Engaging Teens in the Outdoors

Stephen Mullaney

May 17, 2021

Getting your child or teen to look up from their smartphone, put down their Xbox controllers, or step away from the TV can be a chore — and that’s just when you’re calling them to dinner.

Mention taking a walk around the block or joining the family on a picnic a local park and witness the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

If you look at our nation’s history since the end of World War II, you see that service men and women returned to the United States and began to grow families. These households scrimped and saved to purchase such luxuries as high-fidelity stereo systems, black and white television sets, and a second car. Most of these new items enabled folks to enjoy life indoors, or drive to the drugstore instead of walking.

Fast forward 75 years and we find that families — and especially teens — have dozens of electronics devices at hand, each able to deliver entertainment from the comfort of their couch or bedroom.

So, how do we as families, let alone as a nation, compete with all these shiny handheld toys and devices, and get our kids out of the house and into the outdoors? When I was young, I was tossed out of the house early in the morning. I would jump on a skateboard or bike and search out the wild side of urban landscapes.

Not so today. Below, I’ve listed four action verbs that can get the ball rolling toward get kids interested in exiting their indoor surroundings.

Look: Step right out your front door and take a walk around your property, neighborhood, or city. It’s free and the level of expectation is low, which means any tiny encounter with the natural world is magical. The idea is to look for this magic. “Let’s go see if the rabbit is in the same spot!”” Let’s go poke around that rotting log to see what’s underneath!” The challenge of seeking new things makes getting out more habit than headache.

When my wife and I walk with our teenaged daughter, we let her drive the conversation, ask the questions, and use her as the lens through which we view our walk.

Pro Tip: Make your backyard more interesting by adding a garden, bird feeders, camp chairs, and if your town or region allows it — a fire pit.

Think (Engage)

Teens will gravitate toward what they find interesting, even if you as a parent aren’t particularly interested. As the adult, just listening can go a long way.

On a hike or a walk, it may be very quiet for a while, uncomfortable sometimes. But if you wait patiently, the questions will come. “Why does that sign say hunting season?” “What bird is making that sound?” “Dad, are we supposed to be here?” Here’s where you say, “Good question. We’ll look it up online when we get home.”

And it’s not all about the hike, the route, or the length of the adventure. Let your teens help pack food for the outing, even if that means including some snacks you might have not packed for yourself. When possible, let them pick the form of activity, whether that be via bike, boat, or backpack.

Pro Tip: Go somewhere special after the outdoor activity. My daughter loves to stop and get a refreshing horchata from a local restaurant after our adventures. Getting this traditional Mexican drink made of white rice soaked in water, flavored with cinnamon and sweetened with granulated sugar, has become a great family tradition.


When the “I wonders” arrive, limits to the outdoor experience are removed. Your child is ready to take the lead and explore new ways to engage with the outdoors. Being inquisitive exponentially adds to the adventure. Wondering what’s next, can you ride a bike down this, do people work here, what’s this area look like after dark, are all great signs.

As you’ll see, the I wonders can lead to all sorts of opportunities, including follow-up conversations at home, an interest in acquiring specialized gear and apparel for future adventures, and maybe even an interest in a career in the outdoors

Pro Tip: Kids often walk slowly because they are discovering, testing, and exploring new surroundings. Help them discover that curiosity and embrace it by not rushing the experience.

Unleash the Power

When teens are connecting with nature, you will find they become more awake, alive, and alert to the world around them. When teens connect to the outdoors, they become increasingly engaged in world events, environmental stewardship, and helping to create positive change in their communities.

When teens go on adventures outside, they are healthier physically as well as socially and emotionally. Confidence is boosted and problem-solving becomes easier.

The only drawback is your teen may start looking to friends or organizations to get them outside. That doesn’t spell the end of your experiences together; it’s just the next chapter in a book that you helped to write.

Below are five “gateway activities” that you might want to employ to entice your youngsters into the outdoors. Start slow and build from the successes.

Day hikes and rides: The old expression “Go Where you Know,” comes in handy here. Visit local parks, trails, and even your neighborhood streets. The objective is to get out and don’t worry about how long you’re going to be or how far you’re going to travel. Remember, it’s all practice. Whatever successes or failures you have along the way, it’s just practice.

Car Camping: Maybe you used to be an ultralight hiker. Not so for these trips. When you’re all exploring by automobile, the sky’s the limit as far as packing goes. Stuff the back of your SUV with everything you want to drag along for the adventure. And ditch the personal electronics or store them for “quiet time” at the end of the day.

A one-overnight stand: This short trip can include car camping or a quick hike-in. Just pack food for snacks, a low-key dinner, and breakfast. Bring a light shelter, sleeping bags, water, a first aid kit, and a game plan if it you need to bail due to weather or an emergency. Remember, we’re talking less than 24 hours here.

Get friends involved: Friends offer support, experience, and motivation. If your friends have kids, they can play together and have fun independently. Besides, kids like listening and learning from other kids.

Start going big: This is where you need to start making decisions based on prior experiences. For example, if you have done a couple of sub-24-hour trips and have had success, it may be time to plan a multi-day trip. Or a hybrid one-night car camping, one-night backcountry adventure. Maybe if you’re still working out the kinks on car camping, don’t plan a backcountry multi-day. Having partners in play (as mentioned above) can help you feel more comfortable as your adventures grow.

Pro Tip: Once they feel they’re ready, connect your young person with outdoor-focused organizations like NCOAE that run trips and coordinate stewardship projects for local trails and wild areas. Learning new skills alongside their peers can be very rewarding for your teen.

Want help planning an outing with your family and friends? Reach out to us here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education and let us help you by planning your itinerary and professionally guide you next adventure.

About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the Director of School Partnerships at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). He has worked domestically and internationally with schools, organizations, and wilderness programs. His classrooms have ranged from dilapidated trailers at overcrowded, underfunded schools to the Himalayan mountains and everything imaginable in between. His past students include gang members/prisoners, education majors, college and university professors, and pioneers in the field out outdoor and adventure-based experiential education. Stephen’s philosophy is to focus on the development of positive working and learning environments. He brings more than a quarter of a century of education experience and understanding of human nature to any organization, whether it is an education institution or a private company. His writing has appeared in adventure sports/education journals, magazines and on the web. Stephen prefers to arrive by bicycle and sit in the dirt.

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