Getting teens outside
When I tell parents I am the author of 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids a lot of parents ask, “Could you write a book that will help my teenager get outside?”
Believe it or not, my 5 and 7 year olds whom I wrote about are now teenagers. I am grateful to have seen how our daily outside time through their early years has helped their perspectives and choices into young adulthood.
The struggle is real. The world around us is glued to phones and laptops and we all need to remind ourselves every day to get some fresh air and vitamin D even when the weather is not cooperating. If you have pre-k and elementary-aged kids, see my post 10 Ways to Get Outside Every Day.
Here are some strategies to get screen addicted tweens and teens to spend time outside:
1. Associate Outdoor Time with Independence. Our tweenagers want to be more independent. Make the outdoors their opportunity, whether outdoor jobs, getting around, or spending time with their friends. Does your teen have to get to a friend’s house or practice? If possible, make them bike or walk. First jobs such as coaching or refereeing an early years’ league of a favorite sport, dog walking, or basic landscaping in the neighborhood yield spending money too.
2. Necessity. Sometimes you need help outside with chores or sometimes it just doesn’t work to have your kids or their friends in the house – they have to be out of the house. Maybe you are working and the house needs to be quiet. Kick everybody out of the house. Your older kids will end up with some unstructured time outside and they’ll have to use their imaginations as they did when they were young.
3. Outdoor Props. All year round, we have outdoor props by the front door. Basketball, tennis racquets, and soccer balls are our props of choice. Keep your bikes or scooters out as well so that when you are coming home in the car from somewhere, visual suggestions entice your kids not to come inside. We also have simple camping hammocks in the trees, a small fire pit on the patio, and s’mores ingredients on hand as a subtle hint for when their friends come over.
4. Invitation. Anything worthwhile starts with an invitation. Continue to invite them to go outside with you, even though your teens may only take you up on your invitation one in ten times or one in twenty times. Sometimes a miracle occurs and they invite you to go outside with them, just as they did when they were little. Your consistent invitations keep the option to choose an activity outside top of mind.
5. Say Yes. For every invitation you make that goes unaccepted, there are an equal number of ideas that reside within our teens’ brains, some of which they have articulated. If you invite your older kids to do things they have suggested in the past, those same activities may not seem interesting anymore. Listen for and act upon your tweenager’s ideas when they are offered: say yes in the moment.
6. Forced Family Fun. Sometimes you put your foot down and decide your family will go outside. Maybe the kids have been in front of technology too long. Maybe everyone is bickering. Perhaps the family needs a change of pace. Let each person offer an idea and vote. On occasion your tweenagers complain just a little. Other times, they complain a lot – so much, in fact, you wonder if you will stay sane. Forge ahead (and be patient if you can). You can do this. Breathe. You’ll either love it or have a great story to tell.
7. Commemorative Outdoor Time. This is a favorite of mine. When there are days meant for family time such as birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and national holidays, make them days to do something outside as a family. It doesn’t have to be grand: take a walk or bike ride; have a picnic, visit a botanic garden, enjoy a meal at an outdoor restaurant or volunteer together. Quality time awaits.
8. Disguise the outdoors as something else. It’s not a walk with you, it’s getting ice cream. It’s not family bonding outside, it’s roasting s’mores. It’s not time in the fresh air, it’s hitting golf balls at the driving range or mini golf or foot golf. It’s not a road trip to stop at an outdoor spot you’ve wanted to visit, it’s stopping on the way to somewhere you need to be.
9. Take it With You. Whatever the key activity is for your family, take it with you everywhere to turn what would be moments of boredom into meaningful moments together. For my family, a soccer ball is always in the car or in our travel backpack and helps my kids make friends wherever they go. Playing cards are always in my purse, and the Rebecca Plants Curiosity Cards app is on my phone. The 50 open-ended questions still ignite conversation and we continue to learn about one another, as our answers change over time.
10. Outdoor Vacations. I absolutely love the outdoor experiences we’ve had on vacation. Once again, my teens become a captive audience as they were when they were younger and had to go everywhere with us. We’ve ziplined and faced our fear of heights together, hiked famous trails nearby, and tried new outdoor activities together suggested by locals. Every time I return from vacation with my family, I am reminded that there are little ways to create meaningful moments every day together at home too.
About Rebecca P. Cohen
Rebecca P. Cohen believes time outside transforms our lives for the better. Rebecca has worked with over 6,000 children around the world helping them make outdoor connections for a healthier life.
Rebecca is author of 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids, the children's series PJ's Backyard Adventures, and creator of Rebecca Plants Curiosity Cards available for iPhone and on Google Play. She is also host of the video series, Get Out of the House, which shows fun ideas for time outside in every season. For Rebecca's inspiring blog and free downloads, visit BeOutsideAndGrow.com