Raising Outdoor Kids: Not knowing everything is part of the adventure

We hear too often from people that they want to adventure out, explore more with their kids like we do, but they don’t know how.

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From left: Dominic Nicita (11), Josie Nicita (13) and Lulu Nicita (10) in Sedona.

When I walked out of REI with a rental backpack more than three years ago, my kids could feel my excitement. I was absolutely giddy. I think I hugged the pack, which would have to carry everything I would need for four days.

They couldn’t see that I had no idea what I was doing. I was going backpacking for almost a week, and I didn’t even own a backpack. They didn’t seem to notice that detail.

I didn’t know what I was doing when I took them to Utah a year later, hiking through Zion National Park and camping at Sand Hollow — a lovely reservoir with red sand. I actually didn’t even know the route we’d take, dismissing Google Maps and relying instead on a handheld, paperback atlas for the road.

They didn’t know what I didn’t know. And they were just fine with the adventure. I guess what I’m saying is, there’s something special in the “not knowing.” There are butterflies and laughter and problem-solving and detours and memories.

It’s an important concept to consider as school returns and takes whatever form it will in the midst of a pandemic. And it’s important throughout parenthood — a stage of life when most of us (if we’re honest) are often clueless, yet we encourage our kids to learn or try something new every day. We ask it of our kids — the doing without knowing — but we often shy away from it ourselves.

It’s OK if we don’t know, and if we just try. I say this because experience really is the teacher for everything. We hear too often from people that they want to adventure out, explore more with their kids like we do, but they don’t know how.

Here’s the best news ever for adventures: There is no comprehensive rule book. No curriculum. No test.

Ron didn’t know how to replace the radiator in our adventure wagon after we collided with a deer just south of Flagstaff on our way to see the solar eclipse in Idaho. But he did it. And the kids were totally cool with the detour, coloring and reading books in the backseat as he fixed our ride in an auto parts parking lot.

I struggled like an absolute rookie to get a campfire going at our beach camp site last year, incorrectly stacking wood while the kids tried to get things started by burning precious toilet paper while Ron dove for lobster after dark. I’m sure I was a sight. Or a pity? Either way, a gracious neighbor helped us get things going, and Ron arranged for a campfire lesson with me when we got home.

There is so much not knowing in the outdoors. We don’t know the trails, we don’t know how long things will take, we don’t know what we’ll see or if we’ll have enough fruit snacks. We just know we want to find out what’s around that corner, what’s at the top of the mountain, what it feels like to paddle in that water.

There’s joy in empowering your kids to help you figure things out, and joy in learning along with them. They don’t know things every day, because that’s childhood. And it’s nice to taste that every so often as grown-ups.

Lulu Nicita takes a leap. Lisa and Ron, or course, first made sure the water was deep enough.

5 hands-on outdoor learning challenges

Get started now with something you don’t know. It will give everyone a break from digital learning!

  1. Grow something. Visit your local nursery and bring home a plant or seeds that will work for your family.
  2. Hike a new trail. Ask around or flip through Instagram for a trail you’ve never hiked and go discover it (early in the morning or in the evening during the hottest months).
  3. Overcome obstacles. Create a fun backyard obstacle course and challenge everyone to a race.
  4. Hook a catfish. Perfect for night fishing, try to reel in a catfish, even if you’ve never cast a line.
  5. Get on a board. Try stand-up paddleboarding at Tempe Town Lake or Lake Pleasant — the earlier in the day the better.