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.
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.
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.
City 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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