Get Out

Three writers. Six kids. One week. #GetOutside.

Editor’s Note: In these days of recess cutbacks and iPad apps for toddlers, we all know the importance of getting kids up, moving and outside, playing in the dirt (hopefully not eating too much of it) and looking for pictures in the clouds. But here in our beloved Pacific Northwest, rainy skies and gusty winds — not to mention our year-round busy schedules — sometimes keep us tethered indoors. We asked three local writers to take our #GetOutside Challenge — spend a least an hour a day outside with their kids, every day for a week, and keep a journal about their adventures. Local mamas Kat Merck, Catherine Ryan Gregory and Alison Wilkinson show us how it’s done.

Flashlights, Slides and Trees-as-Umbrellas

By Alison Wilkinson

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Feeding the ducks at the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden.

One of my favorite things about living in Oregon is its ready access to outdoor adventures, no matter the season. So I was, by and large, excited to take on the #GetOutside challenge with my three children, ages 1, 3 and 5.

By and large. I foresaw two major obstacles: deflecting resistance, both from the tiny masses and myself; and maintaining some semblance of our delicately balanced schedules. While I did encounter both obstacles, they were totally manageable. Here is what I learned.

Leave your backyard. I knew if we stayed home the lure of the warm house would be hard to resist. So for six of the seven days, we explored. On rainy days — and we had five of them — we took advantage of the natural coverage of towering conifers to shield us from the rain. (Sellwood Park and Tryon Creek are both great options.)

Work through resistance. Day three was exceptionally cold and drizzly. On our way to the playground, my daughter balked: “Why are we always going to playgrounds!” (I know, the poor, poor dear.) I asked her to give it a try for 10 minutes, and if she was still unhappy we could go home. An hour later she still wasn’t ready to leave.

If you know a day will be tough, make the outing a showstopper. Our biggest challenge was the fourth day.

Top Left: Rain or shine, the playground is always a good get-outside bet. Top Right: Mixing things up with a night-time hike. Bottom: Don’t just stand there, Mom! There are bridges to cross!

My daughter had a class until 4:15 pm, meaning we wouldn’t be able to begin our outing until after dark. We planned a spooky evening walk around Reed Lake. I talked it up in the days beforehand — with the biggest selling point being that everyone would get their own flashlight. It felt magical to be outside so late, and like a true adventure since we hadn’t attempted this walk before. And it didn’t hurt that they knew they would be getting a cookie at the end.

Pick activities you can engage in. I realized during the Reed walk that I prefer outings I am actively engaged in. For one, it staves off hypothermia. But it also made me feel more engaged than when I was just a casual observer of their play. I kept us all active the next two days with walks at the Crystal Spring Rhododendron Gardens and Tryon Creek.

Be prepared. And not just with raingear, which goes without saying. With three small children, we have to stay on a relatively strict schedule to maintain sanity. I was unsure how we would be able to get the kids to bed somewhat on time with these post-school excursions, especially with my youngest’s 7 pm bedtime. I compensated by doing as much dinner prep in advance as possible: slow-cooker meals; make-ahead salads. On the night of our evening walk, we had leftovers.

Celebrate! My kids surprised me with their strength and their enthusiasm during this challenge. My youngest especially wowed me, climbing up and sliding down a huge slide all by himself and hiking nearly as much as his siblings. And I was impressed with how consistently being outside bled past the hour mark. Even after our 2-hour-long hike in Tryon Creek, we spent the majority of the afternoon in the backyard.

Slugs, Snails and Sticks

By Kat Merck

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Downspout + twig = one happy boy.

I’m not originally from the Pacific Northwest. Having grown up on the beach in a certain controversial state I will not name that starts with a C, I admit I felt less than enthusiastic looking at the late-winter weather forecast for the week I had chosen to spend an hour outside every day with my 3-year-old.

I wasn’t expecting sunshine and shorts, but does everything have to be so muddy? And bone-chillingly damp? Though visions of sitting in weekday traffic to visit the zoo or Forest Park loomed in my head, it turned out that, with a little imagination, it actually wasn’t too difficult to incorporate that hour into our daily routine.

DAY 1: Even though we live two blocks from a park, we don’t go as often as we should, and today was a vivid reminder of why. My son spent the entire hour ignoring my pleas to stop throwing sticks (people were hit) and running in the mud (he fell, and with the water fountains turned off for the winter, I had no way to clean him off). However, I could tell he was having a great time, and I admit it was nice to breathe some fresh air. As a bonus, a passing police car on our way home pulled a U-turn specifically to give him a sticker, which made his day.

DAY 2: It was raining too hard to walk anywhere, so we just hung out in the backyard. To my surprise, my son was quite enthusiastic about it, and despite my not having any activities planned aside from looking under rocks for slugs and snails, just the act of being outside seemed to inspire him to invent some games (mostly involving sticks, of course).

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You never know who you might meet on a neighborhood walk.

DAY 3: We often drive our son to preschool, but today he rode his bike to and from, which allowed for a “chicken hunt” around the neighborhood: listening for backyard chickens and, when possible, feeding them dandelion leaves through their coops or a fence. We also searched for nests in the leafless winter trees and discussed which birds might live there and why.

DAY 4: Today, on the way to the grocery store, we took a slightly longer route (and a bag of stale bread) to Cathedral Park to feed the entertainingly rowdy seagulls and ended up spending the entire hour watching industrial boat traffic, including a very loud tugboat attempting to park a barge and an excavator moving around some large logs. It was little-boy heaven.

DAY 5: Again, instead of driving our son to and from school, we got ready a little earlier and let him ride his bike, and again, the hour was easily filled with answering questions about the things he saw — storm drains, landscaping, birdhouses. Later on we flew a rubber-band-powered wooden plane (available for around $5 at most hobby stores) around the front yard. It was inexpensive enough that we didn’t care too much if it went in the street, on the roof, or into a tree, which allowed for some daredevil maneuvering.

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Sand, sticks, pebbles and water are the very best of toys.

DAY 6: What started out as a rainy “beach day” of digging in the sand at Kelley Point Park (take the lesser-traveled path south of Parking Lot 1, and be sure to bring sand toys!) had the unexpected bonus of watching an endless parade of 737s descending into PDX. (If your kids are airplane fanatics and you have an iPhone, be sure to ask Siri “What flights are above me?” for detailed flight information.)

DAY 7: Instead of driving to the grocery store, we walked with the stroller. It’s less than a mile away, so we usually don’t think twice about walking in the summer, but in the rain we almost always drive. Like many 3-year-olds, my son hates the stroller, so as an incentive we planned our route to hit up some Little Free Libraries on the way (click on “map” at littlefreelibrary.org to see ones in your neighborhood) for some new reading material.

Though I admit it took a lot of effort to override my instinct to stay inside during inclement weather, especially with a young child in tow, just seeing the creative inspiration he found in a pile of rocks or a large stick made the whole experiment worthwhile. It may indeed have been muddy and damp, but it was a needed reminder to always take the long way home. See you at the park!

Kat Merck is a freelance writer and editor who’s still trying to get used to the rain after 10 years in Portland. When weather permits, she enjoys hiking, fishing, and exploring the city with her family.

Banana moons, sunshine and mud galore.

By Catherine Ryan Gregory

It’s not always easy to get outside with a growing family. (Don’t believe me? You try wearing a baby while holding a toddler’s hand, a dog leash, a poop bag and an umbrella in the rain.) But the benefits of heading outside outweigh the hassle. Outdoor play increases kids’ self-esteem, social skills, physical health and more, according to research collected on childrenandnature.org. So I committed to spend an hour outside with my girls every day for a week, rain or shine. Here’s how it went.

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Up close and personal with a worm, post-storm.

Day 1: I pick today to start our #GetOutside challenge, zip everyone into jackets and step outside. Oops, I didn’t realize it was raining. But it’s a typical Oregon mist-rain, so we keep going. I’m raising Portland kids, after all, so they should get used to being soggy.

We walk to the park but I didn’t think to bring a towel to dry off the play structures. Solution: I lay a plastic poop bag (unused, obvi) on the teeter totter and swings. Her rear stays dry-ish!

+10 points for a MacGyver parenting hack.

Day 2: It’s the weekend, so my husband is available as an extra set of hands to wrangle a baby, a stubborn toddler and an even more stubborn dog. We google an hourly forecast and take our chances hiking in the day’s one rain-free window. And if the skies open up, well, at least we’re under a forest of Doug firs, aka Northwest umbrellas.

The hike is wonderful. Our toddler sprints down the hills so fast one of her Bogs flies off, and our littlest keeps up a steady rhythm of kicking in her carrier — baby-speak for excitement. We turn around in time to get home for our 6-month-old’s nap, which is a good thing: A biblical-like deluge begins moments after we get inside.

+3 points for listening to the weather man.

Day 3: We have plans to go disc golfing at Milo McIver State Park today, but the littlest is sleeping and our dog is pawing at the door. No time to wait for her to wake. I stay home and revel in the silent house while everyone else spends several hours outside.

-15 points for failing to go outdoors with both kids, +5 points for not being insane and waking a refluxy, sleep-hating infant who is miraculously taking a long nap.

Day 4: I search the Hike It Baby calendar and text a handful of friends with toddlers, but no one can join us outdoors. The kids, dog and I take a long hike at Mary S. Young Park anyway. The wet weather doesn’t bother my toddler: She loves “looking for fish” in the creeks and tromping through mud puddles. Those explorations become less charming on the way back, though, as I try to hurry her along. Naps wait for no toddler.

-5 points for snapping at my daughter for walking infuriatingly slowly.

Day 5: OH MY WORD IT’S SUNNY. Where are the sun hats? Did I pack away my sunglasses? What about the SPF? Forget it, let’s go. Who knows how long this sun will last!

+0 points. Not going outside in the winter sun is unthinkable.

Day 6: Our air ducts are being cleaned today, and the machinery sounds like we’re in a jet engine. It’s a good excuse to leave the house. Taking a toddler to the playground when you’re wearing her little sister is tough. I have to constantly explain to the big sib that I can’t lift her to the monkey bars. We compromise by taking turns running across the play structure bridge while making the silliest noises we can. On the way home, my older daughter slips while running downhill. She lands face-first in the mud and pine needles. She knows what to do: wipe off her hands and cheeks on Mom’s pants.

+3 points for today’s MVP: stain remover.

Day 7: Thanks to my work deadlines and getting the house ready to host our preschool co-op, I don’t have time today for a big outdoor adventure. Instead, I break up our commitment to go outside into smaller chunks.

We all go out to walk the dog after breakfast. With a toddler who experiments with “skating” on pavement, walking backwards and strolling with her eyes closed, plus a dog who sniffs every flippin’ bush, the two-block loop takes about a half-hour. It’s nighttime before I realize we didn’t go back outside yet. Instead of writing off another excursion, though, I ask my toddler if she’d like to go on a walk — in the dark.

Outside, she shines a flashlight into shadows and spies a “banana moon” rising above the trees. The neighborhood looks different in the dark, and novelty makes the outing a grand adventure. Later when I put her to bed, she whispers something I can’t quite hear. I bend lower. “I’m going to dream about banana moons,” she tells me.

+1,000,000 points for making memories I’ll cherish forever.

Catherine Ryan Gregory is a mom, writer and lover of all things outdoors in West Linn. Follow her adventures (and misadventures) at TenThousandHourMama.com.

Take the PDX Parent #GetOutside Challenge with your kids! Simply go outside for one hour each day for one week, then post your photos to facebook.com/PDXParentonline with the hash tag #GetOutside.