August 06 2017
City Living with Kids/Happiness/Health & Wellbeing/Living in Brooklyn

City Kids Need You to Help them Love the Outdoors

I did not grow up in an outdoorsy family.  My parents moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island, following a mass migration by my dad’s family from the Lower East Side.  To them, the suburban streets of Staten Island were the height of rusticity.

Their idea of getting outdoors was setting up their folding chairs on the driveway, drinking coffee, reading the paper, and listening to the ball game on the radio.  The men hosed tiny lawns, the women talked about what to cook for dinner.  The adults passed most summer days and nights this way, with kids running from backyard to backyard, tiny pool to tiny pool.

It’s hard to describe quite how I loved, and still love, everything about the scene I just described.

We didn’t have money and no one ever took me hiking, camping or skiing, but I had enough of the other intangible treasures that make life beautiful.

staten island in the 80's
My grandmother (right) and my aunt, doing their thing in 1980’s Staten Island…

With grandparents downstairs, cousins next door and family around every corner, my childhood did not lack for magic. I’m overcome with emotion to think of my grandmother sitting outside on her little folding chair.

And yet… it would’ve been nice to have had more exposure to nature as a child.  Especially considering, while parts of Staten Island are a disastrous combination of the worst elements of both urban and suburban living… literally a grand expression of wasted opportunity… other parts of New York’s forgotten borough are teeming nature and beauty to explore.

I only now appreciate how regrettable it is that my family did not take advantage.

But, what can I say… my parents were from Brooklyn and Manhattan, the grandchildren of poor immigrants. As far as they were concerned, nothing could ever surpass the joy of having their own driveway.  They really didn’t feel like they even needed to try.

So I passed my childhood in the outdoors, though not the “great outdoors,” and my early adulthood in Manhattan, which I chose for college after developing a successful relationship with the borough’s delightful nightlife. I’ve lived yardless in Manhattan and Brooklyn ever since.

Before having our boys, my husband and I traveled mostly to cities we loved, few of which were chosen with the outdoors in mind.  With the exception of skiing, I really missed out on the joys of nature until pretty late in life — basically not until after I had kids (when everyone’s travel and leisure pursuits have no choice but to evolve).

I don’t want my kids to miss out on these experiences, or to spend their prime traveling years only exploring cities, as I did.

Especially since they’re growing up in an urban environment. I want to foster in them a love for the outdoors.  It may sound odd, but this actually requires intention and effort.  Because for apartment dwellers, simply being outdoors requires effort.  It’s not like just running into a yard.  I’ve watched my children run around my in-laws’ yard with abandon, into the night.  I can’t get them in the house.  But back in Brooklyn, when I say “who wants to go to the park?” I tend to get a somewhat vacant look, or a “can’t we just play out on the stoop?

It would be so easy to always just do that. After all, that is one thing about my childhood that I’m able to share.  We’re not surrounded by family, but we are surrounded by neighbors, some of whom are like family, and friends.  My kids run up and down the block with other kids, like I did. I love it.

Cobble Hill, Lake Placid
Spotting a melodious junco, on Cobble Hill in Lake Placid
But I have to push them to do other things that carry greater effort, and greater reward.

When we do go to Brooklyn Bridge Park, or on a nature walk in Staten Island’s Greenbelt, or bird-watching in Prospect Park, everyone has fun.  The burden is on me to fight against my kids’ inherent laziness to get us to that point.  This is exhausting, and all parents deserve a break sometimes, and should let kids be lazy sometimes.  But just sometimes.  Other times, city families need to make the outdoors a priority.

Try everything to find the activities that kindle a spark.

This year we’ve gone bird-watching, swam in bays and lakes, kayaked, skied, gone on a “Falcon Adventure,” visited an amazing park that was once a landfill and taken countless trips to our local parks.  We also took the kids on their first real hikes.  Some things have gone over well, others less so.  Some were expensive (like my Falcon Adventure birthday gift), others, free.  The point is to figure out what your kids love most, and use that to plant seeds.  The possibilities within New York City alone are endless. Not to mention the wonders that await within a 90 minute radius.

Don’t overdo it… get them hooked with fun, not challenges.

I know how long my kids can pay attention to something, how long they can walk, how much heat or cold they can stand.  There are some activities that kids need to pursue, even when they’re tired or bored, because it builds character or fosters some necessary growth or development.  But if the goal is to help them fall in love with something, you need to leave them wanting more.  I’ve pushed my kids to go farther than I should a few times and I have seen how counter-productive that is.

A great example, for me, was nixing ski school when my kids were very young.  For some pre-school age children (mine) ski school is not fun. And I didn’t want them to associate skiing with an unpleasant memory.  At its best, skiing is a schlep for kids and requires years of work before it’s truly enjoyable for the whole family.  A half day of ski school at age 3 was expensive and pointless, since none of the early instruction really carried over from year to year. And it did not translate into a passion for skiing.  Some kids are born to ski, or their families ski much more frequently ours, which are different scenarios that could result in ski school making sense for a 3 year old.  But not for us. We held off putting my younger son on skis until he was a little older.

Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive CenterCity kids are made for hiking – they just don’t know it yet.

Skiing is great, but hiking is free.  And it has none of the learning curve or discomforts that can cause complications with kids.  This is the first year we really hiked with our kids, 5 year old included, and I learned a lot.  City kids are already accustomed to serious amounts of walking, so hiking is a perfect way to get them out into nature and comfortable in it.  We’ve logged many miles in our park, so I had a good sense of how much they could handle. We went on three really fun hikes as a family while in Lake Placid this summer, and a whole new world has opened up.

I discovered how much I love hiking last year, and how restorative it is for the soul to walk in the woods. Being able to share this activity with my children is joy on a silver platter.

Stay tuned for more on beginner family hiking and some great Adirondack trail picks, as well as other ways we are finding to help our pale and pasty city kids develop a love for the outdoors.

 

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  • My summers were spent cycling to a local lake, sitting on it’s banks with a picnic and pleading for ice cream. Growing up in a rural setting, you really don’t appreciate how lucky you are. The downside is I find it difficult to enjoy the hecticness of cities. Whilst we often do city breaks, I can’t recall a single one where I didn’t hunt out a garden or park to shelter in! Even so, the world has changed since I was a child, and kids even in rural areas need tempting off their tablets more often than not!

    • I have lived in the city a long time and I still don’t enjoy the hecticness! And I am constantly searching for a park or garden to shelter in too – lol! And getting kids off tablets – I think that is the same everywhere! -Linda

  • I relate so much to that childhood magic you mention, growing up with so much family close by. My grandparents lived downstairs as well, and having had 11 kids, there was always an endless stream of uncles, aunts and cousins visiting. We also had very limited resources, but that experience was more valuable than anything money could buy. This past week, my brother and his family were together with us back home (near Ottawa, ON), and we were outdoors with our kids in the same neighbourhood and parks that we grew up in. We do this almost every year, but it never gets old. (Well, it doesn’t get old for my brother and I haha). Not everyone seems to have the same appreciation listening to the constant nostalgia trip, I can’t imagine why.
    Anyways, I agree with you about knowing when and when not to push your kids too far into something. Our kids absolutely love being in the water. But they never enjoyed taking swimming lessons over the years. We forced them to get through a few levels, but it was always a “have to”. This was frustrating as it was very important to us that they were comfortable around water, for their own safety as well as the enjoyment of it.
    A few years ago, we changed our approach. Rather than lessons, we bought a family pool pass. This unlimited access got them in the water a lot more often, and on their terms. Naturally, they became very strong swimmers. Now our youngest is wanting to go back and finish her lessons and even join a swim team. So, our goal was accomplished by creating the opportunity, and then allowing the kids to seize it on their own. For the record, I think they were in the water at least 12 times on our vacation. : )

    • Yes – this is exactly what I’m talking about! We too have wasted money on unpleasant swim lessons, only to have my older son never really learn anything from them. Swimming is a tough one because you want your kids to love the water, but it is also a necessary skill – it is not an option not to learn. It’s even harder when you don’t have a lot of access to pools, like us. All of the pools here are expensive and mobbed to the point of misery. I had a little pool growing up and it did the trick. My kids are not nearly as comfortable in the water as they should be. We are always very serious about taking advantage of every chance we get to have them in a pool (or bay or lake).

  • Sounds like your kids are having a great time – I agree, the outdoors is something so special, it’s such a shame not to bring it in to their lives more.

  • It’s so important that your kid be ready for the experience. We still do short hikes of a mile or less, because that’s about all my daughter cares to do. And I really wanted her to try kayaking this summer, but it wasn’t fun for her yet, even at 10 minutes at a time. (She did have fun hanging on behind the boat in an inner tube while I paddled. )

    But I’m glad that your kids are having good experience, Linda, and you’re inspiring me. If you can get your kids outdoors in NYC, I should be able to get mine out in woodsy NC.

    • My kids love kayaking but, of course, they do none of the work! Really laziness is the running theme of their lives. I’m glad to inspire you, but the fact is, living in a woodsy place, you are already ahead of the game. We get outdoors like our life depends on it because it does. I could never raise kids in a tiny city apartment otherwise. Plus I have boys – that energy has got to come out. They will wreck my furniture if I can’t ensure there are some breaks from them jumping from chair to couch!

  • We’ve seen this firsthand with our transition from a single family house to an upper unit in a quadplex. We used to just open the screen door and watch them run around the backyard. Now it takes effort and scheduling and proofing and bribery but it’s worth it.

    We take the kids out hiking about once every two weeks. It’s one of my favorite things in the world – I find it peaceful and restorative. The kids have mixed opinions, but they tolerate it, which I hope will eventually turn to more positive feelings 🙂

    We got to visit Central Park yesterday on our road trip – spent about five hours there – mostly walking and exploring. It’s amazing the contrast of the Manhattan streets with the winding paths if The Ramble. The kids were troopers too. Just a few tantrums and skinned knees.

    We took a bit of a detour to drive into Brooklyn just to see. My wife has extended family there but we weren’t able to visit – just a quick driving tour. We loved seeing the diversity – we got to see an area with Chinese signage and another with Hebrew. It was so cool to see a bit more of the big city beyond the tourist parts 🙂

    • It is so nice to think of your family in my neck of the woods! My kids mostly tolerate the hiking as well, they definitely don’t feel about it the way I feel about it. but I think that as adults, we simply need that release so much more than kids. Everything they do is fun and awesome, so getting into the woods is not as huge an emotional boost for them as it is for us. I do think the point is to plant those seeds though. The memories of things you do as a kid stay with you forever and when you repeat those activities as an adult, the childhood recall makes them even more magical.

  • LOL! You described my family life to a tee. My dad and uncles would be playing pinochle, grandpa would be studying the racing form, the women would be preparing food and gossiping, and us kids would be running around in the backyard like maniacs. And we all got along and everyone was happy. I miss those days. Thanks for a wonderful post, Linda. You are so right. A good life can be transformed into a great life with just a little sprinkling of nature. Hey, have you ever ventured up to the Hyde Park area of the Hudson River? It’s unbelievably beautiful and you can visit FDR’s home.

    • Pinochle and racing forms were not in short supply at my house! Really, all kinds of gambling. Even the old ladies refused to play cards unless there was money on the table. lol. I’ve been to the Vanderbilt Mansion which is there I think? So beautiful. I am really interested in getting to Bear Mountain, which is so close by and which I have, amazingly, never been to.

    1. Mr. Groovy 09:26am 14 August - 2017 - Reply

      LOL! You described my family life to a tee. My dad and uncles would be playing pinochle, grandpa would be studying the racing form, the women would be preparing food and gossiping, and us kids would be running around in the backyard like maniacs. And we all got along and everyone was happy. I miss those days. Thanks for a wonderful post, Linda. You are so right. A good life can be transformed into a great life with just a little sprinkling of nature. Hey, have you ever ventured up to the Hyde Park area of the Hudson River? It’s unbelievably beautiful and you can visit FDR’s home.

      • Brooklyn Bread 12:04pm 14 August - 2017 - Reply

        Pinochle and racing forms were not in short supply at my house! Really, all kinds of gambling. Even the old ladies refused to play cards unless there was money on the table. lol. I’ve been to the Vanderbilt Mansion which is there I think? So beautiful. I am really interested in getting to Bear Mountain, which is so close by and which I have, amazingly, never been to.

    2. Chris @ Keep Thrifty 07:05pm 09 August - 2017 - Reply

      We’ve seen this firsthand with our transition from a single family house to an upper unit in a quadplex. We used to just open the screen door and watch them run around the backyard. Now it takes effort and scheduling and proofing and bribery but it’s worth it.

      We take the kids out hiking about once every two weeks. It’s one of my favorite things in the world – I find it peaceful and restorative. The kids have mixed opinions, but they tolerate it, which I hope will eventually turn to more positive feelings 🙂

      We got to visit Central Park yesterday on our road trip – spent about five hours there – mostly walking and exploring. It’s amazing the contrast of the Manhattan streets with the winding paths if The Ramble. The kids were troopers too. Just a few tantrums and skinned knees.

      We took a bit of a detour to drive into Brooklyn just to see. My wife has extended family there but we weren’t able to visit – just a quick driving tour. We loved seeing the diversity – we got to see an area with Chinese signage and another with Hebrew. It was so cool to see a bit more of the big city beyond the tourist parts 🙂

      • Brooklyn Bread 11:08am 10 August - 2017 - Reply

        It is so nice to think of your family in my neck of the woods! My kids mostly tolerate the hiking as well, they definitely don’t feel about it the way I feel about it. but I think that as adults, we simply need that release so much more than kids. Everything they do is fun and awesome, so getting into the woods is not as huge an emotional boost for them as it is for us. I do think the point is to plant those seeds though. The memories of things you do as a kid stay with you forever and when you repeat those activities as an adult, the childhood recall makes them even more magical.

    3. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe 09:40am 09 August - 2017 - Reply

      It’s so important that your kid be ready for the experience. We still do short hikes of a mile or less, because that’s about all my daughter cares to do. And I really wanted her to try kayaking this summer, but it wasn’t fun for her yet, even at 10 minutes at a time. (She did have fun hanging on behind the boat in an inner tube while I paddled. )

      But I’m glad that your kids are having good experience, Linda, and you’re inspiring me. If you can get your kids outdoors in NYC, I should be able to get mine out in woodsy NC.

      • Brooklyn Bread 11:11am 10 August - 2017 - Reply

        My kids love kayaking but, of course, they do none of the work! Really laziness is the running theme of their lives. I’m glad to inspire you, but the fact is, living in a woodsy place, you are already ahead of the game. We get outdoors like our life depends on it because it does. I could never raise kids in a tiny city apartment otherwise. Plus I have boys – that energy has got to come out. They will wreck my furniture if I can’t ensure there are some breaks from them jumping from chair to couch!

    4. Kirsty 03:14am 08 August - 2017 - Reply

      Sounds like your kids are having a great time – I agree, the outdoors is something so special, it’s such a shame not to bring it in to their lives more.

    5. Mystery Money Man 02:22am 07 August - 2017 - Reply

      I relate so much to that childhood magic you mention, growing up with so much family close by. My grandparents lived downstairs as well, and having had 11 kids, there was always an endless stream of uncles, aunts and cousins visiting. We also had very limited resources, but that experience was more valuable than anything money could buy. This past week, my brother and his family were together with us back home (near Ottawa, ON), and we were outdoors with our kids in the same neighbourhood and parks that we grew up in. We do this almost every year, but it never gets old. (Well, it doesn’t get old for my brother and I haha). Not everyone seems to have the same appreciation listening to the constant nostalgia trip, I can’t imagine why.
      Anyways, I agree with you about knowing when and when not to push your kids too far into something. Our kids absolutely love being in the water. But they never enjoyed taking swimming lessons over the years. We forced them to get through a few levels, but it was always a “have to”. This was frustrating as it was very important to us that they were comfortable around water, for their own safety as well as the enjoyment of it.
      A few years ago, we changed our approach. Rather than lessons, we bought a family pool pass. This unlimited access got them in the water a lot more often, and on their terms. Naturally, they became very strong swimmers. Now our youngest is wanting to go back and finish her lessons and even join a swim team. So, our goal was accomplished by creating the opportunity, and then allowing the kids to seize it on their own. For the record, I think they were in the water at least 12 times on our vacation. : )

      • Brooklyn Bread 10:31am 07 August - 2017 - Reply

        Yes – this is exactly what I’m talking about! We too have wasted money on unpleasant swim lessons, only to have my older son never really learn anything from them. Swimming is a tough one because you want your kids to love the water, but it is also a necessary skill – it is not an option not to learn. It’s even harder when you don’t have a lot of access to pools, like us. All of the pools here are expensive and mobbed to the point of misery. I had a little pool growing up and it did the trick. My kids are not nearly as comfortable in the water as they should be. We are always very serious about taking advantage of every chance we get to have them in a pool (or bay or lake).

    6. Sarah 01:29pm 06 August - 2017 - Reply

      My summers were spent cycling to a local lake, sitting on it’s banks with a picnic and pleading for ice cream. Growing up in a rural setting, you really don’t appreciate how lucky you are. The downside is I find it difficult to enjoy the hecticness of cities. Whilst we often do city breaks, I can’t recall a single one where I didn’t hunt out a garden or park to shelter in! Even so, the world has changed since I was a child, and kids even in rural areas need tempting off their tablets more often than not!

      • Brooklyn Bread 02:19pm 06 August - 2017 - Reply

        I have lived in the city a long time and I still don’t enjoy the hecticness! And I am constantly searching for a park or garden to shelter in too – lol! And getting kids off tablets – I think that is the same everywhere! -Linda

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