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Author Steven Rinella's tips for raising 'outdoor kids in an inside world'

At Cedarsong Nature School kids are not just allowed but encouraged to climb trees, even without shoes. (Greg Davis/KCTS)
At Cedarsong Nature School kids are not just allowed but encouraged to climb trees, even without shoes. (Greg Davis/KCTS)

Phones. TVs. Computers.

The average American spends 90% of their time indoors. Inside distractions have become an everyday part of children’s lives.

But outside, how can we help kids see the forest beyond the screens?

“I want my kids to know that they’re at an eye-to-eye level with nature. They are not terribly removed from it,” author Steven Rinella says. “They’re a component of it. Their actions have impact on it. And they have to have a relationship where it’s an interactive, hands-on, very responsible relationship.”

Today, On Point: Raising Outdoor Kids in an Inside World. From the biggest cities to the wildest corners of the country, how to get your kids radically engaged with nature.


Steven Rinella, host of the Netflix series MeatEater and The MeatEater Podcast. Author of several books dealing with wildlife, hunting, fishing and game cooking. His latest book is Outdoor Kids in an Inside World. (@stevenrinella)

Also Featured

Mariana Brussoni, director of the Human Early Learning Partnership and an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia. (@mbrussoni)

Heather Butts, co-founder and executive director of H.E.A.L.T.H. for Youths. Assistant professor at Long Island University. Lecturer at Columbia University School of Public Health and St. John’s University School of Law.

Interview Highlights

On raising kids in an urban environment

“Even though I live in Montana now, and I grew up in a very rural, nature perfect environment, my first two kids are born in Brooklyn, New York. A third kid was born in Seattle. So I have, you know, all through the course of my life lived a lot of like very perfect, pristine wilderness moments. But having young kids, I knew that they weren’t all gonna. They weren’t going to be that way.

“I felt a lot of frustration, raising kids in an urban environment. And I felt frustration and guilt that I wasn’t able to give them these kind of like amazing moments that would be once in a lifetime trips for people that I’ve been able to go on many of. And so I had to learn to find pleasure and contentment in what I viewed at the time to be kind of a compromised version of nature, which is the urban nature.

“So if I was going to … simpler-to-achieve moments. It would just be the time that we spent, even in Brooklyn and many other places, at their grandparents houses, the time we spent flipping rocks, and rolling over rotten logs and watching what scurries out of the way. And them holding roly polies, and them holding worms, and various grubs and doing what I thought to be the step one … getting them over the idea that there’s nothing icky, or gross anywhere. Those words don’t belong in our vocabulary. And we spend a lot of time on that. And it was very rewarding. It caused me to, like, look and find out what things are.”

On tips for getting the whole family out of the house

“Years ago, I wrote a piece for Outside magazine. It was called, they gave us some title, like The Little Things to Kill. But I was kind of reviewing, you know, a life of adventure. And what are the things that put me in the hospital, related to the wild.

“And it turns out they’re all microscopic. It’s waterborne pathogens, insect borne pathogens, Lyme disease, which my son and I both had. It’s very important from overcoming the fear perspective, is like getting statistical and getting comfortable with like what actually needs to be paid attention to. And then getting that taken care of, like trying to enter a rational space where you look and be like, The primary risk here is that the kids will get a tick and they’ll get Lyme.

“And getting educated about it to the point where you’re like, we are taking a rational, without getting too overblown, we’re taking a rational approach here. We’re using repellent. We’re doing tick checks, we’re tucking pant legs into socks. Right? We’ve diminished, mitigated the risk. So then the next step is just trying to get comfortable.

“That’s in perspective of risk. Another thing that I think is really important that I see a lot of parents miss is just getting to a attitude of, You’re not going to take no for an answer. When it comes to outdoor time, when it comes to camping and hikes, my wife and I, we don’t ask our kids if they want to go. We’re going. We’re going on this day.

“We give them a couple days, heads up, so they can plan it. And we’re not asking their opinion about it. We don’t ask their opinion about how far we’re going to walk, when they hear us say it and we give them the time and we make plans to account for their comfort, that’s what we’re doing. Especially with young kids, when you get into like, Oh, there’s naptime, and there’s snacks and I don’t want to bring the diaper bag.

“And the five year old doesn’t need a nap, but the two year old does need a nap. And when it’s all said and done, we’re just not going to go. That happens. And I see it happen to people and then that lack of action just extends into years. And then you start forming a habit where you’re not a family that’s just going to go.

“I think that setting your mind that you will not take no. It doesn’t matter the weather, it doesn’t matter whatever. You’re going. And I think it puts into your kids … where they become people of action. They’re not wishy washy. They become precise and specific about what they’re going to get done, no matter what gets in their way.”

What are the most important things that kids can uniquely benefit from by engaging with nature?

“I had a debate, a friendly debate with my publisher. Where we were talking about … the cover copy for the book or whatever. And I was using a word, like, to make your kids tough. And that means different things to different people. And someone brought up like, Are people comfortable with this word? Is it still a thing? I’m like, I’m very comfortable with that word. When I say tough, I don’t mean the playground bully. When I say tough, I mean like some resilience to discomfort, right?

“An ability to be out and realize that outside … you have wild temperature swings. You you find times when you’re hot. You find times when you’re cold. You find times where you spend hours and hours, and your socks and shoes are soaked. A toughness, like a fortitude. Beyond that, I think there’s benefits of self-sufficiency. Just learning how to do things with your hands, right? Like how to make things, whether you’re making forts or growing a garden, that you can physically do things with your hands.

“When I think of the environmental challenges that face us in the future. … I feel and I know this because I studied conservation history in the U.S. Just as a citizen I studied, not as an academic. You find that our great conservation heroes tend to be people who had a radical engagement with nature. That involvement … breeds in people a sense of obligation to the planet and a sense of obligation to the natural world around them. If I want my kids to become conservationists, I don’t know that they’ll become conservation heroes. But we can all dream, right? It will be because they learn to love [the] thing.

“And from that love came a sense of obligation to it, where they’re willing to sacrifice on its behalf. That’s the long term play, right? And I might not hit all of those things, but by doing this, I’m hoping to hit some. And if I could hit one, it would be that. Yeah, that they have a obligation to honor and respect the natural world around them, and to take care of it.

On how families can radically engage with nature

“I’m going to get very specific and tell you one that we’ve found, that I found with my own kids, to be very effective. Is we keep a list of all birds, either seen or heard, from our home habitat, right? So you have to see it or hear it from our yard. And our list has grown to impressive lengths. And to help you with this, I’ll point out there’s a new app out called Merlin, which is from the Cornell Ornithology lab.

“And it’s wonderful. And you can turn it on. And it will listen to the bird songs in your area and start to list out what birds you might have around. And then you got to try to find them, and match to them. But our kids get so excited about opening up. We have a Google Drive folder, and we open that up and add a bird. And when we’re able to add a bird, they view it as a great achievement and it’s a lot of fun.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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