or a bug crawling on the ground.

Need more ideas of what to do? Here are 105 ways to enjoy nature with kids.

A final thought:

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”

—Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

How do you enjoy the outdoors with your toddler?

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