What to Do When Family Adventures Don’t Go as Planned
Ever been peed on by your toddler while running a Class IV rapid? Or perhaps you’ve had to clean your son’s vomit off the gear just before the start of a long-awaited family vacation to a national park, and then woke up to everyone puking near the tent later that night. Or maybe you once drove four hours to meet family friends for a three-day paddling trip then realized that you forgot everyone’s sleeping bags … and the kids’ PFDs.
I, unfortunately, get to check “yes” to all of the above. My husband and I explore outside with our young children almost every weekend, but our family adventures don’t go as planned 99% of the time.
Sometimes that means we endure inconvenient or uncomfortable situations (par for the course most days as a parent, whether you’re adventuring outside or not). But other times meeting our kids’ needs means that we stumble upon a spectacular hot spring when we have to switch rafting itineraries, or that we get to swim with dolphins because we stopped kayaking (again) for snacks to avoid a meltdown.
Getting into nature with young children can be challenging, to say the least. Many parents may feel overwhelmed by the logistics or perceived risks of venturing outside with their children.
But the benefits are worth the hassle. Research shows that being in nature relieves stress, increases creativity, and encourages kindness and generosity.
Whether rafting, walking, birdwatching or camping, outdoor adventures support emotional and physical well-being for the whole family. Exploring outside draws kids away from screens, and helps them connect with people and the world around them. Plus, working as a team during family outings helps kids problem-solve and learn new skills.
Convinced of the pros for braving outdoor activities with your family? Below are a few tips to minimize the frustrations and challenges that may arise when kids are in the mix.
Tips on how to tackle challenges during family adventures with kids
1) Take baby steps.
Don’t expect to scale the whole mountain on your first family outing, or a multi-day backpacking trip if your kids have only been on day hikes. Set a realistic goal for your family’s distance, destination, or time outside—and then cut it in half. This helps maintain adults’ sanity, and helps kids notice improvement as their outdoor experience grows.
2) Bring a lot of treats (a.k.a. bribes).
Special snacks act as a handy incentive for motivating kids to make the distance. Pick out a few sweet or salty treats to mete out when the going gets tough or as rewards for willing adventurers. If food doesn’t entice your wee ones, try lemonade packets in water bottles, a gift to unwrap, or the promise of a trip to their favorite park when you get home.
3) Don’t go alone.
Bring friends along for everyone—the more the merrier when it comes to outdoor explorations. Peers provide children with friendly competition, distraction during tough spots, and double the fun. Same goes for parents: more hands make lighter work and louder laughter.
4) Make it a game.
When the nagging and whining start to escalate, distract kids with make-believe activities or fun competitions. Pretend you’re on a pirate ship sailing in search of a buried treasure. Play hide-and-seek in the trees as if you’re lions stalking deer. Turn a campground into an obstacle course, or a hike into a scavenger hunt. And always throw in a hammock and some rope, since swinging and climbing keep kids busy for hours.
5) Smile at mistakes.
Kids often get upset if they’re not “good at” whatever activity you’re undertaking. It helps diffuse mounting frustration if kids see their parents learning along the way, too. They laugh in relief when we also drop a paddle, miss a take-out, or trip over a root. Since kids learn how to deal with their emotions by watching (and mimicking) us, try to handle stressful situations with grace and a smile.
6) Alter your mindset.
One of the hardest parts of outdoor adventures with families can sometimes be the fact that there’s no escaping your family. If the toddler’s tantrum gets your blood boiling after hours in a raft, try some deep meditative breaths. If you’re angry that you had to stop two miles before your desired destination, try to go for a solo run or walk, sneak off with a book for a bit, or do anything else that will help you reset while your partner, a friend, or somebody else wrangles the kids.
7) Call an audible.
Be willing and able to shift gears. Don’t keep pushing for a summit if everyone is exhausted—go jump in the lake you just passed instead. Flexibility is the key to happy family adventuring. Plus, the times you stray from the plan are often the most memorable.
8) Embrace the chaos.
While adults like to get efficiently from Point A to Point B, kids prefer to travel in loops and zig-zags. So ditch your attachment to straight lines—and toss out any hopes of clean clothes and quiet time, too. Encourage your kids to jump in the mud, yell at the cliffs, and follow their curiosity instead of a set trail. It may take longer to get where you’re going (see #1), but if the adults can let go of expectations about the trip (see #6), free-form adventuring opens exciting new doors for experiencing nature and each other.