Getting the kids out of the house. It’s not always the easiest of tasks, is it? Their favourite programme’s coming on, it’s too rainy, they’re “too tired”, they’d rather play with toys, or they’re just having a random strop. The reasons are legion. Then, you’ve also got to do a lot of prep: water bottle, snacks, wipes, face masks, change of clothes, and so on. To leave the home, you have to overcome -- as we used to say in chemistry lessons -- a high energy barrier. And then there are the safety aspects to consider.
But we must get out. Daily exercise outdoors is good for mental as well as physical wellbeing. It’ll help everyone stay fit and healthy, get you away from screens, and helps to break the day up. But how do you persuade them to put down the iPad and get their shoes on?
Set Out The Plan
If you just throw out a “right, we’re going to go out now!”, chances are you’ll get a stubborn refusal. Kids (and adults) like to be part of the plan. You could start the day by saying, “It’d be really fun to go out somewhere today -- what would you like to do?”. Younger kids may not have an answer to such an open question, so you could instead try specifics: “Would you like to go to the swings later?”, “Shall we go walk along the canal and look for ducks today?”.
It’s also a good idea to set a time for the adventure, and give them regular updates and action points. “Right, we said we’d go out at 11, which isn’t far off. In five minutes, we’ll need to stop playing and put on our shoes. Is that OK?”. Giving a warning like that is probably going to be more effective than suddenly announcing it’s time to get shoes on. Throughout the whole getting-ready process, try to be as relaxed and even-toned as possible. Barking orders only works with soldiers.
Use The Weather To Your Advantage
“But mum… it’s raining.”
“But daaaad… it’s windy and cold.”
To be fair, the inclement weather has probably given you second thoughts, too. But don’t be put off. Wicked witches aside, no one ever got hurt by a splash of rain, and it’s easy enough to wrap up against the cold and the wind. You can even use the adverse conditions as a lure to get them out.
Raining all day? Ask “Who’s up for a bit of puddle jumping?” (in wellies, of course). Or go on a stroll to the nearest river or brook to see how close to flooding it’s getting. Or go for a 30 minute walk and see how much rain they can collect in a cup while out and about. Or go rainbow spotting. Or do all of these things at the same time.
Blowing a gale? It’s the perfect weather for kite-flying. As Mr Banks observed in Mary Poppins, “With tuppence for paper and strings, you can have your own set of wings”. There are a million ways to make a kite. If you can get hold of some thin garden canes and an old plastic tablecloth, you can make something fairly robust. Otherwise, a simple card/paper affair will be enough to impress younger kids.
Grey and miserable? Sometimes, this is the worst kind of weather. It can sap enthusiasm and make you think “nah, let’s just stay in today”. But if you do want to get young kids out, then try playing the “rainbow game”. You have to pretend that evil fairies have stolen all the colour out of the world, and it’s your mission to go out and restore them. You then need to walk around the neighbourhood looking for objects in all seven colours of the rainbow. A red car (tick!), an orange wheelie bin (tick!), a yellow flower (tick!)... Do them in order, or out of order, depending on how long you want the game to last.
Throw In A Time Jeopardy
I don’t know if it’s just my kids, but saying “you’ve got 30 seconds to do XYZ” nearly always gets them moving. I’ve never once specified what would happen if they don’t make the challenge… they just do it. If that works for your kids, too, then use it to help you get out of the house. If you have more than one child, you can also turn it into a bit of a competition. “Alright… who can find and get their shoes on in 20 seconds?” To make it even more fun, use a favourite song instead of counting. “You’ve got until Anna says her last ‘cold never bothered me anyway’ to get your cold-weather clothes on… GO!”.
A similar, powerful tactic is to let them prove you wrong. So say something like “There’s no way you can change out of your pyjamas into your clothes in under a minute. NO WAY!” This twist on reverse psychology never fails in our house. Speaking of which...
Playing It Dumb
“Kids… you don’t know where I keep my shoes do you?”
“I’ve got the keys, and the phone, but I can’t remember what other objects we need before we leave the house. Can you help?”
“We’ve put your trousers, shirt and jumper on, but what comes next… is it shoes first, and then socks?”
These are all examples of daddy being a buffoon. The kids just love correcting me, or showing me what should happen next and, in doing so, they help speed things along to the point where we’re ready to leave.
It helps to get out of the house if you have some kind of mission. A random walk in the park or trip to the woods doesn’t always spark the imagination. Frame it as an adventure, and a daily stroll can become something for kids to look forward to. Here’s one idea, which plays into the sense of curiosity and competition that most children have. Tell them that you’re going to do something that none of their friends have done -- you’re going to explore every street in the area, and you need them to be map-keeper. What you then need to do is print out a black and white map of your neighbourhood. If you live in a village or small town, then the limits are easily defined. If you’re in a city, then choose whatever radius seems achievable. Then, each day, you set off for the streets you haven’t walked along on previous days. Take the map with you, and get the kids to mark off with highlighter pen every time you walk along a street. Keep going, day after day, until you’ve marked off every road and park. It’s one of those exercises that might sound a little geeky, but which has many benefits -- physical exercise, map-reading skills, getting to know the local area better, and a huge sense of accomplishment once it’s all done. You can even frame the map afterwards and stick it on their bedroom wall.
Another way to “gamify” a walk, and get the kids enthused about going out, is to suggest an alphabet game. Each daily stroll focuses on the next letter of the alphabet. Your mission is to spot at least five things that begin with that letter. So, ‘A’ could be Alsatian, acorn, ash tree, ants and aeroplane. ‘B’ might be beech tree, brook, blackbird, bark and bicycle. The key is not to prepare a list in advance (like in a scavenger hunt), but to see what they can find while out ‘in the field’. In an advanced version of the game, you also have to bring home an object beginning with that letter (though, obviously, be wary of picking anything up that might be harmful). Keep a log of your adventures at home to keep the momentum going day to day.
If all else fails, there’s always the age-old tactic of the bribe. “If you come out with me now, then I’ll let you watch Super-Mega-Dino-Pirates when we get back.” Or “I promise you can have a chocolate treat if you’ll come out for a walk with me”. Offer the right bribe, and it’ll probably work. However, it’s not the most constructive tactic. They’ll be walking around thinking more about the reward rather than enjoying the outdoors. And using bribery as a motivator may reinforce the idea that exercise is something ‘that has to be done’ rather than something we should want to do. Use sparingly, if at all.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.