What makes a kid fall in love with the outdoors? As my friends begin to produce offspring at an alarming rate, I am reflecting on my role as uncle, hunting guide, and owner of a “scary” lab that licks too much. While working at a ski resort, I’ve seen some kids begging parents to go home and others begging for one more run. From what I’ve heard and seen, it’s best to quit while you’re ahead, start slow and remember what it’s like to be in their hunting boots.
A Bad Example
In 2019 I took my nephews and their dad on a pheasant hunt. We hunted a reliable draw for about 90 minutes. The dog flushed one hen, but we did not find any roosters. My brother-in-law enjoyed the beautiful fall weather and watching the dog work. The boys were less enthusiastic. To them, the hunt was a hot, boring walk through thick grass.
My nephews had seen YouTube channels with three bulls harvested during every episode. Their expectation was to get a bird, and in their eyes the hunt was a failure without one. From keeping up with the dog to remaining focused, they weren’t prepared for the demands of the hunt. Outdoor expertise comes from years of trial and error, and as a kid struggling to keep up, outings can quickly become overwhelming.
My friend wants his two-year-old son to love skiing. He originally planned Colorado trips for the toddler. Then changed his mind and decided to spend the first few years on bunny hills in Iowa. His son won’t know the difference. And, smaller resorts will provide everything needed for a beginner; dangerous, steep terrain can wait.
Think of a pellet gun like a bunny hill. Worst case scenario, he dings up the mailbox or chips your windshield. Pellet guns allow children to experience a hunt while reducing the likelihood of serious injury. As kids miss rabbits and spook squirrels they learn many of the skills necessary to fill tags. When it comes time for bigger game, they will have taken enough green runs to handle a black.
Meaningless or Not?
When a nephew or niece joins a hunt, provide menial tasks like holding binoculars, pouring dog water or determining wind direction. Little jobs we overlook feel like a big responsibility to a novice. Let them carry an unloaded gun back to the truck after the hunt. If they have taken hunters safety, ask what they learned or take time to identify tracks along the trail. Slow hunts can seem like an eternity to kids with short attention spans; treat them as a teammate rather than a spectator to keep them engaged throughout.
Quit while You’re Ahead
My brother works ski patrol. Many of his coworkers bring their kids to the mountain. The key ingredient to fostering a love of skiing? Hot chocolate. His coworker advises,“Take them on a couple runs then get hot chocolate in the lodge.” Leave it at that. The kids will have fun and want to come back next year. Slowly the ratio of runs to hot chocolate becomes more reasonable.
It’s tough to remember middle school. Your only areas of expertise are spitballs and water balloons. Walking through bean fields and jumping creeks wears you out quickly when you’re four and half feet tall. As a mentor you’ll have to hunt at a snail’s pace, and take more breaks. It may not be hot chocolate. But, keep an eye out for what gets the young guns excited as well as where they struggle. Remember some snacks, and leave on a high note.
Finish the hunt with the kids wanting more, not begging to go home and play video games. It’s better to think, “We could have stayed out a little longer” than, “We should have quit an hour earlier.” Whether it’s wearing the right boots or finding efficient trails, outdoor skills take time to develop. Start slow and introduce responsibilities that match their abilities.