I wrote this post about a year ago, and thought I’d re-publish it today since so many parents I know are planning family outings! I’ve been quieter than usual lately due to travel, but look for more posts soon.
While researching a travel story for the Experience Grand Rapids blog, my family and I went to Grand Haven, Michigan and decided to check out Rosy Mound Natural Area. We figured the water would be within easy walking distance of the car and thought we’d just make a quick stop before heading into the downtown area with the more popular beach.
As it turned out we’d very much under-estimated the path to the beach, which turned out to be close to a mile long and featured 1,000 feet of stairs which rose and plunged, rose and plunged, culminating in a long climb to the top of a dune with sweeping views of the water and then a slow descent down to the beach. And Jon and I were wearing flip-flops. (Clara, pictured to the left, was barefooted. Guess who got to carry her the whole way?)
It took a while, but when we finally reached the highest point, we were rewarded by a gorgeous view of lake and dunes, and descending the stairs, we found ourselves all alone on the beach.
We only had one towel and no swimsuits, but that didn’t keep the kids from hunting for smooth rocks, digging, and wading. We only stayed at the beach for about thirty minutes, and we were quite a bit sandier, wetter, thirstier, and more tired than we’d expected to be.
But though short and a bit of effort, it was one of the nicest beach trips we’ve had all together as a family…and if we’d taken too much time to think about the long walk, or what we should bring, we might have ultimately decided just to skip it entirely.
And that would have been a real shame.
I was thinking about our impromptu expedition when I wrote yesterday’s post featuring a very different kind of beach trip. Don’t get me wrong, our highly-organized venture a few days ago was a lot of fun, too. It’s just that preparing and packing for an outing like that is kind of exhausting, and if you try to plan that way every time you leave the house, well…you just won’t want to leave the house that much.
So how can you enjoy outings with your kids in an easier, simpler way? Here are six tips I’ve found that make exploring with kids simple, fun, and low-stress:
- Reign in your expectations
Not every trip to the zoo will be a leisurely, photo-op-filled animal encounter, and sometimes it’s just as fun to roll up your pants legs and wade in the lake as it is to enjoy a full-on swim. When admission fees are involved, I find that – especially with small kids – it takes the pressure off to purchase a yearly membership to just one or two favorite attractions rather than trying to cram in a dozen different experiences in a single summer.
- Embrace short excursions
If you think about it, the majority of “must-pack” items are only necessary if you’re spending serious time away from home. Sunscreen needs to be re-applied about every two hours; slather it on before you leave the house and make sure you’re back home or in the car within a couple of hours, and you probably don’t need to lug a big bottle along. Or try to plan outings after dusk or earlier in the morning when sun and heat aren’t as likely to be a problem. Either way, the shorter the trip the less you need to pack and prepare. Don’t let the fantasy of an all-day outing get between you and the reality of a short, easy trip.
- Use your car, stroller, or bicycle trailer as a base station
Consider leaving a few necessities – say, a couple of diapers and a travel container of wipes – in your transportation of choice at all times. Our (ratty, dirty, beat-up) umbrella stroller always has a diaper in the basket at the bottom just in case; and after forgetting to replenish my diaper stash in my purse a few key times, I’ve taken to leaving a canvas bag in the car packed with the basic essentials.
- Team up with a friend and split the packing
No need for two moms to carry wipes, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent and water. Plan your outings with a friend when possible (the adult company and extra set of hands and eyes makes it well worth the effort) and split the packing down the middle.
- Distinguish between need and comfort
I liked what Nihara had to say in her comment: “By planning for their every possible need, we may be accidentally teaching our children that they should face no discomforts in life (e.g., they should never be hungry, wet or tired).” Yes! Think back to when you were a kid. When you were out with your parents and got thirsty, what did you do? I bet you found a drinking fountain or waited until you got home.
I’m not suggesting we withhold liquids and food from hungry and thirsty children, but it really is OK to head out on a mild day for a short time without a full 40-ounce Kleen Kanteen and a sack brimming with snacks. When moms fall into the trap of trying to plan for every possible discomfort our kids could ever face, it becomes really hard to pack light…which makes it that much harder to get out the door in the first place, let alone enjoy ourselves once we’re out.
Kids learn to expect what they’re used to, which is why, when I decided to stop routinely buying bottled water, it took my boys a while to stop begging for water during every short car ride. But after a while they realized I wasn’t going to pull over and pick up a bottle to help them survive a half-hour in the car, so they learned to get a bigger drink before we left or wait ’til we got there.
For a 1-2-hour trip to the beach or another hot, energy-sucking destination, I’d probably pack one big bottle of water and a few cups (unless I know there’s a water fountain), plus a small snack each. No need to cut up fruit or dirty every reusable container in the house to have a three-course picnic every time you go on an outing.
- Adopt a spirit of adventure
You just don’t know how that hike is going to go. You might end up knee-deep in mud. The trail might be longer, windy-er, and a lot steeper than you’d have anticipated…and life will go on. In fact, sometimes it’s the trips where you wind up filthy and in way over your head that wind up the nicest memories.
I like to ask myself what’s the worst that could happen if…if the youngest has to poop while I’m on the trail (which she might), if we get too tired and have to turn around, (a definite possibility,) if the kids track sand all over the house (which they definitely will.) Most of the time those worst-case scenarios are almost comforting to imagine, because you realize they really aren’t so bad after all.
What are your favorite strategies for keeping outings simple and low-stress?