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The Dirty Dozen: 12 Ways To Get Kids Outside More

The Dirty Dozen - 12 ways to get kids outdoors more
Written by Stuart Wickes

The Dirty Dozen: 12 Ways To Get Kids Outside More

Stuart Profile SmallDo you get out enough? No, I don’t mean to eat or to the cinema. I mean outside – you, the kids, the family – in the great outdoors. Go on, you know you want to. And even if you don’t, you know you probably should. We know it’s good for us but it’s not always easy to fit it in or persuade kids out of the house. In this post, a collaboration with Persil as part of their ‘Dirt is Good’ #DirtisGood campaign, we share some of our practical strategies for getting out, down and dirty more in a bid to raise outdoor kids.

Our dirty secret

The case for getting outside is well made; my problem is doing it. It used to be easy. When the kids were small I could just pick them up and take them out. But have you tried doing that with tweens or teens? It’s not pretty. Or practical.

And it’s not just persuading the kids out that can be problematic. I sometimes find it hard to get myself out the door. I know it’s as good for me as it is for the kids but there are always other things vying for my attention. So how do you prioritise it? And what tactics can you use to persuade yourself and the kids to put down the tech and get out of the house for an hour or two?

When Kirstie and I sat down to talk about this we looked back over fifteen years of parenting and found we’d tried just about every influence tactic in the book, from persuasion to bribery and cooption to coercion in our relentless quest to get the kids outside and active.

Like all the best things in life, it’s proved a challenge. And like all the best challenges, it hasn’t always worked out. Some tactics worked with one child but not another. Some worked only some of the time. And sometimes, I have to admit, I gave up and went out on my own.

Anyway we’ve subbed our play book down to this dirty dozen tips that we hope will help you get yourself and your kids outdoors more. We offer no guarantees they’ll work for you, but hope these twelve ideas will help you develop your own tactical plan for getting out more.

Encouraging kids to be outdoor kids

Encouraging kids to be outdoor kids: a lifetime’s work?

The Dirty Dozen

Our play book for raising outdoor kids

1 Follow their interests

It took me a long time to realise that when it comes to persuading the kids to get out of the house, what I like doesn’t matter. They don’t care that I like walking, cycling and swimming in the rain or that those things are good for them. They care about what they like. And if I care about it too we’re more likely to get out the door together.

Girl plays football on beach at sunset in Arnside, Cumbria

Anyone for a game of sunset football?

Doing what they like

Hannah’s interest in football makes it easy to persuade her to put her i-Pod down for a game of three and in. Her brothers’ competitiveness means we can sometimes persuade them to join us for mini matches of two-a-side.

Cameron’s interest in photography makes a scenic sunset photography walk sound appealing to him. A passing interest in poetry helped me persuade Hannah out for a poetry walk. Her curiosity about seals (and love of Tracker bars) helped me get out her seal spotting. And her enthusiasm for running encouraged her to put her trainers on when I suggested we head out on the fells to try fell running. When you frame things in ways that appeal to your kids interests it’s often easier to get them out the door.

2 Make it about something else

For one of my kids the very idea of being ‘outside’ is enough to make him lock the bedroom door and throw away the key. Outdoors doesn’t do it for him. But he does like games, technology and winning. So when we want to get him out we try and make being outside about something else. We don’t go out for a walk, we go out to test a new geocaching app. We don’t go cycling, we go out to compete with each other on a biking treasure hunt. We don’t go cross country skiing, we go to try biathlon i.e shooting on skis. And once we’re out the door we hope he doesn’t notice we’re outside, at least for an hour or two.

Guils Fontanera, Nordic Ski Resort, Catalonia, Spain

Nordic skiing – novel, fun, active and outdoors.

3 Get about actively

In this age of the car, it’s easy to forget there are other ways to get about. In most families going somewhere usually means jumping in the car to get there. It’s quick, easy, convenient and habitual. But it’s not the only choice. For short, local journeys you could walk, cycle, run or scoot.

And if it doesn’t fit when you’re at home, why not think about it when you travel. Travel is a perfect opportunity to break routines and try new things. Ditch the car and walk around. Or take your scooters and scoot around. We spent New Year in Edinburgh a few years back and instead of driving between the sights decided to scoot in an attempt to turn Scotland into Scootland.

In our day we’ve canoed to the supermarket, cycled to the local swimming pool and done micro-scooter ballet on Morecambe Prom. All without mentioning exercise or going outdoors.

4 Do something new or different

Don’t underestimate the power of the novelty factor. It can work as well for adults as it can for kids. I hated football as a kid. I was rubbish at it. Or at least I came to believe I was. But since Hannah showed an interest in the beautiful game I’ve been encouraging her to give it a go and discovered I actually quite like it too. Heading out to the playground to practice skills with her I’ve discovered I can do keepy-uppies. Kind of. And up at the tennis courts we’ve invented footis – a cross between tennis and football, something so novel and exciting it even got the boys out of their bedrooms to give it a try.

So why not take up a new sport together – football, running, mountain biking. Or something a little more unusual. We recently gave trampolining a go and one of the kids discovered a talent for it. Places like Jump Nation in Manchester or Bounce Below in Snowdonia turn this fairly simple activity into a whole day out. Or you could have your own family weekend of sport, trying out new sports in new places. We had a lot of fun with that on our Manchester Sports city weekend and also checking out Nottingham, England’s Home of Sport.

5 Take on a family challenge

Taking on a challenge together creates a team spirit which can help motivate, inspire and create a sense of obligation to each other. Making a public pledge of doing something sponsored can add a little external pressure to the mix. Sign up for a local fun run, park run, sponsored walk, cycle or outdoor themed event. Or devise your own. A couple of years ago we agreed to take part in the Team Honk Relay Challenge and ended up scooting, cycling, running, canoeing and hiking a marathon distance as a family to raise money for Sport Relief.

And last year Hannah dragged us out to see her run in the Colour Dash in Kendal, where spectators splodge runners with colour as they try to complete a 5km course. I remember thinking it would make a great family activity, at least until we got back home and had to do the washing.

6 Measure it

Measurements, charts and rewards work for toddlers so why not tweens, teens and grown ups. And these days it’s much more exciting than putting gold stars in a book or stickers on a board. There are now endless apps that pimp up the experience for everyone, capturing stats, ranking, rating and getting you competing with friends, families or complete strangers. Why not get the kids to research an app you can use together.

We’ve used Strava to record and share routes, times, photos and achievements. We’ve used it to measure distances, pace and personal bests. We’ve used it to find and try routes others have shared. We’ve set goals and challenges, watched ourselves climb league tables and kept records of walks, runs, bike rides and personal progress. We’ve even used it to make GPS art, cycling a heart shape around the Lake District.

We’ve been out running together with the Zombie Run! app, heading out on important missions in a world overrun with zoms, listening to zombie stories and running for our life to escape being caught by chasing zombies. The storytelling and gaming dimensions of these apps can be of particular appeal to kids, encouraging repeat use to unlock new levels, missions or stories.

Personal fitness trackers like the fitbit can be fun too, providing motivation and encouragement to get out or keep going. You can buy basic ones quite cheaply to track and monitor activity. I bought Kirstie one for her birthday but I’m still waiting for her to use it!

Kirstie Pelling reviews her Heart of The Lakes Cycle Route on Strava

Using Strava to create GPS art – one more way to persuade kids outdoors

7 Get competitive

Competition can be a powerful motivator. Who doesn’t like to win? To get one up on their siblings or better still their parents? But it doesn’t have to be physical. In fact, it’s sometimes better if it isn’t! Adding a creative competitive aspect to an outdoor activity can work wonders for engagement. Why not arm yourselves with binoculars, sketch pads and pencils and list or draw the wildlife you see. Or give the kids their own cameras or i-Pods and have a competition to take the best photograph. Get everyone to choose their best pic, load them onto Instagram at hourly intervals and see which gets the most likes. We sometimes use Instagram’s Weekend Hashtag Project #WHP as a stimulus for themes and ideas. Check the instagram blog on a Friday to find out what the theme is.

Photographing Autumn

Anyone for an autumn photography competition?

8 Make a game of it

Kids seem to come pre-programmed to love games and play. We serious, boring grown-ups forget that at our peril. Or we can leverage it to our advantage. Making a game out of something makes it more fun, attractive and engaging to kids. Ask any teacher. So, make up a game of countryside bingo. Draw or list things you might see on the walk and get everyone to tick them off on their bingo card. Have prizes to hand for a line, full-house or the person who spotted the most. Or take it a step further and make your own treasure hunt with questions or bits of information the kids have to find and make a record of. Or buy one from a company like Treasure Trails. We recently did a Spy themed treasure hunt in London and did a whole day of sightseeing without anyone noticing.

Teens like to play too

And it doesn’t just work for toddlers and tweens. We recently sent a bunch of teens out on a 5 mile treasure hunt we made around the village and surrounding area. We expected them home after an hour, but they turned up after three. And it was pouring with rain! There was an incentive though – we hid bags of sweets in the hedge at each stop, and also a £10 voucher for Costa Coffee half way round. One of the three hours was apparently spent in the Costa at the local service station.

9 Try Geocaching

Whilst we’re on the subject of treasure hunting, geocaching is the world’s biggest treasure hunt and a great way to get kids outside and exploring. Best of all, it’s free.

Geocaches are small caches hidden by geocaching enthusiasts all around the world. There are probably a dozen caches within a few miles of wherever you are right now. The clues, coordinates and mapping to help you find caches are available online at sites like geocaching.com. All you have to do to join the community is log on, choose a cache you want to find, download the details and head on out to find it. You can get a geocache app for most smartphones these days which has made this once niche sport incredibly accessible. Caches contain little log books to register your visit and some contain small items of treasure too. The idea being that if you take treasure out, you leave something else in return for the next visitor. If you want to become an active part of the geocaching community you can even make, register and maintain your own geocaches. Now there’s an excuse to get out once a month.

Coire Fionn Lochan Arran

Examining treasure found in a geocache near Coire Fionn Lochan, Arran. Makes a three mile walk worthwhile!

10 Bribery

It feels wrong to write this but the thing is bribery works. When ‘Do you want to go for a bike ride?’ fails, I often find ‘Shall we go for a ride and have fish,  chips and ice cream?’ succeeds, while not mentioning ‘the ride’ and asking ‘Shall we go for fish, chips and ice cream?’ has the best opt-in rate of all. Of course outright bribery is not without its problems. You create a rod for your own back, it can get expensive and the effects may be short lived, but I like to think of my bribes as an investment in helping them develop a love of the great outdoors. And to be honest it’s a part of how the world works and they may as well get used to it. I have.

I’ve got so used to it in fact that I sometimes even budget for it. On some long distance trips I’ve been known to pay the kids to cycle, at a rate involving a complex formula which includes a small payment per kilometre, an additional component that depends upon the number of metres of vertical climb done (without getting off and walking), and a terminal bonus for every 1,000km ridden. It’s been enough to encourage the kids to find the hilliest routes. You wouldn’t want to know what a traverse of The Pyrenees cost me last summer.  You might wish to stick to the promise of a pack of sweets, magazine or small cash reward.

Family cycling in Montenegro

How do you get kids to cycle to Montenegro? Make it fun. And pay them!

11 Make it compulsory

I never thought this would work until I tried it. One half term, tired of having kids under my feet, I decided to close the house for two hours to force the kids to go out and play. It was an experiment with interesting effects and you can read the full story here, but in short, after some initial resistance they went off and played together. I was amazed. So simple and yet so effective. It made me wonder if I should make the house a bit more like an old Youth Hostel, you know the kind that are closed between 10 and 5, even at weekends. I could even introduce some compulsory chores!

Leaving the Youth Hostel. This place is closed.

Maybe home should be more like an old Youth Hostel. Closed from 10-5, even at weekends.

12 Be the change you want to see

Kids learn a lot by copying. As parents we influence our kids through what we do as much as through we tell them to do. So instead of telling them to turn off the tablet, click away from YouTube and be outdoor kids more perhaps we should do the same and show by example what we mean. Go for a run. Search for some treasure. Bribe yourself with fish and chips and don’t mention the bike ride to get there!

Your tips for raising outdoor kids

What tips do you have to share on getting kids (and parents) out more or raising outdoor kids? Do leave a comment and let us know.

Kids outdoors climbing on an engraved old tree in the woods

Teaching kids to love the outdoors means getting them out and giving them positive experiences.

Dirt is Good

This post is brought to you as part of Percil’s #DirtisGood campaign.  As a company that encourages messy play, Persil wants to help kids and parents discover or rediscover muddy happy childhoods. Dirt is Good aims to encourage children to spend more time playing out and provide parents with the resources they need to encourage their children to get outdoors. It includes a partnership with The Wild Network  with activities and tips on using the great outdoors as a fun ‘classroom’ for kids. To find out more:

  • Go to dirtisgood.com for ideas.
  • Join the #DirtisGood conversation on social media. @PersilUK wants to hear what stops you and the kids from getting outside? And how you feel about letting them out to play?
  • Ask your child’s school to sign up for Empty Classroom Day -a global initiative aiming to get children around the world learning outside of the classroom this summer.

Dirt is Good

Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you in association with Persil UK to help promote their Dirt is Good campaign. It’s an idea we wholeheartedly endorse despite the consequences for the washing machine. As ever, the experiences, opinions, tips, videoography and photography are all our own. 

About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!

2 Comments

  • We love getting outside as a family, but like you said, it’seems easier when we can pick them up now as toddlers. Hopefully they will still enjoy it when they’re older. Loved the tips, I will save them for later years.
    Sam 2crazycampers.com

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