One of the biggest fears held by many outdoor enthusiasts when they have kids of their own: What if they hate nature?
Steven Rinella is the host of the popular Netflix show MeatEater and The MeatEater Podcast and the author of several books on the hunting and outdoor lifestyles. He says that was the thought that haunted him when he found out he was expecting his first child.
“I had been raised in, and maintained, a very close relationship with the natural world,” says Rinella, who was born in rural Michigan. “And I was honestly kind of stressed out about how I would deliver that same thing to my own kids.”
What he wanted, he says, was for his little ones to have “radical engagement”—which he defines as “a very hands-on relationship”—with nature. Twelve years and three city-born kids later, Rinella is so confident that he’s cracked the code on raising outdoor kids that he’s written a book about it. Outdoor Kids in an Inside World, out this month, aims to help parents create a path to the outdoors for children who might not otherwise get there.
“I knew that it wasn’t going to come naturally,” says Rinella of his own kids, “and that it would take deliberate effort to do that.”
But Rinella says that he also believed in the work of E. O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning “father of biodiversity” who popularized the notion that we are all born with an innate desire to connect with other life forms. Rinella’s role, as he saw it, was to simply provide the environment for those connections to happen. And that realization changed everything.
Once exposed to nature—near and far from their home—all three of his kids found ways to connect with it on a personal level. It’s not unusual for them to discover the artistic possibilities of a chunk of ochre found on a mountaintop, or to spend hours turning over rocks just to see what might be lurking underneath, he says. “Here I was, thinking that we had to do all these very planned-out activities that require travel, but in the end just putting them in that environment just to engage with other life forms set them up for a lifetime of those kind of explorations.”
Ready to encourage your kids to engage with the outdoors? Here’s Rinella’s advice on how to do it.
Be open to all opportunities to interact with nature: “We did and still do backyard campouts,” says Rinella, noting that just because you live in a city doesn’t mean you can’t be outdoorsy.
“My first two kids were born in New York City, but there is a lot of exploration to be done just learning the natural history of the things around you. The tree-lined side streets of Brooklyn are predominantly sycamore trees, right? Why is that?” Exploring your neighborhood with curiosity can lead to a dandelion-leaf salad or an afternoon spent talking about street pigeons. “It doesn’t matter to me where you are,” says Rinella. “The sun’s still doing its arc across the sky so there are still plenty of ways to look and see that we’re in this breathing, functioning, fecund world.”
Be dogged in your commitment to being an outdoor family: With all the things competing for your kids’ attention (school, sports, naps, and screen time among them), you’ll have to be ruthless in your commitment to getting outdoors. Scheduled time outside can help, but flexibility will take you further, says Rinella. “You need to really declare that that’s the thing that’s important to you, and you’re going to make it happen. And then you need to be really adaptable, and pretty elastic in how you find those outdoor opportunities, especially for really young kids.” Doing so can allow them to discover new activities like tying knots or hooking fish themselves. Rinella even lets his kids set dry sticks on fire to paint the sky with smoke—an activity that requires him to let go of some of his parental impulses.
Help kids view themselves as part of nature: “Teach your kids to begin to view themselves as an organism that lives in an ecosystem,” says Rinella. “They’re not living outside of nature. They’re not other than nature. They live in this place. It’s a functioning environment, and they’re a player in it.”
Use tech as a tool to support your outdoor exploration: While Rinella’s kids don’t have their own phones, they are regularly exposed to technology and screens. Rinella is OK with that, as long as it’s constructive. “If we’re exploring an idea, or getting into something, we will often go and consult YouTube,” he says. Although he encourages limiting exposure, but he does lean into opportunities to augment his kids’ understanding. “I don’t find technology incompatible with nature. It can be quite complementary, if used wisely, and with some level of restraint.”
Make choices in everyday life that strengthen your family’s connection to the outdoors: The Rinella family’s commitment to the outdoors goes inside with them too. Everything from the books they read to the food they eat aims to foster those connections. That kind of constant exposure breeds familiarity, says Rinella. “One of the things I’m proud of as a parent is that my kids have a very realistic understanding of nature and the natural world. It’s not cruel, it’s not dignified,” he says. “Whatever they do in life, wherever they go, even if they go and live in a large metropolis, they’ll go there with the background that I’ve given them by exposing them to the rugged and muddy and sometimes bloody natural world around them.”