How To Build an Adventurer

| March 6, 2015
 
photo by Kyle Heeter
 

There’s no getting around it: Having kids will change you. Especially if you’re used to getting outside for long play days—climbing, biking, kayaking, whatever your method of choice for getting your fix—just about whenever you want.

Let’s say you are in your prime, logging two– and three–sport days—the kind of long, wonderful epic series of adventures when you only remember to eat long after dark. And then you become a parent and it hits you: these days are over. I mean, you can’t leave your baby tied to the truck with a bowl of water. Those kids need to be fed often and if they don’t, they explode into tantrums without warning. Do you give up? Trade in your lifestyle for parental stability? You could, I suppose. But that would be silly. You know how much better you feel when you get out. The same goes for your kids. It’s been proven that outdoor experiences make kids smarter, healthier, happier and better behaved. Believe it or not, your greatest adventures are just beginning.

I know from experience. My husband and I are paddlers, and in our twenties, it was a rare day that we were not on a river somewhere. We scouted creeks and traveled around the country making first descents.  We spent long days surfing the New River Dries. And then along came our children. We also climbed, swam, biked, skied and snowboarded, but we made our living for nearly a decade as professional kayakers, a sport that is admittedly one of the toughest to integrate very young children into. But we were not ready to pack it in, so we did what we could to stay competitive. We took turns with the baby while the other one paddled. Soon there were two babies, and we missed playing together.

Our next best option was to get the whole family out together. Twelve years later, our babies are packing their own gear in the morning and toasting the day around the dinner table in the evening. I wouldn’t say it has been easy, but the journey has been remarkably rewarding. We have a strong family bond and the kids are exceptional students. Best of all, they have developed a wonderful spirit for adventure. I’m not sure who’s learned more along the way, our kids or us parents, but here are some tips from our ongoing adventure:

Ages 0 to 2

1. Start early and start small.

At this age you are really training yourself to get used to all the stuff that comes with being a parent in an active family: diapers, extra clothes, sunscreen, bug spray and snacks.  An all-terrain double stroller saved my sanity in those early years.  Just getting into the woods or by the river was cathartic for all of us.  I’d take their favorite board books and blankets and let nature work its magic.

2. As soon as a child is born they learn from their experiences.

Sleep in a tent.  Put a lifejacket on them and take them for a paddle.  Pull them in a sled.  Tow them in a bike trailer.  There was a time when my babies would only nap when it was on a four-wheel-drive road or rough trail.  When they’re ready to start walking the outdoors isn’t foreign.  It’s their second home.

3. Think micro.

Once they’re ambulating, they are going to want to stop and examine every dewdrop and insect. Take a camera.  They’ll find things you would have missed.  When they’re tired, put them back in the stroller with a snack.  Now you can get in your cardio while they get in their nap.

4. Get in the water with them.

Hold them close. Feel them loosen their grip. They are weightless in the water.

5. Play in the sand.

Sit in the snow.  Sticks and rocks are great toys. Get dirty. You brought clean clothes for everyone.

Ages 2 to 5

In these years you can tick off some remarkable milestones.  Get them on bikes and skis, in harnesses and in their own boats.  Pack yourself plenty of patience and you’ll all be rewarded.

1. Every kid is different.

Watch them, learn from them.  They develop an enormous sense of independence by exploring on their own terms.  You are merrily their guide.

2. Good gear is essential.

From base layer to shells, put your kids in what you wear when you are out all day. You have a good sleeping bag and pad; so should they.  Teach them the comforts of warm dry clothing after a long day of playing hard.  Teach them about wools and wicking synthetics.  Soon they’ll know what to grab when they’re packing their own gear bag. (I promise, one day it will happen.)

3. Get in line for hand me downs.

From climbing shoes to snow suits, good gear is made to last and kids are made to grow.  We recently passed on a favorite snowsuit that had been through seven kids in twelve years.

4. Play in the rain.

Splash in puddles. Build a foam boat and follow it down the creek. Foam boating is a great lesson in physics and hydrology. The kids are learning to read water without even knowing it, plus it’s a blast. We invite friends and have races with one rule: you are only allowed to touch the boat with a stick. Getting up and down the creek hones your bushwhacking skills and no one in your family will ever say there’s nothing to do on a rainy day.

5. Teach them how to use the bathroom in the woods.

6. Let them get dirty.Let them get wet.

Save the nice clothes and fancy shoes for dinner.  If your toddler has a passion for fashion let her wear the princess accessories on the trail.  It took my daughter one bike trip to learn that those heels were really impractical.

7. Invite friends.

Play dates at the river or in the woods are priceless.  Find like-minded families to get out with.  Kids entertain, inspire and help each other while you get to share the trials and triumphs with your friends.  If everyone brings their strengths along, you can achieve so much more.

The climbers set the ropes, the bikers know the trails, the paddlers know the good water levels and set safety. Everyone brings snacks. Our kids have developed wonderful bonds with my friends. They say they have several “other mothers.”

8. Have low expectations.

Instead of thinking, “We’re going skiing,” think “We’re going to play in the snow.”  Instead of thinking, “We are going kayaking,” think, “We’re going to mess around with boats.”  Mountain biking? Find a trail where training wheels work. Back up and simplify.  We taught the kids to swim in the river first.  They learned about ferry angles, keeping their feet up and floating through waves before they kayaked.  Remember how you learned, how it felt to be scared.  Remember how it felt to be fascinated.

9. Remember that kids need breaks.

Numerous times my kids have started off a ski morning cold and whining. We’d only be a few runs into the day and they were ready to quit.  Instead of fighting the misery, what we learned is that a short break,  a light snack and hot chocolate does wonders.  So does knowing that they have the option to take breaks.

10. Participate.

They want to be with you. They love to see your inner child. Leave the stress behind. Play!

11. It’s okay to bribe them.

Try, “Let’s ride for fifteen more minutes and then we’ll stop for chocolate.”

12. Start teaching the kids about the dangers.

Be firm about rules. Tell them that if everyone cooperates then we can have fun. Teach them to respect the rules and the people helping you. Respect the power of nature. To be aware of danger is a huge part of staying out of danger. Have a safety speech before you start.

13. Always bring lots of water.

Teach the kids about the need to hydrate.

14. Do yoga.

Yoga seems to be where I draw my patience. Teach the kids to stop and listen. Ask them what they hear around them.

Ages 5 to teens

1. Go out with their friends.

Friends are still the most important assets in my adventure bag. Every time we ask the kids to do something they ask, “Who’s coming?” This seems especially important now that we seem to be less cool then we once were. (Your adult friends will assure you that you still are.) What better way to get to know your kids friends than to have memorable experiences with them? A shared wave, first tracks, fishing from a raft, or a dinner around the campfire brings everyone closer. Even an additional adult friend helps motivate the kids.

2. Get the kids involved in the decision-making process.

Have them look at the maps and guidebooks. See if they can figure out the best way there or alternate routes.

3. Do the familiar a lot.

It builds confidence. Run the same rapid a few times. Do laps on the same route. If it’s boring for you, make it a training experience. When the kids want to ski on the green runs, I ride switch on my snowboard.

4. Take them to new spots.

Challenge them on a different river, a new ski run, a new trail.

5. Push them if they’re feeling lazy.

There are a lot of distractions these days. Facebooking is so much easier than getting out the door. My kids have told me that they would love to go paddling; it’s just loading the gear that seems exhausting. It is. But teach them that a lot of effort is worth a lot of fun. It’s time to pull the parent card and require them to unplug. Give them computer time when they get home. Maybe they’ll have a new profile picture to be proud of.

6. Don’t push if they’re exhausted.

Has it been a rough week? A heavy load at school? A soccer tournament? Do something simple. A hike or swim in the lake. They need chill time too.

7. Have your friends teach them.

Is your kid allergic to your advice? Have one of your friends give them pointers. Get them a lesson. My friends are incredible skiers. When their kids decided they wanted to learn to snowboard, they had to rent their own gear and pay for lessons. Teenagers understand the value of an investment when it’s with their own money.

8. Debrief at the dinner table.

It’s good to look around at glowing faces and hash out the day. You’ll learn how to do things better and what worked well.

9. Take pictures and shoot video.

Not only are you preserving memories, video is an especially good teacher, particularly if the lesson is that that two feet of air was really just four inches and you fell because you were leaning back.

10. Tell them stories about your adventures.

My kids beg to hear our stories over and over.

11. Packing is still the hardest. Don’t be daunted.

You get better at it all of the time. Give the kids tasks. Have them make a list of what they need. Get them thinking. My friend taught me to file a list in my computer to pull up for an overnight raft trip or a ski trip. It’s easier to get out of the house if your gear is already organized and in a designated area. Make them work at it. It may be easier for you to pack it all up yourself, but if you train them right then one day you can sit in the rocker while they pack your lunch, load your equipment, and maybe even buckle your boots.

12. Have a first aid kit.

Have some emergency training. Get the kids some training.

13. Eat well.

Your kids are hungry. Now’s the time to sneak in the veggies. Then break out the chocolate.

14. Teach them how to breathe when they are nervous.

I’ve tried to teach them to focus on their breath when the adrenaline is pumping. Of course they roll their eyes and say, “Here’s Mom lecturing again.” It really does sink in, though. My daughter recently decided to run a rapid for the first time, and she was really nervous. I watched her get in her boat, close her eyes, and take several deep breaths before pushing off shore.

15. Get out alone.

Remember who you are. My kids know that I’m happier if I can make it out and play on my level. They are proud that I work at what I love and am dedicated to it.

16. Live by example.

 

 

Photographs by (top to bottom): Kyle Heeter, Colleen Laffey, Mike Turner, Katie Johnson

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Category: Family Adventure, Rock Climbing, Water Sports

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