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Tips on Going Outside with Little Kids
We turn to a father-of-four (including triplets!) for advice
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If you ever want to feel like a hero, have we got a tip for you! Go backpacking with a toddler. I (Annalise) had multiple strangers call me an ‘inspiration’ (YES. IT HAPENED MORE THAN ONCE!) while backpacking with my 20-month-old son and husband this summer.
The truth is, I love being outside, my husband loves being outside, and my toddler seems to as well, so introducing him to the activities we did for years before he came along is a win-win for our family.
The thing about today’s day and age — and social media — is scrolling can make your little accomplishments (say 5-kilometres and 500-metres elevation gain with overnight packs and a toddler) feel insignificant compared to what others are doing.
Enter Tyler Dixon, a Calgary teacher, who sits on the Executive of the Global, Environmental & Outdoor Education Council (GEOEC), and has four kids — a 6-year-old and triplet 4-year-olds.
Now that I have a child of my own, I find it even more impressive, just knowing how much effort can go into packing for a night in a tent or a bike ride with one kid, let alone four — three of whom are the exact same age.
I asked Tyler if he would answer some questions about going outside with his family, and he agreed. His answers are full of helpful tips for anyone going outside with kids, and even those without. (Start small! Pack snacks! Be prepared!)
All photos courtesy of Tyler Dixon
Q: Whom do you go outside with? (What ages?) And where do you like to go? What activities do you like to do together?
A: The mountains are my happy place and I like to get there as often as possible. We camp as a family throughout the summer and my wife and I enjoy hiking, SUPing (stand-up paddleboarding), and cross-country skiing together. I have a great group of friends who I mountain bike and snowboard with regularly. I am slowly introducing my boys to all of the aforementioned activities and they are more than excited to do any of them! As a teacher, I am also taking Jr. High students on a variety of Outdoor Education trips throughout the school year.
Q: What do you find most challenging about going outside with little kids?
A: Packing all the snacks! In all honesty, it takes zero convincing to get my kids to go outside. I just have to whisper the words ‘bike ride’ and I have four of them stampeding to the door to see who can get their helmet on first. They aren’t carrying their own backpacks (yet) so it’s up to me to carry extra layers, snacks on snacks on snacks, enough water for all of us, plus the extra items in case of accidents or emergencies. Once we’re out on the trail things tend to run pretty smoothly…or at least they have so far!
Q: What is your advice for people who are intimidated by heading outside with kids?
A: Start small, don’t overestimate your child’s capabilities, be okay with adventuring at a slower pace than you might be used to, and embrace the wonder of seeing familiar places through their eyes for the first time. Like the rest of parenting, flexibility is key!
Q: How did you start going outside with kids? (Did you ease into it? Did you just jump in with both feet?) What were your first trips like?
We definitely started small with neighbourhood walks and bike rides to build skills, stamina, and comfort. That being said, my oldest first went camping when he was 3-months-old and the triplets had just turned 2 on their first trip. Our first time x-country skiing was last winter and it was very busy. Bathroom breaks are so much more complicated in winter than in the summer and skiing is trickier than simply walking. They did better than we thought they would but we were both pretty tired at the end and we only skied for about an hour!
Q: It's a lot of work to go outside with kids. I can't imagine doing it with 4! Why is it something that you do?
A: I want to be outside. Having kids definitely impacted the frequency I was able to escape to the mountains, so teaching them and bringing them along allows me to get out there more often. I also believe that kids (people of all ages really) should nurture a connection to the natural world. The health benefits of being active and spending time outdoors are well researched and I want to provide my boys with a solid foundation to build upon.
Q: Are there particular challenges because there are three same-aged kids? (Is it hard when they outnumber the parents?)
My wife isn’t a teacher so when I take the boys out during the summer I am usually solo parenting. This past summer was the first time I felt really comfortable taking the four of them to the mountains by myself. I truly find that they listen better when we’re out on the trail than when we’re at home…I think their senses are on overdrive the whole time. My oldest is mature beyond his years and is a wonderful big brother. He is keen to help out wherever he can and I appreciate his willingness and capability during those times when I really need an extra hand. We do get lots of funny looks and comments as I bring my circus up the trail though!
Q: As a teacher, you also go outside with older kids. How is it similar and different than going outside with four little kids?
A: I’ve been teaching Outdoor Education for several years now and it’s one of my favourite subjects to teach. You get to see your students in a completely different light than at school or in a classroom. I believe that the prep work and my comfort level with taking 30 students outside definitely translates to when I’m out there with my own kiddos. My students are obviously bigger, faster, and relatively more mature than my own, so things like risk assessment become really important. My students enter Outdoor Ed with varying degrees of past experiences. In that way, many are approaching outdoor activities with little to no prior exposure, so navigating their apprehensiveness is key, just like my own kids who are experiencing something for the first time.
Q: Do you have a favourite trip or experience going outside with your own kids?
A: This is not an easy question as so many experiences come to mind. The first time watching my oldest ride singletrack was pretty special. The previously mentioned cross-country ski trip is definitely memorable for us. I’m also really proud at how strong they are at hiking already. I’m also continually astonished how entertaining a rock-filled beach and a body of water can be!
Q: Do you have any trips that did not go according to plan (but were ultimately good learning experiences?)
A: On a recent Outdoor Ed trip we were hit with a particularly nasty thunderstorm. The storm settled right above us with deafening thunder, lightning, heavy rain, and hail. As the teacher in charge, my brain started running through possible scenarios to ultimately make the best decision possible. Eventually, the storm passed and after much consultation we decided to proceed. Many students were soaking wet, and some were cold, but the day unfolded beautifully and I know that many preparedness lessons were learned. I can say it 100 times in class, I can put it in a slideshow, I can send it home in an email, but nothing solidifies a concept (i.e. not having rain gear) like experiential learning.
Q: If you could only give one piece of advice to parents-to-be or parents-of-babies about going outside with their families, what would it be?
A: Just do it! I know it sounds cliche but it really is worth it. Kids can be surprisingly resilient and placing them in uncomfortable situations in developmentally appropriate ways builds resilience, and leadership, and promotes social-emotional growth. The promise of ice cream at the end also goes a long, long way!!