If you want to buy fewer toys and enable more adventure, here are 12 outdoor gifts for the kids of all ages in your life.
“We are not buying a whole bunch of toys for Christmas,” I said to my husband last year. In fact, that’s pretty much what I say every year. We’re not always successful, but generally try to focus on gifts that support our values of simplicity and adventure. Outdoors gear does both while also getting our kids more excited than ever about going out in what can be frigid weather in our area.
Adding some of these gifts to your kids’ (or your own) Christmas lists can help winter feel more fun and spring feel closer than ever. Here’s gifts that are great for our three favorite outdoors activities: hiking, biking, and camping.
2014: Holding my one-year-old, I stared up at fireworks and started belting out Let It Go. Tears streamed down my face. It was the end of a week-long trip to Walt Disney World, during which I spent most of the time imagining my kid getting trampled. Earlier that week, my hands shook and mind went blank in the Tomorrowland snack bar as I had my first identifiable panic attack. That perfect girl is gone, indeed.
2017: Leaning over my four-year-old in his car seat in a parking lot in Nevada, I thought, “I hope he’s okay.” Right on cue, his cheeks filled, he leaned forward, and spewed out water and pretzel bits all over me. Touching my hand to my hair, it was wet and sticky. We were half-way through a three-hour car ride to Zion National Park. I breathed deep and said, “Hey honey, it’s going to be okay.” Then I got out the baby wipes and went to work cleaning up everything up.
What on earth happened in-between? In that three years, I had a second kid, started dealing with my anxiety, and grew so much as a parent. But I also learned a ton about traveling with kids. In-between the trip in 2014 and the one in 2017, we’ve been to Las Vegas, Cape Cod, multiple camping excursions, and so many day trips. While the anxiety still flairs, adjusting my expectations and my own behavior has helped me stay sane when we travel with kids.
Nothing makes you feel more like “The Parent” than bringing your kids somewhere your parents brought you as a kid. Last week, we visited Zion National Park with our four-year-old and 18-month-old. The last time I was there, I was 17 years old on a trip with my own parents.
Needless to say, there was a world of difference between the two trips. The last time, the trip had gorgeous scenery, tough hikes, and lots of driving. This time, the scenery was pretty much the only similarity. Here’s what was different then and now:
Pushing my son on the biggest tree swing I’ve ever seen, he declared, “This is fun!” As I half-listened to a talk on medicinal plants, I had to agree. We were at the second annual Paw Paw Festival at Long Creek Homestead, the home of a local family who grows much of their own food based on ecological principles. While we go to these events because they’re fun, it’s much more than that. I bring my family to these events so we can have a little glimpse into a possible potential, beautiful future. That’s because these kind of community events embody social and environmental sustainability to me.
Sustainability has become such a buzzword it’s easy to lose the true meaning. Companies sell us “green living” via labels on products that promise they will be safer for your family. (Never mind anyone else’s family.) But to create a just world that offers opportunities to all people in a way that’s environmentally sound, we have to go deeper.
“Look, those tomatoes are red! Can I eat them?” Sprout asks me, hardly waiting to pop them in his mouth.
“Just wait to get inside for me to wash them,” I say, brushing aside the overgrown zucchini leaves as I walk towards the garden gate. He mock puts them in his mouth and I roll my eyes at him.
Getting inside, he hands me the tiny tomatoes for me to place in a small orange plastic bowl and rinse off. I hand it back and he sits down on the couch to chomp down. (Despite our “only eat at the table” rule.)
I reflect on how much he’s learned from spending time with me in the garden: knowing how to plant seeds, understanding the role of weeds, composting, and judging when vegetables are ripe. But I also think about the life lessons the garden has taught me that apply to raising kids.
“Look, there’s a rabbit!” I exclaim to my four-year-old son, trying to keep my voice down.
“Where?” he asks, as I point to the animal.
“Do you see it? Let’s be quiet so we don’t scare it away.”
“Yeah,” he replies, as he watches the bunny twitch its tail. It looks at us, then goes back to munching on the clover. It doesn’t think we’re a threat.
While the rabbits in our neighborhood do tend to be bold, my son’s calm demeanor definitely allowed us to watch it longer than if he had a louder reaction.
While we may think of a “wild child” as boisterous, exploring nature isn’t limited to adventurous extroverts. In fact, more quiet or introverted children can get just as much, if not more, out of being outside. While he sprints and yell-sings inside, my son is naturally a bit cautious and calm outside.
Here’s what I’ve learned from exploring with him:
My toddler eyed the cow warily. What was this creature? Sure, it said moo, but this was so much larger than he expected! Seeing him back away, we didn’t push it. We knew he would have plenty of other opportunities to visit a local farm or two along the way.
Visiting a local farm is a great way to connect kids with their food, especially if you don’t have the ability to garden. They get to see how fruits and vegetables grow and experience real, live animals. That helps them appreciate the hard work of the people who grow their food and put more thought to where it comes from.
Plus, it’s really fun. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of picking giant blueberries and slurping strawberry smoothies at a local farm near our house.
We’re particularly fortunate because our county actually has a large agricultural reserve set aside just for farming. Since that incident, we’ve visited many farms. Here’s what we’ve learned in the process:
A trip with cabins, right?” asked my friend. She was responding to my message about a camping trip our family was taking in a few weeks with her husband and son.
“Hahahaha. No,” I answered. I thought it was a joke; it was not. Knowing her general dislike for the outdoors, I had assumed she wasn’t coming. I was wrong.
Changing my tune, I said, “Well, cabins it is then!”
That was just one of the many ways I learned to tweak our routine and expectations to accommodate our first camping trip with another family. Because of the following lessons learned, our family ended up having a great time.
Bringing two small children on a trip to the grocery store is a recipe for chaos. But then to try to pack those monkeys and that circus onto a bike? Well, that requires a special kind of bonkers optimism. A kind of optimism I apparently have because last Sunday, I biked with my kids to the grocery store.
This was my thought process (substantially condensed):
As a child, I’d spend hours in my backyard poking around in the dirt. I’d pretend specific plants were magical and “mix” up concoctions. I could be alone with my imagination, whether under the giant pine tree or next to my mom’s garden bed.
But our yard doesn’t offer the same experience for our kids. It’s on a corner heavy with foot traffic and no clear place for them to play in the dirt. So I wanted to make them one – somewhere that was set-aside, just for them. After more than a year of planning – raising a new baby took a higher priority – we finally started building it this spring.
The children’s garden isn’t anything complicated. While there are some amazing outdoor play spaces on Pinterest, we had neither the space or need for anything that elaborate. We just wanted to build something that could hold some dirt. It’s really just a box. Or in fancy garden terms, a raised bed children’s garden.