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Miniature Explorers: Help your children become outdoor enthusiasts

Lexi Dowdall took her first camping trip when she was six weeks old. It was the start of a lifetime of outdoor activity, a love for wild places and even the basis for her job. As the social media manager for Backcountry, Dowdall gets to work with people who love trail running, mountain biking, skiing and so much more.

So how can you raise kids who love the outdoors? First, you need to get them outside.

Open the door

Growing up in Emigration Canyon, Dowdall had no TV reception. Instead, she spent her days in the canyon, exploring and discovering for herself the wonders of the world.

With addiction to today’s digital gadgets, kids are spending less time outside, less time learning to appreciate nature and less time doing outdoor activities with their parents.

But there’s hope. “We’re so saturated in technology from nine to five,” Dowdall says. “But there’s kind of a revolution to unplug, where we’re turning back to nature. It’s almost primal. People crave being outdoors.”

Enjoying nature in Utah is pretty easy. There are hiking and biking trails, rivers to kayak and mountains to climb. The hard part is disconnecting and taking time to walk outside, but the more active you are, the more your kids will be interested in exploring the world around them.

The last few years revealed a changing dynamic in what has usually been a male-dominated industry. More women, children and families are heading outdoors and want products, high-performance gear and activities to reflect that change.

Companies like Backcountry create gear that fits people of all sizes and shapes. Dowdall strongly recommends investing in quality gear that is fitted for your child, including backpacks and climbing harnesses.

To create enthusiasm for hiking, Dowdall suggests allowing your child to pick out their own backpack. Find one that’s not very heavy and is adjustable so it can be used for several years. Then get them excited about carrying their own backpack.

“Teach your kids that backpacking comes with a reward: At some point you get to carry your own backpack! There’s a plethora of kids’ gear available. The equipment is just getting better and better. Equipment is made specifically for kids, even toddlers.”

Once your child is geared up, lower your expectations. Small children will tire easily, so don’t plan a long hike when first starting out. Remember, you want to make the experience fun so they’ll want to do it again. Yelling at them to “Walk faster” or “Hurry up” won’t endear them to hiking.

Be prepared with treats, Band-Aids, water, notebooks and patience. Get them outdoors and get them used to being outside.

Explore the natural world

Several organizations around the state have programs targeted to helping kids engage with the world around them. The Nature Conservancy Utah hosts a hike along the Great Salt Lake shoreline where fourth-grade students can stroll along the boardwalk.

“When they’re outside, they are so engaged and excited. They’re really getting down on their hands and knees to explore and have the full experience of what the wetlands provide,” says Andrea Nelson, The Nature Conservancy Utah’s volunteer and outreach manager. “Some kids become pensive or calm and start thinking about why open space is beautiful. They want to bring their families. It gets the wheels turning in their heads that this belongs to them.”

While exploring, students learn to identify plants, notice textures and even discover new tastes—like saltgrass. The Nature Conservancy also has a Nature Rocks activity finder online that offers suggestions for fun, kid-friendly adventures based on your child’s age, your location and the time you have available, whether it’s 30 minutes or a full day.

Scheduling time to unplug can teach children that being outside is important. Getting the whole family involved in bird watching, fishing, rock hounding, cycling or hunting for wildlife to photograph is an easy, inexpensive way to teach your kids that open space is imperative to create a happy life.

“Connecting with nature and building a relationship with the natural world is so paramount,” Nelson says. “Parents and children have richer lives when they engage and connect to these wild places.”

For more adventures, Snowbird Resort’s Mountain School offers beginning ski classes for children as young as 3 years old, the Front Climbing Club provides after-school climbing classes for kids ages 6 and up, and Dimple Dell Fitness and Recreation Center runs a kayak school for children as young as 10 years old.

Another option is geocaching, which is a challenging endeavor that combines outdoor exploration with technology, as you use GPS coordinates to find hidden objects. Several geocaching websites provide high-tech scavenger hunters the opportunity to discover treasures in our own backyard.

Nelson, whose entomologist father always had creepy, crawly bugs around the house, says outdoor activity has been a lifelong obsession. She counts herself lucky when she gets to be outside.

“We live in a wonderful area, an area we can be a part of. We can learn how to recognize beauty and care for the natural world,” she says. “Where our attention gets spent and where we put our focus is important. Sometimes parents don’t model that being in the outdoors can be fun.”