How to Get Your “Indoor Kid” Outside

I didn’t know kids could tend towards being “indoor kids” until I met my son. So much of the narrative around children and nature is that the connection between kids and the natural world is innate, programmed into our DNA.

how to get an indoor kid outside

To hear my mom tell it, she could hardly get me and my brother inside to take care of such banalities as eating, bathing, and sleepingAnd yet, as my son got to be two and three years old and capable of physically resisting things he found displeasurable, it became abundantly clear that getting outside was going to be much more of a struggle than I had anticipated.

He would kick and scream at the idea of wearing pants or shoes, he would flat-out refuse to come out to play, or we’d get outside for a few minutes only to be brought back in by a meltdown or a potty accident or some other minor distraction that reset the whole process and often kept us inside.

Every day, we’d try to get outside, and every day it was a battle. Some days he’d win, some days I would, but it was never the rosy picture of children who were raised with a priority for spending time outside racing out the door with the first light and staying out until the streetlights and the fireflies lit up. 

This was was not a parenting challenge I had expected or even heard about. And it was especially hard because I consider myself very outdoorsy, especially for a Chicagoan who lives neither by the mountains nor the ocean.

I would spend my days outside given the chance, and I have made it my life’s work to understand, conserve, and restore nature. So naturally I did everything by the book in raising my baby to love the outdoors.

We went to playgrounds and for walks. We had good gear and got out in all weather. We watched the trees and the squirrels and talked about them. We touched and smelled and heard and even tasted what the world has to offer.

Recognizing an Outdoors-Averse Child

As we embarked on the toddler years and he started actively resisting going outside to play, I felt a lot of different and hard feelings. I felt frustrated and cooped up in a little house with a rambunctious toddler. I felt worried about his health and his fitness and his love of the planet. And I admittedly felt a little bit guilty that I – a self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiast and a professional ecologist – wasn’t raising an outdoorsy enough kid. 

So I continued to push the issue the way I thought I should and we continued to argue about going outside. And I’d say I even went above and beyond in fighting the good fight for outside play. In the early months of 2021, we raced down the Eastern Seaboard from New York ahead of a massive winter storm to spend time in warmer climes on a four month RV trip where we could social distance and see the world.

And still, on the banks of the Mississippi Bayou, along the beaches of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, and tucked amidst the canyons and foothills of Texas, we continued to argue about playing outside.

Every single day, despite the weather or the environment, he professed his preference for playing inside the 24-foot RV instead of getting outside. And in these moments, I learned a lot about myself and about my son.

I wish someone had told me how absolutely exhausting and absolutely worth it it would be to prioritize getting outside. I wish someone had laid out some tips and tricks for working with kids who don’t want to go outside. And I wish someone had reminded me to lean into my strengths and recognize and celebrate my child’s strengths along the way. 

How to Get Your Indoor Kid Outside

My son is now 6 ½ years old, and we still argue about going outside many days, especially when it requires wearing long pants. Just this week, he loudly and expressively shared his frustration when I told him we’d have to bundle up by shouting “a jacket?! COME ON!” in his most dramatic voice.

Despite his hesitation to get outside, he loves nature, he started a Nature Savers club of friends who meet up at a local Forest Preserve every week to play in the woods and pretend they’re superheroes. Once we get outside, he’s curious to learn about different species and he can identify a fair number of native plants.

He knows almost everything there is to know about the ocean and spends time pouring over encyclopedias, studying ocean life and biodiversity. He gets on my case when I use something plastic, and is keenly and proactively aware of ways we can work to protect the planet. To say he is not connected with the Earth is patently false, even if, left to his druthers, he’d rather build Lego or do engineering projects or play the occasional video game. 

As for me, I’m no longer worried about his health or his fitness or his love of the planet or the outdoors just because his interests are different from mine. Through the years, we’ve figured out a few things that work well for us.

Knowing how alone I felt in this endeavor when he was a toddler, it’s time to share my tips with other outdoorsy parents whose kids just want to be inside in hopes that this helps other parents fighting the good fight for fresh air and outside time. These tips can also help prevent Nature Deficit Disorder.

Start Small and Keep Going

While many children, my younger self included, can easily spend hours outside most days with the right gear and the right activity, some children, like my son, need to start with shorter experiences. Even when getting ready to go takes longer than the adventure lasts, the investment and repetition of these small outings builds resilience for embarking on outside time.

Something as simple as going out to play on the front steps or taking a short walk to the neighbors house to check out the holiday decorations was sometimes all the capacity we had, but it was still better than nothing. It gave me a few minutes to take deep breaths of fresh air and 

Over time, lots of little outings helped us build capacity. My son learned that he was capable and comfortable enough to explore, which was especially empowering as he began to realize that the world is a big, interesting place!

There were days when our time outside was only a fraction of the time spent on the preparations and negotiations, but eventually, he extended his usual 12 minutes of interest outside to 18 minutes, and eventually he was up to 22 minutes!

By continuing to make the process of getting outside part of our routine, even if the actual being outside felt minimal, I invested in the long game. Over time he learned the expectations and rhythms and longer stretches of time became possible and enjoyable. Like anything, building positive associations with nature time and laying foundations for family priorities and activities that meet everyone’s needs will result in better long-term outcomes than pushing an agenda that makes children feel uncomfortable or threatened. And this is especially important when our intentions are good but our children’s feelings are different than our own!

Give the tender little seeds a chance to germinate and grow and listen when they tell you who they are, because not everyone blossoms like an annual flower when the sun hits just right. Some children build their love of nature more like oak trees, making incremental growth that is most impressive in retrospect.

Remove Barriers and Provide Structure

My son hates to wear long pants and socks and shoes. The fall seasons after he turned two and three, wearing pants again after a full summer of shorts was a challenge. He would scream and kick and otherwise fight when it came time to get dressed to go outside, regardless of the destination. Even things that had nothing to do with playing outside like going to the museum or to run errands prompted tremendous battles about getting dressed properly. 

It seemed to me like such a ridiculous thing to fight, certainly he would be cold and needed more protection from the chilly fall days and he could just listen to his mom. But as the battles kept preventing us from getting outside, I learned that there were many days when pants weren’t strictly necessary for him.

It was often easier and more effective to get outside for a short stretch of time with shorts and a sweatshirt than it was to try to persuade or coerce him into wearing pants.

He still exclusively wears shorts and tees indoors, even in the depths of winter, but giving up control of the pants battle and removing that particular barrier to getting outside when it was safe to do so helped us succeed in getting out for short jaunts. And once I recognized that keeping my child comfortable was not my primary goal as a parent, I was able to let go of the control I was trying and failing to hold onto. 

They tell you to pick your battles, but instead I think it’s better advice to clarify your priorities and act accordingly. For me, and I suspect for many others, my priorities in this scenario were safety, self-actualization, and outdoor exploration, in that order. Letting go of requiring pants when his safety wasn’t at stake allowed me to better meet his needs for self-actualization and prioritize my goals of exploring outside.

To this end, we talked about different needs for different weather. We would look at the forecast together ahead of time and discuss what temperatures are safe and unsafe to wear certain clothes. 

But this didn’t mean I always let him fail or freeze. When he made choices about his clothes for longer days out, on a hike or at a playground, I still packed a set of appropriate outerwear in case he got chilly. And honestly, we almost never used it, because he, even at three, he knew his body better than I did. He runs warm and plays hard, and there were certainly days where I would have been uncomfortable in shorts that did not faze him at all.

Even now, even as a 6 ½ year old, he has different comfort zones than I do. If it’s safe and he’s comfortable enough, I try my best to keep my clothing suggestions to myself. I do still bring a spare set of clothes and extra outerwear, including gloves and hats, when the weather indicates, and there are times when he does ask for them and eagerly puts them on. And, after years of discussions and learning from his natural consequences of getting cold, he does a better job now at self-selecting appropriate clothing for the current conditions.

Bring the Indoors OUT

Nothing invites my son into play like a big pile of building materials. He, like many other children, is a builder. He loves Lego, erector sets, Plus Plus blocks, magnetic tiles, and all manner of building things–he’s definitely a budding engineer.

And many of these “indoor toys” are only such because pieces are small or we’ve confined ourselves to think of them that way. Especially when he was younger, we would regularly bring these activities outside to play at a shady picnic table or on a mat on the grass. 

We had our share of lost pieces and challenges with wind blowing instructions. It’s certainly easier to play with some of these toys indoors. But we found that working on a large cafeteria tray helped us keep pieces together and limitations and suggestions of where these toys would be appropriate to play outdoors made a big difference.

Sitting on a mat or a blanket kept dropped pieces from ending up in the grass. Using rocks or other paperweights helped keep instruction books from blowing away. By setting him up somewhere to work on his projects outside, I was able to get my fresh air fix while he was able to play the way he wanted to. 

We also do our share of eating outside, which helps to bridge the divide. In the summer, we often serve dinner out on the deck or the patio, and drawing my Inside Kid back outside for a meal after our typical afternoon quiet time often results in another hour or more of playing in the yard. He doesn’t need to stay out from dawn until the fireflies come out, but we do often meet the fireflies as we enjoy a family evening in the yard after dinner. It’s an added bonus that we don’t have to sweep up the after dinner crumbs from the ground! 

Find a Consistent Favorite and Make it Social

The world is a big and interesting place, and I want to see as much of it as I can and meet as many interesting people as possible along the way. Playing in nature for many is a chance to see and to connect, and going to new places can mean experiencing new environments and meeting new friends.

But I suspect that many indoor kids, my son included, also tend to be shier and more introverted, making it difficult to join in on whatever play other kids are up to and to make new friends upon arrival.

The idea of new environments, new conditions, and new friends is often too much novelty all at once, and so I’ve started trying to build in some predictability in our routine and our company to offset the natural unpredictability of being outside. Part of the beauty and power of spending time outdoors is that something new is always going on. From the changing of the seasons to the different daily weather patterns to the failing of trees and the persistence of puddles or presence of animals, no two visits to outdoor spaces are the same.

Overall, this novelty is really important for children to learn about and love the Earth, but in combination with other unknowns, it can quickly become overwhelming, which kids often communicate through poor behavior or resistance to going back. 

To help build a routine of getting outside and reduce the compounding unknowns that stress my son out and cause him to put up barriers, we have started returning to the same place at the same time, with a standing invitation to a group of known friends.

It’s not a fancy thing; kids come as they’re able and everyone brings their own snacks, but it has given us all an outdoor adventure to look forward to. Some weeks, the kids want to play hide and seek, other weeks, they want to chase pretend giant beavers, and other times they want to climb the downed logs and jump off into the mud.

Different friends flow through, but there’s almost always someone who my son knows, which helps him establish play more easily than if he were meeting new friends for the first time. The other kids know him from school and have a sense of how to play with him, which allows them to continue their established games and build on their established social relationships. They leave tired and happy, and always sleep well that night.

And in the process, we’re all building a deep connection with a particular place. The children notice differences and experience the seasons and the daily changes. In a time when deep connection to natural places is in danger of extinction, there is power in putting down roots and building memories in one place.

I try not to project onto my children what their future might look like, but I do sincerely hope that they look back and say that their time in our particular patch of woods was memorable and formative in their learning to be citizens of planet Earth.

Lean In

I’m not alone in being a type-A, high-achieving mom. I have a PhD, I work in a high-profile professional setting, and I am ambitious and meticulous in my personal goals. One of the most challenging and most empowering things I have done in my parenting journey is working to shed the control and lean into the ebbs and flows of my children’s needs and interests.

As well as I know them and as pure as my intentions are, I don’t live in their brains and bodies. I can’t experience the world the same way they do, and the goal of living vicariously through the lives of my children doesn’t fill my own cup. 

What does fill my cup and also honors their unique lives and interests is focusing on being present in the moment. Some moments are hard, some moments are easy. Some moments we’re well aligned, and some moments their needs and interests are divergent.

By putting myself in the present and honoring that time and experience, all of our connections are better. And with an Inside Kid, sometimes this means playing Lego for an hour at the kitchen table on a beautiful day, and that’s okay.

We get outside eventually, and while it’s never as much as I would like it to be, my son isn’t a miniature version of me. And so we make compromises, ebbing and flowing to meet everyone’s needs and honor who we all are as individuals.

I wouldn’t say I do this perfectly. I tend to throw some shade that will probably come up in therapy in a decade or two. But I do my best. I push gently, encouraging him to broaden his horizons, and many times, I make the choice to join him in his chosen activity.

The connection matters, and finding a way to forge and kindle that even when we have different interests is a foundation that will serve us far more into the future than extra time fought about getting outside. We can’t change who our children are. Instead, we love them because of who they are, and we build experiences and capacity and grow forward, together. 

More Ways to Get Kids Outside

Here are more ways to help your indoor kid feel at home in the great outdoors:

Nature Scavenger Hunt

DIY Organic Bird Feeder

Playing in the Rain

Backyard Bug Count Activity

Fairy Garden Ideas for a Magical Backyard

Stargazing with Kids

5 Easy Vegetables to Grow with Kids

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *