“When my kids were little, getting outside was easy but now, when they’re older, it’s hard to get them engaged in outdoor pursuits. I don’t know what to do – it’s almost like starting over again.”
Sounds familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Almost on a weekly basis, I’m contacted by parents who are at a loss for how to get outside with tweens and teens. Many have spent years trying to create a family culture based on nature connection through outdoor activities with their little ones. Then they hit a brick wall as the kids reach puberty, or even before that. The child who used to willingly tag along for picnics, dig moats in the backyard and crave trips to the park all of a sudden has zero interest in going outside.
I’m no child psychologist, but I think it’s perfectly normal for tweens and teens to test their boundaries and assert their independence in this way. Looking back at my own childhood, I know there came a time when I rejected just about any idea that came from my parents, including outdoor pursuits. The significant difference being that while satellite TV was considered the pinnacle of entertainment back then (or possibly a Nintendo if you were lucky), kids have a plethora of digital distractions that keep them on the couch today.
Screen time battles
It’s not easy for outdoor activities to compete with the addictive draw of smartphones, social media and gaming consoles. And the deeper the kids are drawn into the world of electronic entertainment, the harder it seems to get them interested in going outside. I see it with my own kids, who are 10 and 13 today, and I honestly don’t know of a single parent of older children who isn’t involved in pretty much daily battles about screen time.
While I do think it’s common for kids’ interest in the outdoors to go down periodically, it’s still worth the effort to get outside with teens and tweens. If you too are struggling, try my proven strategies below.
9 tips to get outside with teens and tweens
- Talk to them about making healthy choices. I know, it sounds boring as heck, but they need to hear that going outside physical activity outside is key to their health today and in the future. They may not care (or pretend not to care) now, but if we keep repeating these messages, they will eventually become part of their inner voice.
- Limit screen time. Few children self-regulate successfully when it comes to video games or social media, so get to know the parent controls on your child’s electronic devices and don’t be shy to use them. I use iPhone’s family sharing and screen time functions to limit my kids’ time on their smartphones, as well as the Google Home app to limit WiFi access on their Chrome books. Once the screen time runs out, the prospects of getting them outside improve. You could also try having screen-free times of the day or even a screen-free day of the week.
- Trade screen time for green time. Your child’s desire for more screen time is also your best bargaining chip, so use it to get them outside more. For example, an hour of outdoor time could buy an extra half hour of screen time. Adapt the ratio as your kid gets older and try to keep it reasonable for their age. Be clear and consistent about the rules, so the kids know what to expect.
- Play with them. Yes, I realize some teens would rather be caught dead than seen playing with their parents, but up to a certain age many secretly enjoy it as well. Your teen may be fundamentally uninterested in going for a walk, but if you bring along a ball, it might be a different story. Mine is always up for a game of tag, sledding or a snowball fight and I try to make the most of it while it lasts.
- Have a goal. While younger kids are often happy to hang around in the backyard with no particular plans, older kids tend to be more motivated by having a goal, like hiking up a peak or riding their bikes to a set destination.
- Bring a friend. Even if you think you’re the only company your kids need, they may think otherwise and in my experience, few things motivate kids to go outside like other kids.
- Create a buy-in. Try to get your child involved in the process of planning your outings. For example, let them jot down activities on post-it notes and put them in a jar. At the start of each week, have them pick a note from the jar and plan your weekend based on that.
- Give them space. Do things outdoors as a family as often as you possibly can, but be aware that your child’s need for independence is growing. The more freedom you give them to do their own thing outdoors, the more interested they’ll likely be in exploring it.
- Hang in there! I know getting tweens and teens outside can be a challenge but don’t give up. This too shall pass and whether they become the outdoor enthusiast you are or not, the moments spent in nature with you will stay with them for a lifetime.