Despite frequent resistance or distraction, it’s more important than ever for teenagers to spend time outdoors. We have a few ideas on helping make that happen!
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As kids get older, their schedules fill up, their workload increases, and there is less time for the outdoors. But filled schedules and increased workloads are also the very reason why time outside becomes even more important for our teenagers. In the face of stress and anxiety, teens need time to wander, to explore, to relax, to wonder, to be refreshed… all of which are a side-effect of spending time outdoors.
Time in nature can:
- improve mental health
- help kids be “happier, better at paying attention and less anxious”
- improve their mood
- help stave off depression
- reduce symptoms of ADHD
- help social functioning, lessen shyness and loneliness
- help reduce stress
Now that we understand the benefits of getting our teenagers outside and are motivated to encourage them to spend time in nature…. What’s next? Well, to actually encourage them outside.
Although it may be hard for parents of young children to believe, as our kids get older, it can become even more difficult than ever to get them to do what we want.
I present to you The Moody Teenager:
- overscheduled (homework and activities)
- unmotivated (monarch of “minimal effort”)
- disinterested (just wants to stay home on computer)
- antisocial (not interested in family time)
- distracted (have I mentioned the computer?)
The above formula doesn’t necessarily apply to every teenager, but you may see some of these elements pop up from time to time. Add in stress, anxiety and lethargy, and your idealized Family Time Outdoors becomes even harder to accomplish.
But these busy schedules and online distractions are exactly the reason why encouraging our teenagers to spend time in nature becomes even more vital. (For the purpose of this post, we’re not counting organized sports as time in nature.)
But don’t despair! We have strategies to help you get them off the couch, off the computer, and outside.
Strategies for Helping Teenagers Spend More Time Outdoors
1. Explain the benefits.
Although teenagers aren’t known for taking their parents’ advice, they do start to care more about their well-being and might just be swayed by the benefits of spending time outdoors. Share with them these benefits (scroll back up) and see if that provides them with extra motivation!
2. Bring friends along.
This is perhaps the easiest and most effective strategy. Teenagers generally enjoy spending time with their friends, so just take that time outside! They’re more willing to go along with an activity if they have a friend to chat with and to help make the whole experience less “uncool”. (Wrong terminology, sorry, I’m just not a teenager myself and can’t seem to keep up with their lingo!)
In addition to just “hanging” outdoors, consider some of the following:
- go for a hike or nature walk together; have friends join you on your family walks
- bring in the game element: do a scavenger hunt together, go geocaching
- think outside the box: go seaglass hunting in the winter
- invite friends over for a campfire
- go for a bike ride, check out a pump track
- go kayaking (or other outdoor activities) as a family: “no thanks”; kayaking with friends: “sure!”
3. Find volunteer opportunities.
If altruism isn’t their main motivator, teenagers can be reminded that community service hours are encouraged by high schools and welcomed by university admissions. Many of those volunteer opportunities and community service hours can be accomplished outdoors:
- trail maintenance, bridge-building
- neighborhood lawn brigade
- walking shelter dogs
- park or beach clean-ups
4. Take an existing activity/responsibility outdoors.
If teens feel they can’t add anything to their schedule, just take part of their schedule into a new setting: outdoors! With laptops and mobile phones, much of their work can be done away from a desk (if appropriate).
- take their reading or homework outside
- choose a “sit spot”, a beach chair, the front steps, a hammock — whatever works!
5. Consider their interests.
If you want to spark interest and create a connection with your teen, find a bridge between your child’s interests and different activities outdoors.
- photography: Taking a camera outdoors is a great activity for teenagers who want to perfect their skills or just have fun taking photos. Nature photography provides new challenges: Macro shots of flowers, telephoto shots of birds. You can also suggest fun projects: photo journalistic shots of hiking partners, trick perspective shots of friends or family, or a photo scavenger hunt.
- art: Budding artists can be encouraged to do a plein air session, to either paint what they see, or simply enjoy the fresh air.
- history: For teens interested in history, look into local historical sites, especially those with accompanying walking trails.
- robotics: Give them a challenge to build a robot that can pick up trash or climb over a log.
- math: Look for examples of math in nature: Fibonacci Sequence (snails, seashells), finding symmetry in nature, measuring the height of a tree or the diameter of a stump.
- physics: Find the best stone and the best technique for rock skipping; plot your progress. Make a pulley system in a backyard tree.
- engineering/architecture: Build a shelter big enough to sit in and make it rainproof. Design shelters for different animals according to their needs.
- music: Make instruments out of loose parts in nature or hold an open-air concert.
- writing: Start a nature journal, reporting on what you see in nature and how it makes you feel. Tell a story about the nature walk you took, describe everything you saw along the way.
- culinary arts: Encourage your teen to grow their own edible garden — in their own backyard or a community garden. Then use what they’ve grown to make you a gourmet snack! Check out our own gardening resources to help get started with square-foot gardening.
- videography, cinematography: Using a mobile phone or Go Pro, take footage of your outdoor adventures and create a mini-movie to document it; take video of friends doing trick shots on their bike or skateboard.
- astronomy: They’re older now and can stay up late! Check our post to keep track of full moons, eclipses and meteor showers. Have them plan an evening activity around an upcoming celestial event. Borrow a telescope from a public library (many of them have a “library of things”) and learn how to use it.
6. Choose any of the incredible outdoor activity options.
(You may already have an outdoor enthusiast on your hands!)
- hiking: From a local nature walk to conquering a 14er, there are options to suit every kid.
- climbing: They may start in a gym, but look for rock climbing and bouldering options near you.
- kayaking or canoeing: Look into local rental opportunities and explore the different water ways in your area.
- stand up paddle boarding: SUPs are a great way to work on your balance while enjoying quiet time on the water!
- skateboarding: An exercise in patience and persistence! Plus, it’s just cool.
- scootering: Try different locations (skate parks, pump tracks, rail trails, sidewalks, parking lots, ramps, quarter pipes), learn new tricks (tail whip, 180, manual, wheelie, no footer, bunny hop, heel whip…). As my kids have grown, we’ve progressed from Razor scooters to intro trick scooters to “pro” trick scooters.
- biking: So many different options for biking! Try new types of biking (singletrack, enduro, downhill, bmx, skills, dirt jumper) and different locations (pump track, jump park, downhill bike park, rail trail, state park). Teens can also spend hours perfecting skills and tricks with their bikes: manuals, wheelies, bunny hops, endos, stoppies, etc.
7. Spend time one-on-one.
Instead of a whole-family excursion, consider one-on-one activities with your teenager.
Enjoy the time together for what it is, or take the opportunity to talk about important things. We’ve learned that talking while walking side-by-side is often much easier than facing each other and having to maintain eye contact. It’s important bonding time!
8. Let them have a say.
Just like for younger children, “let them lead” is a helpful strategy. But in this case, it’s not as literal. Instead of them simply being at the front of the line, teenagers can take a greater role in the whole experience. Here are some ways to help let them lead:
- Give them a list of activities, let them choose.
- Encourage them to plan the whole activity/outing themselves.
- Assign each child a day where they can decide where to go, planning the whole day “from soup to nuts”, from departure time to meals to the route you take.
9. Try something new together.
If they’re not averse to risk or to trying something new, take an introductory class together and try something new:
- downhill mountain biking
- rock climbing, bouldering
- stand-up paddle boarding
- bmx biking
10. Mix up your activities.
On your next outing, try a spin on the usual activity:
- bring along football and toss it back and forth as you walk
- spend your whole nature walk talking about their favorite video games
- test out your RC cars on different terrains
- take your scooters to the local arboretum (if allowed)
- take a metal detector to the beach in the winter
11. Put together a family challenge.
Set a family challenge to give your kids something to work towards, a dose of competition, and a sense of satisfaction when they’ve completed it.
- Make a list of places you’d like to go as a family, decide together on an target end date and see how many you can cross off by then.
- Set a national parks challenge: How many can you visit this year?
- Set a small challenge… Somehow let them talk you into giving them $20 for every sand dollar they find at the beach in April and have that totally backfire. (Yes, I speak from personal experience, but no, they didn’t make us follow through!)
12. Take your games outside.
- Hold a nerf gun battle in your backyard.
- Invite friends over for a laser tag game — during the day or even after dusk.
- Scavenger hunts are still a hit for older kids, especially when they’re not too simplistic. Choose ones that are open-ended (“something that is…”) to allow for more creativity and challenge.
13. Bring in some cool toys.
The next time you want to buy them a gift for a birthday or holiday, make it one that helps get them outside! Consider one of the following:
- an off-road remote-control truck. Endless fun in the woods!
- a slack line for practicing balance
- a ramp or quarter pipe for bikes, scooters or skateboards
- a GoPro camera for recording their awesome adventures
- laser tag games that can be played outside
14. Find odd obscure places to go, wacky, insanely cool locations.
Check out Atlas Obscura and similar sites that list some of the word’s “hidden wonders”, as well as lesser-known, obscure, or odd destinations such as:
- Ford’s Folly (Sudbury, Massachusetts)
- Doll’s Head Trail (Atlanta, Georgia)
- Dino Cliffs Dinosaur Tracks (Washington, Utah)
- Ballochmyle Cup and Ring Marks (East Ayrshire, Scotland)
- Agua Blanca (Ecuador)
- Leśniewo U-Boat Locks (Leśniewo, Poland)
- Whistler Train Wreck (Whistler, British Columbia)
Look for trails with interesting features, such as abandoned bunkers (e.g., Assabet National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury, MA; Odiorne Point State Park, Rye, NH), ruins, or gnome homes.
Consider historically significant locations; forts, battlefields, castle ruins, or old churches.
15. Find places that will tempt them, make that the end destination.
We won’t call it “bribery”, but consider the carrot at the end of the stick, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or the ice cream shop at the end of the rail trail.
- Choose a trail with culinary attractions along the way.
- Choose a trail with a cool feature (such as a pump track) that you reach at the end.
16. Add in some very cool activities.
If budget allow and/or for a special occasion, schedule a special activity. Many teens seem attracted with activities that involve some risk or “extreme” component:
- jeep tour
- gondola ride
- zip line
- high ropes course
17. Find ways they can earn money while spending time outside.
- walk a neighbor’s dog
- start a yard cleanup business
- become a camp counselor
- offer biking, canoeing or photography lessons
18. Lead by example.
Show your kids that outdoor time is part of your own personal routine and inspire them to follow suit:
- morning walk around the pond
- evening stroll around the neighborhood
- Saturday morning bike rides, etc.
19. Encourage funny, creative, amazing photos.
Teens don’t always like smiling for photos, but they may enjoy:
- trick shots
- funny shots
- crazy shots
Have them play with perspective (hold a mountain in their hand, pretend to lift a boulder) and see what trickery they can accomplish.
20. Participate in citizen science.
Get your kids involved in citizen science! Some teens may want a focus for their outdoor time, so give them an opportunity to contribute to environmental science while they’re at it.
21. Make the outdoors part of your family traditions.
Make family traditions that are centered around the outdoors. Even if they only happen once a year, they can still become part of your family legacy.
- nature walk after Thanksgiving dinner
- Every-Saturday Family Adventure
- charity fun runs
- winter solstice hike
- snow day walk to grandma’s house
- Midnight Meteor Moment
22. Issue a personal challenge.
Kids often rise to a challenge, especially if it means improving themselves.
- best rock skipper
- fastest time on trail loop
- biggest air on the jump
- fastest time around the pump track
23. Practice survival skills.
Challenge your kids to master certain survival skills. Challenges may include:
- building a campfire
- starting a campfire when it’s raining
- building a shelter using materials found in nature
- building a shelter with a tarp and some twine
- camping in the backyard
- whittling marshmallow sticks
- cooking a meal over a campfire
24. Schedule it.
Plan ahead and schedule your outdoor time. Put it on the calendar and block out the time! It needs to be a priority, or it will get lost in the shuffle of everyday busy-ness.
25. Start young.
The best way to raise a teen who loves the outdoors is to raise a child who loves the outdoors. Start them young and have it be part of your family ethos!
Although it seems to become more difficult as they get older, it’s important to encourage teenagers to spend more time outdoors. They need it, they crave it (whether or not they know), and they surely benefit from it. Keep some of these strategies in mind and help them get outside!