Rewilding the American Child

When (and How) to Introduce Your Kid to Outdoor Sports

Children are much more likely to enjoy outdoor activities—and stick with them—if they start out at the right moment in their physical and cognitive development.

Focus on fun and go slow. (TadejZupancic/iStock)
Child

Kids also do best when they’re allowed to explore, instead of being cajoled into ever more challenging situations. “Too many parents approach sports with a fixed mindset, saying, We’ve got to get to the end of this trail,’” says Paul Dreyer, CEO of Avid4 Adventure, which instructs kids ages three and up at camps in Colorado and California. “You’ll have a lot more success if you say, ‘Let’s go get better at the two skills you learned last week.’ ” Here, he offers guidelines for introducing kids to four common sports, but his overarching advice to focus on fun and go slow applies to all manner of activities.

Biking

  • Most kids are ready for a balance bike (a ride with no pedals) by their third birthday. They may scoot slowly at first, but eventually they’ll be lifting both feet off the ground for long stretches. Even then, however, there’s no reason to race out and get a real bike.
  • When they upgrade to a pedal bike—usually around age five—keep it simple: a coaster brake and no gears.
  • Add gears and hand brakes when they have demonstrated the requisite coordination to manage all these functions simultaneously (and have hands large enough to reach the levers).
  • Throughout their training, talk through hazards (pedestrians, street crossings) and establish rules, like leaving ample space between riders. By tracking their ability to assess risks, you’ll know when they’re ready to cruise the neighborhood alone.

Climbing

  • This sport comes naturally to toddlers, but you can fuel their passion by joining them on a playground structure or boulder. If they get stuck, ask if they want to move a foot or hand one more time, but avoid telling them where to put it.
  • When they’re around six, take them to a climbing gym. Show them how ­belaying works, teach them knots, and get them used to checking equipment. When they tucker out, spend time watching talented climbers of all ages for inspiration.
  • Once they have solid skills, head to an outdoor crag for top-roping. As you venture farther afield, make them earn the right to belay you or lead climb—big moments that probably shouldn’t arrive until they’re in their teens.

Paddle Sports

  • Don’t wait for your kids to be able to swim. Put them in a PFD and take mellow lake or bay outings together on a sit-on-top kayak, paddleboard, or canoe. Have them float in the PFD, too, so you’ll both know what to expect if they fall in.
  • Once they’ve gotten comfortable, give them kid-size paddles so they can “help.” Don’t sweat their technique—just let them learn how it feels to move the water and steer the boat.
  • When kids show an interest in managing their own watercraft, paddle alongside them and have conversations about factors like wind and other boaters. Wait until they’re at least seven before you let them go out alone—in calm conditions while you’re on the beach with another boat.
  • Moving up to rivers, the ocean, or any waterway with significant traffic means starting the process all over again.

Skateboarding

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids be supervised when skating until age ten, but you can get them rolling much earlier. Before they ever stand on a board, make them put on a helmet, plus wrist, elbow, and knee pads. Explain that falling is part of skating and have them practice tumbling in their gear.
  • Make them stand with one foot forward and then the other a few times to decide which stance is more comfortable. When you head for the blacktop, begin with slow pushes and glides. Have them practice stepping off the board to avoid a fall and sliding a foot to brake. Show them how to turn in a full circle, riding forward and backward. When they can consistently balance on flats and gentle slopes, they’re ready to try the shallowest bowls at your local skate park.
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