How To Get Kids off Screens and Outdoors

Here are the best types of youth activities (and parental tactics) to inspire a lifetime of outdoor interests.

It is the great mystery facing pretty much every modern, digitally connected parent: How do you get kids and teens off their device screens and into the great outdoors. If only there were more permanent and persuasive ways to inspire some form of activity that engages them, teaches them about themselves and the world around them, and gets them moving. For any advice, however, the main and most challenging variable is that all grade-school kids and young adults are unique. So, any generalized tips might work for one and not the other. But if you don’t try, you might as well surrender to screen-time. Give the following strategies a try. Who knows, perhaps one of these ideas will work and lead to a more fulfilling life oriented outside.

Enlist a friend

Some kids are motivated by one thing and one thing alone: hanging out with their friends. If yours is one of those extra-social kids, or even if you think that a friend’s presence will up a given activity’s enjoyment level, talk to that friend’s parents and make it happen. Sign the two of them up for an activity together, especially one where partnership is baked in, like rock climbing, canoeing or kayaking. Or, take your child and a friend on a camping trip to try to get them hooked.

Take the dog

If you have a dog (or have one to dog-sit), simply taking it for a walk is a perfect kid-dog activity (once the child is at a safe age to walk alone). Up the ante and encourage older children and teens onto dog hikes. Seeing a dog’s happy face with an open trail ahead is often enough to motivate any kid to make that happen again.

Let them pick

First, do your research to see what activities are available in your area. Once you’ve found a list of clinics, camps, and after-school activities that work for you and your schedule, give your child a choice: Climbing camp, hiking club, mountain biking team, cross-country running group. Offer a menu of options and let them pick.

Make positive reinforcements tasty

Hiking, Nordic skiing, paddling: Everything is better with snacks. Make those snacks your kids’ favorite treats and they’ll soon associate that particular activity with that special reward. Not that our kids are trainable pets, but hey, it works.

Gear up

Buying something new likely motivates you—for instance, when you buy a new pair of running shoes and then go running more often because of it. And the same psychological tactic can work on your kids. Purchasing a new backpack or pair of climbing shoes can be a pricey risk, but it can pay off. Worst case: You have a new piece of gear for yourself.

Be a good role model

They say we all end up like our parents. Model the behavior that you would like to see in your kids. Hike, bike, spend a lot of time being active outdoors, yourself. If you do what helps you be the best parent, and the best version of yourself that you can, then you increase the chances that your children will follow you there. 

Fill an idea jar

For one-off adventures that can provide young adults with a taste of each activity, consider writing down a bunch of possibilities—“hike with mom,” “rent a standup paddleboard,” “go on a bike ride”—then putting the paper slips in a jar. Have your kid choose one whenever they say, “I’m bored,” or just when you’d like them to try something novel. Of course, this requires you, the parent, to make that activity happen (so write ideas accordingly).

Embrace technology that motivates action

Try geocaching, where a smartphone app serves up hints to find “caches” that users have stashed for others—like you and your kids/teens, or them on their own—to find. Over 3 million geocaches exist worldwide to help gamify an outdoor search. Also worth attention: New blockchain-backed platforms can incentivize outdoor experiences by recording real-life trips (like a completed trail to a waypoint) in exchange for non-fungible token (NFT) collectibles and other unlocked benefits that help users (or members in the case of National Parks NFT’s model) continue exploring outdoors.  

Structure the search  

If you’re feeling creative and have the time, make a scavenger hunt for your little ones that will have them roaming purposefully around a natural space. Do this in parks in your own neighborhood or visit a national park and have your child sign up for a Junior Ranger program with free booklets full of fun activities (like scavenger hunts) they can do during a park visit.

Make them do it

This may sound harsh and overly simple at the same time, but a little heavy-handed parenting can get the ball rolling. Telling kids they have to do a particular outdoor activity is not the meanest thing in the world. Of course, the strategy could backfire with the opposite outcome (them never wanting to do said activity again). Or, they might fall in love and thank you for introducing them to something so cool. Try framing it in straightforward absolutes removed from choice, i.e., “This is what we’re doing today.” And consider promising—and delivering on—doing something out of your own comfort zone in order to parallel their feelings and experience learning together.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.