Helping Our City Kids Love the Outdoors

Several weeks ago we had the annual conversation about our backyard play set, which our kids want to replace every year when they see the upgrades that Sam’s Club has added to the one that already sits in our backyard. We had to once again remind our children that they have one that they rarely use.

“But it has spider webs all over it,” they whined.

“Then clean them off,” my husband responded.

The next day, our son did just that. With the help of his friend next door, they cleaned the clubhouse from top to bottom and then grabbed the sidewalk chalk so that they could decorate it to their heart’s content. Our daughter and one of her friends rediscovered the swings. We had intentionally purchased an outdoor playset large enough that they would be able to use it until they outgrew the desire to play on it, and for a single afternoon our children dove back into their outdoor playspace and decided to make the most of it.

Our kids are just as susceptible as others to the lure of Minecraft, Madden, and the endless supply of entertainment on streaming services. And we are just as guilty as other parents who give an exhausted “sure” when the kids ask to play a video game or watch some TV while we are getting dinner ready or still finishing up work details or even just trying to enjoy a rare lazy day at home.

But eventually we snap out of it, tell the kids to turn off the devices, and send them outside.

Our kids are bonafide city kids. They have never lived in a city of less than 100,000 people and when we went to Mexico while we were in Big Bend over Christmas break we had to explain to them that a burro was a donkey, not a jeep. They know nothing about farming and the one time they visited my aunt and uncle’s farm in Kansas they had no clue what to do with the whole concept of “harvest.”

But our city kids are being raised by city parents who want them to love and appreciate the outdoors. We don’t want to live away from the convenient comforts of city life, but we’ve also come to value getting away from the city to a place where we can breathe freely, explore without the fear of getting hit by a car, and look up and see starry skies. And because we value all of those things, we do what we can to spend sufficient time outside during the course of the year.

Here are the top three ways we’ve made the outdoors a family priority:

  1. We made sure we had an outdoor friendly backyard. Yes, our subdivision has a playground, but we’ve always appreciated having our own playset in the backyard. When we moved from Fort Wayne to Houston, one of our first priorities when we moved into our new house was finding a new playset and clubhouse for our children. With kids who were already four and six, we also had to find one that we could get into to ensure that they would be able to use it once they were over four feet tall. There are options everywhere, but we’ve appreciated the two sets we purchased from Sam’s Club. After our patio was resurfaced, we moved our basketball hoop to the backyard so that we no longer have to fight the cars in the driveway. We also have a pool, which was a must for my husband when we moved from the midwest to southeast Texas. When our kids were still learning to swim it made me nervous, but now I’m glad that I can tell them to get off of the devices and jump into the pool for 30 minutes during the hot summer months.
  2. We visit our local parks. When the kids were little, it offered us outdoor variety to get out of our backyard and try some new play equipment. Lately we’ve discovered that we were missing a whole world of Houston parks when we decided to start making family bike rides a regular thing. There are options all over the place and in doing so our kids have been able to practice shifting gears, braking on hills, and playing attention to their surroundings without the concern of other cars on the road. It has helped us teach them how to follow the rules of the road so that they will be better prepared when we take them back out on the actual roads.
  3. We make visiting our national parks and local state parks a vacation priority. Our last several vacations have centered around visiting the national parks, taking our kids to see the natural beauty that our country offers and forcing us to be physically active in the outdoors. For weekend getaways or occasional day trips we try to get out to a state park. In Houston we are less than two hours away from several. During these shorter trips our kid have hiked, biked, learned how to fish, and adventured into the hidden areas behind our campsites. And most of these parks have activities for nearly every age and physical fitness level.

A regular scroll through my Facebook or Instagram accounts makes it seem like this is easy for us, but detaching from electronics and work and the outside world and forcing our kids (and us) into nature takes real effort. There are some weekends when I just want to hunker down inside and knock things off of my work and home to-do lists. There are days when I argue that it is too hot or too cold or too wet for us to face the elements. But then we do it and despite the occasional complaints, the exhaustion, or the seemingly unavoidable spills and falls, we come home better off than when we left. When we come back from family bike rides, our daughter usually jumps back onto her unloaded bicycle for at least one more lap around our neighborhood. Or both kids go out to shoot a couple baskets, occasionally leading to games with one or both parents. And while both of our kid are clamoring for another Disney vacation, they count their times camping their way through nineteen states as some of the best times of their childhoods.

I refuse to believe that our children have to grow up in the countryside to appreciate the world around them. We just have to make sure they are given the opportunities to see past the concrete.

Thoughtful and nuanced responses welcome!

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