Here’s a sound bite from my house:
Me: “Hey kids, let’s go outside!”
Kids: “Groannnnnnnnn. No thanks.”
I have a theory about this reaction. It’s not that they’re lazy or dislike being outdoors (I know for a fact that they do). It’s just that kids need a compelling reason – even a small one – to step outside.
Of course, that reason can’t be: “Well, it’s good for your overall health and mood, plus it gives you a much-needed break from screen time!” No one is leaping out of their seat after that boring sales pitch.
It might take a bit of creativity to motivate kids to head outside, but it can be done. The secret? Create a purpose. Invent a task. Introduce a prop or accessory. Add something (anything!) to give the experience a sense of importance or accomplishment.
Here are some of my kid-tested ideas to promote outdoor breaks:
Share the warmth
Outdoor time can be an especially tough sell during the chilly winter months. Pre-warm some of their outerwear (snow pants, jacket, and mittens) in the dryer to make the idea more attractive and challenge the kids to put it on quickly to maximize the coziness. (Use a medium or low setting and keep the time short, so the gear gets warm but not hot.)
Have an audio signal
This one is borrowed from everyone’s favourite subject in school: recess. The brilliant thing about recess is that it’s hard-wired into the day. The bell rings; the kids go outside. End of story. Replicate this at home by setting an alarm on your phone at an appropriate break time, and give it the same respect you’d give the recess bell.
Reinvent the good old walk around the block
Of course, kids are not keen on walking for walking’s sake – but if you turn it into some sort of mission, it can be a different story. Some simple examples:
- Take the family dog for a walk, or offer to walk a neighbour’s pup.
- Wear a GPS watch or activity tracker to monitor your distance or steps. Measure a specific route or see if you can go farther than the previous day.
- Create a walking errand. Maybe you have to return something you borrowed from a neighbour or deliver some cookies to their front porch. Again, it doesn’t have to be big – it just has to be something. If your area has one, a “Little Free Library” makes a great destination. These mini book collections are a wonderful neighbourhood feature, typically maintained by devoted volunteers. Borrow a book for free or donate one that you’re finished with.
- Celebrate Earth Day early and pick up litter (safely, with gloves or tools if you have them).
- For an added challenge, do an online search for a “nature scavenger hunt” or “nature bingo” card. You can also invent your own game, like brainstorming a name for each bird, bunny, and squirrel you spot.
- To practice math concepts, bring a notepad and collect some basic data – for example, choose 10 houses and take note of a chosen feature, such as the garage door colour. Then discuss the results: if 5 of the 10 garage doors were brown, what fraction is that? Younger kids can practice “skip counting” with house numbers.
Embrace snail mail
Yes, even checking the community mailbox can be an exciting journey. Better yet, have the kids create a piece of mail they can drop in the slot. Send a birthday card, a thank-you note, or mail some artwork to Grandma.
Beautify the community
If your child is into crafts, decorate some rocks with colourful paint and place the creations in appropriate places around the neighbourhood, like shared walkways, playgrounds, and parks.
Have a ball
Introduce a piece of sports equipment – such as a football, frisbee, or soccer ball – and let them dream up their own game.
Shovel the driveway
I have abandoned the notion that my kids will help clear the snow. My younger son prefers to “frolic” (as he calls it) while I do the work. He happily runs around and flings snowballs at the brick wall while his kid-sized shovel leans against the wall, untouched
Choose your own (winter) adventure
Kids instinctively enjoy simple snow play like building a fort or a snowman. If you have the inclination, equipment, and a suitable outdoor location, you can also try sledding, skating, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing.
Be opportunistic with the weather
If there’s a mild spell and the snow melts, get out on the driveway with the sidewalk chalk, jump rope, bubbles, remote control cars, and whatever else you can grab from the “spring toys” bin.
Sweeten the deal
I am not above a little bribery – I will sometimes offer a treat to anyone who joins me outside. To avoid mess, the prize is typically a single hard candy, mint, or piece of gum that goes in their mouth as they step out the door. A steaming mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows afterwards is always popular, too.
Getting the kids out the door is usually the hardest part. Once they’re outside, they’re likely to get on board with the plan or even come up with an activity of their own. Even if the original idea is a dud, at least they got a change of scenery and a bit of fresh air. And, if they have enough positive experiences, eventually, they might take an outdoor break on their own – no sales pitch required.