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Outdoorsy Kids and the Gift of Grit

The outdoors isn’t just for views, fresh air, and serenity. Being outside provides plenty of opportunities for children to learn and grow. When I am trying to teach my kids a lesson or instill a value, I often turn to the trail for help. Of all the characteristics I want to instill in my children, grit is amongst the top. Grit is a vital characteristic for building competent and confident kids, and it’s why I drag my two toddlers outside even when I want to sit at home all day.

I think the outdoors is the perfect place to build grit in kids. Grit is determination, perseverance, and courage even in the face of doubt and possible failure. It is trying again when things don’t go your way the first time. It is standing back up after you fall down. Grit allows one to stand in the midst of disparaging odds, and try anyway.

My oldest son is very cautious, almost comically so, and I have tried very hard to build his confidence when it starts to falter. When we reach a difficult section of the trail, we start our chants:

“I am strong, I am capable, I am a problem solver.”

I encourage him to take the time to analyze an obstacle, and carefully select the best way over, around or through. Once we overcome our hurdle, we chant again:

“I am a hiker, I am an explorer, I am an adventurer.”

The way he lights up at the praise and admiration is incredible. Knowing that his mom believes in him, even when he doesn’t, has given him the desire to keep challenging himself, even when he cries “No, I can’t do it!” before his initial attempt.

In a world that fosters doubt and worry in people from a heartbreakingly young age, I know that my attempt to raise children who can overcome adversity is crucial. As my children’s mother, I am at the forefront of the fight for their happiness and long-term prosperity. I am far from perfect, and I constantly question if I am doing the right thing, but I have never, nor will I ever, doubt my decision to raise outdoorsy kids.

As they grow older, their outdoors challenges will grow with them. They will learn to build fires, tie knots and identify plants. When faced with a stream crossing, they will have to make a choice: will they skip from rock to rock to not get wet, or will the trudge through? They might ask themselves how deep is the water? How cold? How fast is the current? Is keeping my feet dry worth a possible fall? Will wet feet impede the rest of the day? The outdoors is the perfect place to build grit with age appropriate settings and activities.

In my attempts to instill grit in my children, I have become grittier myself. I have learned to try and try again. I have learned to let go of excuses and just do what needs to be done. I have learned to recognize my failings and to continue on despite them. I am finding that as I become more resilient, it gets easier to reach my kids to do the same thing.

When I think of my own outdoors experiences and how they have shaped me, my mind is always drawn to hiking Ka’au Crater on the island of Oahu with one of my best friends. We had both double checked the forecast to make sure no rain was in sight, and and made our way to the unmaintained trail. We easily made it to the first two waterfalls, but by the time we reached the base of the third, I could smell the crisp scent that precedes a downpour. We weren’t worried – we knew we could climb the 1,500 feet to the top of the waterfall before the clouds moved in, and that the ridge around the crater could be done even in the rain.

We were well into the ridge section before we started getting antsy. We were hiking counter clockwise around the crater, but we hadn’t veered left when it felt like we should have. At this point we were in the clouds, and had nothing to reference because of the lack of visibility. But again, we weren’t too worried. On hikes it is normal to feel like you should have reached a destination or turn, when in fact there are still more hills to traverse.

We stopped after another twenty minutes. Everything was soaked. I tried to use my phone to check the GPS, but my fingers were too wet for the screen to react. I rooted through my bag and found a clean paper towel at the bottom, and was thankfully able to wipe away enough mud to pull up the map.

We had gone too far. We somehow missed the turn, and had been scaling the edge of the Kololaus, on our way to the neighboring ridge. After having a silent, but very real panic attack, a choice had to be made. Should we keep going, or turn back? Neither option was great. We had no idea what lay ahead of us, but if we turned back and couldn’t find the missed turn, we would be hiking many more hours down the ridge, down the 1,500 foot waterfall, and back out the valley.

Despite being closer to the next ridge, we decided to turn back. We had no idea what conditions were to come, and the trail was about a foot from a fatal drop. If the ground gave out or one of us slipped, there was nothing to grab onto except some brush. If we needed assistance, rescuers wouldn’t even be able to find us. We knew that making a long day even longer was better than risking an accident.

Luckily we found our missed turn rather quickly, and we even kept another hiker from making the same mistake. The trail marker may have blown away, and downed branches and flooding had made it look as though the adjoining trail didn’t exist. As we slipped and slid the last couple miles back to the car, I was proud of us for staying calm and letting logic guide us instead of exhaustion or emotions. That experience has given me great confidence in my ability to perform in high stress situations, and to not allow fear to cloud my judgment. It most definitely added to my reserves of grit.

While I don’t expect my toddlers to have such experiences for quite some time, the outdoors are full of less treacherous situations that demand just as much confidence and mental clarity from them. While I might not think twice about a downed tree in the middle of my path, to children, it is an obstacle that will test both their physical and mental toughness, and make them grittier in the process.

Getting kids outside can seem like a daunting task. You need to pack more, plan farther in advance, and allow more flexibility for the unexpected. But I think that watching children grow and prosper outside is well worth the extra effort. My four-year-old begs to hike. He asks to find rocks on the trail, and to have picnics on mountains. I never would have expected him to be so enthusiastic about the outdoors at such a young age.

While I hope that this love will continue into his adult life, it’s okay if his passion lies elsewhere. No matter what, the skills and life lessons he has learned while outside will aid him in all endeavors – from school to activities to relationships. He will know that he has to put the time and effort in to achieve his goals. He will know that nothing comes easy, and that if you want something, you fight for it. Grit will allow him to be compassionate when he wants to be mean, to fight for what’s right when he wants to do wrong, and to stay who he is when others what him to change. Grit will get him started, and grit will get him to the finish.

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