On a long gravel beach, some 40 miles from the nearest stop sign, I awoke in my tent to the gentle sound of waves breaking and gulls passing by. My boys lay sound asleep as I crawled out of my sleeping bag and slipped out the door. The morning sun was brilliant and warm, though the snow had only been gone some number of weeks. Over my shoulder lay a field of new fiddlehead ferns, and in the bay out front the same playful sea otters from the evening before. As I sat there in my raggedy old camp chair, hot cup of instant coffee in hand, I reveled in my wealth of opportunity as an Alaskan.
Fortunately for me, this is my life. No I don’t live on that beach, and I may never camp there again. Next time it’ll be another beach, or maybe a sandbar along a river somewhere. There’s one constant though, I will be there with my husband and my son and if we’re lucky my parents or in-laws will be with us too. Our family loves the outdoors. This is who we are.
Any given day, you’ll find several sets of waders, raingear, extra boots and dry bags airing out under our covered porch. (Yup, all things we carry in our store!) The cook kit gets cleaned up, the sleeping bags and tent re-stuffed. Extra kid along for the weekend? No problem, we have 3 sets of everything. That’s just how we roll. It’s just a fact of life as an outdoor parent, you have back-ups for your back-ups if you want dry happy kids.
I can’t lie, we were desperate for a “How to raise a child” manual when we brought our sweet baby boy home from the hospital some years ago. There’s been a whole lot of learning by trial and err, followed up by a few key “I told you so’s” and the occasional realization that you just didn’t think that one through. But somehow, we manage. Our kids survive, a lot like we did as kids when our parents were trying to figure it all out. So the cycle repeats itself.
Unfortunately, the newest generation of outdoor parents has one monumental three-headed monster of a hurdle to deal with… technology and the death grip it has on our kids in the form of social media, constant connection, and instant gratification. Our youngest generation can Google any topic or pull up stunning imagery of nearly any place in the world by scrolling through Instagram in mere seconds. If you’re not careful, this will be how your kids learn about snails and crabs, salmon, mushrooms and even ferns. What would your world be like if you had never ventured off the trail, slept in a tent during a rain storm, or felt the tug of a fish on the end of your pole?
Parents, it’s time to roll! I guarantee there is no better time than now to get your kids outdoors. Time goes by so fast and kids seem to grow up overnight. I have seen far too many outdoor families miss the golden window of opportunity with kids. I hear it all the time, “I’m not taking him yet because he’s still in diapers”, or “she’s not big enough yet”, or “he’s just not old enough”. Heard yourself say something like this? In most cases this child is more than ready. It’s the parent that’s unsure. Look at it this way, if you don’t take your kid, you’re both getting cheated out of an amazing bonding experience.
Being that the first few years of a child’s life are critical to development of fine motor skills, balance and body coordination, language and communication, consider the natural outdoor world the Waldorf pre-school we can all afford.
If at all possible, go camping as a family and go when your kids are really young. Our son was a December baby, so his first overnight camping adventure was a mid-June fishing trip. As you might expect, we had a wee bit of trouble that first night since the sun refused to go down at a decent hour. The next day he experienced his first tent nap, and then night number two went off without a hitch. I cannot say the same for the 5-year old in the tent next to us. Poor little thing had never been away from home overnight and the weekend was not going so well.
All in all, little kids just love the outdoors. The vast array of textures, sounds and freedom to roam is unparalleled. Now going No. 2 on the winter trapline at age 2 was another hurdle we had, but that’s for another story. Seriously though, the earlier you get your little ones comfortable with the outdoors the better.
We have certainly learned a few tricks along the way that might help new parents in their endeavors in this arena. At the beginning, play the weather. Get a couple fair weather trips in before you venture out in the rain with little ones. If you plan to do any hiking, boating or 4-wheeling, invest in a versatile good quality infant carrier. Consider a backpack style carrier with a kick stand so you can set the kid down if need be. If you find you need a short period of silence, maybe trying to stalk an animal on a hunt, little ones will behave amazingly for a well paced supply of wild blueberries. One of the more serious violations you want to avoid is waking a sleeping toddler. No matter how hot the bite is, if the toddler is peacefully napping, just chill out till he’s up. Trust us, just do it.
Fishing with your kids for the first time? Do your homework and make sure you go to a good fishing hole. Bring the right bait and make darn sure the kids catch fish. There’s no better way to get a kid hooked on fishing than quick action.
If you’re going to be around wet snow, mud or water, just recognize your kid will be in the middle of it. If they’re tough enough to run around in their skivvies and bare feet, or you have lots of extra clothes and boots along, then just let them play and don’t stress about it. Don’t change them until you absolutely have to. Camping should be fun and relaxing, no helicopter parenting, no nagging. It’s this freedom that helps kids develop a sense of self sufficiency and confidence, and helps you hit the reset button.
It took us a few years, but we eventually realized you just can’t bring enough extra clothes sometimes. It’s almost like your kid’s on a mission to get that last pair of dry socks on. Finally we came to the conclusion that shrunken versions of our own outerwear in the way of raingear and chest waders were the best fix for the ever-wet kid. Finding a good selection of this sort of gear proved more challenging than we had thought. Born out of frustration and a certain level of urgency, we jumped in the deep end and started our own kid’s outdoor gear store, Tuff Kids Outdoors. No longer do we fear the mid-day rain squall, the ocean spray over the side of the Lund, or the mud pond behind camp. Bring it on!
If the kid’s warm and dry, he’s happy. He can roam and play uninterrupted. Make sure you have a strategic set of toys along too. I don’t mean his favorite games, toys, boats or trucks. Leave those at home. Make available just a few kid-sized tools such as a rope and clips, maybe an anchor, sling-shot, shovel or bucket. The simpler the better. Too many choices and the child has trouble picking one. Toys too elaborate leave little to the imagination. Electronics other than a camera or a gps really have no place on a camping trip. Make a rule and stick to it. Kids love to be busy and useful, so give them little jobs. Collect kindling, build a fort, go on a treasure hunt for this or that.
There are so many lessons to be learned outdoors. It’s just a shame so many kids miss out on the chance to experience them. It’s not how much we can give our kids anymore, it’s what kind of opportunities we can offer them that really matters. Structure somehow falls by the wayside when outdoors, and amazingly it’s a good thing.
Step out of your comfort zone this summer. Take your little ones camping, and reap the rewards for years to come. Watch your children develop a sense of self, maturity, responsibility all on their own. Their creativity and ingenuity will astound, if given the chance.
-As published in Fish Alaska Magazine, July 2016, written by Becky Schwanke, Owner Tuff Kids Outdoors, Hunter and Outdoor Education Instructor, Former Wildlife Biologist with ADF&G