Recently, a mother of two boys asked me “I know it’s important that my kids get outdoors but I can’t find a way to motivate them… What can I do?”
It turns out she had recently read my article about Vitamin N (if you haven’t checked it out, it’s probably a good idea to give it a read first…) and she was really concerned about her 11 and 13-year-old sons, who typically preferred to stay indoors playing more sedentary games and usually put up a fight when presented with outdoor options… Especially in the heat of the summer.
If you’re a parent of ‘tweens (that’s 8-12) maybe you can relate too. This seems to be a fairly common concern when their interest in nature and the outside world gets replaced with iPhone’s and Xbox’s.
Incidentally, did you know that research demonstrates the majority of a child’s lifelong health habits are formed by the age of 12?
Needless to say, she was a bit confused when my first question was “How often do YOU get outside and play?”
I wasn’t purposefully trying to make her feel uncomfortable… But I did want to highlight the challenge that I think a lot of parents face: The “Do As I Say, Not As I Do Principle.”
Now I don’t mean to get preachy – I totally get it, life is pretty darn busy and who has time to get outside and play these days?
However, the problem is that while the requirement for Vitamin N is hard-wired in our genetics, the behaviors necessary to fulfill it don’t happen by default.
These healthy behaviors need to be learned and the most successful way of imprinting this on your children is for you, your spouse and other influential adults to act it out, repeatedly. After all, a child’s only means of learning is by observation. The more a behaviour is observed, the more strongly the behavior is imprinted or learned.
I know this is not news to you. I mean we accept this as true for simpler learned behavior like holding a fork, giving a high five, and even with more complex behaviors like not interrupting and waiting their turn to speak.
In fact, I think most parents would agree that if you want your kid to act a certain way, you need to act that way yourself.
But when it comes to health habits – particularly surrounding exercise and getting outdoors – this rule often gets a pass…
Most parents would say they want their kids to grow up with good health habits, yet they fail to consistently demonstrate those behaviors themselves (like prioritizing exercise, good quality food, going to bed early and consistently getting outdoors.)
To bring it back to the earlier conversation, is it fair for this mom to expect her sons to value playing outside and getting into nature if she and her husband don’t?
I can only speak from my own experience… I know my passion for the great outdoors and my positive attachment to exercise is firmly rooted in my parents and the choices they made when my sister and I were young.
When it came to getting out into nature, it was often simple things like making time for a walk through the forest or along the beach (I grew up on an island after all…) and we often did Sunday morning bike rides, went sailing or in the winter – cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
In fact, my parents consistently acted out a whole range of healthy behaviors that got imprinted on me and conditioned me to maintain those habits into adulthood. And… my life is immeasurably better because they did!
Looking for some simple trails to take your kids to? Check out this blog post for a review of 6 trails within 10 minutes of Kanata!