The author's family on an outdoor adventure on San Juan Island. Credit: Lisette Wolter-McKinley
When I first saw the 1000 Hours Outside idea, I was determined to make this our family New Year’s resolution. I’d never thought to do a family goal before, but the boon of our collectively surviving this pandemic (so far) seemed like as good a moment as any to start. The 1000 Hours Outside challenge is an idea started by Ginny Yurich, a Michigan mom who aims to encourage families to spend more time outdoors with their kids.
Sadly, kids in the United States ages 8–12 average more than 1,400 hours of time on screens per year; it’s even more for teens. The idea behind the challenge is simple: If our kids can spend that much time being inactive, surely they can spend close to an equal amount being active outside.
A jump in screen time
Virtual school last year dramatically increased our son’s screen time. The main negative effect of this enormous jump was that he moved far less during the “school day.” In an effort to make up for this — and to make sure the whole family is moving more — we have committed to spending three hours (on average) a day outside all year. Studies across the board have linked improved mental health, creativity and happiness with being outside, and in the midst of a pandemic, we could all use more of those things right now.
The fun of tracking
When my husband bought our 6-year-old a fitness tracker for Christmas, I thought it was an odd present. We’re already a pretty active family — biking, hiking and camping — so I did not see the need for such a device. I also worried our son was a bit too young to be weighed down by stats on how many steps he takes or how many minutes a day he’s active. Flash forward a couple of weeks and I am happy to report I was wrong. My son is delighted to have so much information at handl. He’s downright giddy when he reaches 10,000 steps. The “fireworks” displayed on his watch at the end of the day is the cherry on top.
So, although we’re already a family dedicated to time outdoors, I took inspiration from my son and his Fitbit and decided the 1,000 Hours Outside challenge would offer us the joy and rewards to be found in tracking. At three hours a day outdoors, it’s a tall order, especially during the cold, damp winter months. But we aim to try. Maybe for your family, a good goal is an hour a day outdoors. No matter a family’s individual goal, we can all reap the benefits, especially our kids.
Tips for achieving more time outside
Here are my plans and strategies for our family logging 1,000 hours outside this year. I hope they provide you with some ideas and inspiration!
1. Go one day a week without using a car.
As a one-car family, this sometimes isn’t always by choice, but it is fun to see just how many places we can discover in our neighborhood. We have quickly realized there are a lot of places we don’t need to go, or errands we can complete within a walkable distance. Instead, we can spend the time walking around our neighborhood, visiting a nearby park and getting to know our little neck of the woods better.
2. Add 10 minutes to whatever you’re doing outdoors.
This is easy at the playground. Whenever we are at the park, my children don’t want to leave. I have to say “10 more minutes” and set a timer to get them to go. Make this a habit in whatever you do. If you are walking to school to pick something up or to the grocery store, see how much farther you can explore if you add 10 minutes to your walk. Even if you are just playing in the yard with your dog, stretch out the playtime to add minutes, even playing outside in the dark.
3. Go outside the moment school is over.
The moment my son has finished with school, we head out for a walk around the neighborhood or go on a bike ride. Outside, my son applies what he’s learning in elementary school. On our walks we spend lots of time pointing out street signs to read and discovering all the shapes we can spot. He’s even teaching his baby sister important things such as how to stomp in a puddle for maximum splash! A nature scavenger hunt can give your walk a purpose.
4. Replace a driving errand with walking.
We are a family who visits our local library branch at least twice a week. We used to drive and now we walk, every time. For your family, a possible destination might be the neighborhood park, the grocery store or a friend’s house where you just stop by to say hello. For us, this small adjustment has made it easier to build in outdoor time during our typical weekday errands.
5. Incentives, incentives, incentives!
Learn what motivates both your child and your family. My son eagerly peruses REI catalogs for fun and has an ongoing list of books he would like to own. He knows I am more apt to buy him the fancy wool socks, head lamp or the cool water bottle for his bike if he is outdoors moving and has an actual use for these things. Presenting him with opportunities to get more cool gear is an incentive for him. My son is also an avid bookworm, so if he wants an extra trip to the library or a new book for his shelves, that can be an incentive for agreeing to go on a longer hike. Our whole family is easily motivated by good food, so the promise of pizza or ice cream is always a great motivator.
6. Invest in gear that will keep you all comfortable.
The right gear for the weather is key. A wide-brim hat is essential for a long day at the beach, a sturdy pair of rain boots has me joining my kids in the puddle-jumping fun, and our waterproof jackets make drizzly days outside no problem. My son typically wears a jacket over a fleece over a T-shirt. He often takes off the jacket when we’re hiking or biking. Dressing in layers keeps kids comfortable, which is critical for enjoying outside time.
7. Plan trips centered around being outside.
Before the pandemic, I might have planned a trip to a new city and come up with a long list of places to visit while there. Now, the main event is going somewhere just to be outside. A few of my favorite ideas: booking a cabin in the woods or by the beach, or renting a camper van to stay in campgrounds in new landscapes.
One pandemic boost
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has taken away a lot from so many families. But one plus for our family, at least, has been that we have gone on so many more walks, hikes and bike rides — they have kept us sane.
While so many things have been off-limits, the outdoors have been the one constant remaining open. We have taken a camper van trip to Mount Rainier, camped on a beach and hiked in the North Cascades, among many smaller adventures. It’s been clarifying for me: I don’t want our family’s happiness tied to extraneous things that can be taken away; rather, we’ve found our happiness in being outside and being together. That is my continued hope for our family — and yours — in 2022.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2021 and updated for 2022.