Taking a Mental Picture: How to Help Kids Transition to an Outdoor Activity


It can be hard to get the kids off the sofa sometimes. With Smalls, his opinion changes as often as a two-year-old says the word poop (which, in our house, is about every six seconds) and so even if he screams in outrage at the suggestion we go for a hike,  he’ll be excited to do it just minutes later. Red can be a little harder to persuade, and talking to other parents of six-year-olds, I have discovered that this is pretty common at his age.  He’s set up doing something (reading, coloring, Lego) and even if I let him know the transition is coming, he will sometimes vociferously tell me how he feels about having to go outside. Hint; he’s not happy about it.


This is the point at which it would be easy for me to just give up on the idea and carry on with our activities at home. After all, I have a never-ending flow of tidying, dishes, and laundry to do, and undoubtedly I’ve still to figure out dinner. Staying home would probably be better for my to-do list. But I know that the emotional and mental work required to persuade these little dudes to get outside will be worth it. If we stay home, there will be fighting and toys thrown, and more messes made. If we get outside, not only will it provide a much-needed break from the same-old for the boys, but we’ll have some physical activity which always seems to lighten everyone’s mood. Our perspective will literally broaden as we look out on the wide sky above and the mountains beyond instead of the four walls of our house, and the benefits of unstructured, free play will unfold in front of us. Everyone has more space, literally and mentally, and can take a bit of a break from each other.  The dynamics of our relationships change as we add in the extra relationship that we have with nature, and as a result, the tension between each of us eases slightly.  It’s a great feeling, and I know that it’s worth putting in the time to feel it. But how do I persuade the boys of that?

With both of them, I think the power of routine and repetition is the best way. They feel good when they’re outside, and they both know that. They just need reminding. For Smalls, that comes from my attitude as I discuss what we’re about to do. I need to be upbeat and slightly nonchalant about it, and if he doesn’t like the idea I come back and mention it again to him a few minutes later.  If he really doesn’t like it, well that’s too bad, because it’s what we’re doing.  I use the cheerful and confident Leader attitude to scoop him up and dress him for whatever we’re going to be doing. So many transitions can be like this for a two-year-old.  I know that it will get better, as it did with Red, even if sometimes when we’re in the depth of it and he screeches at every transition, I struggle to believe it can be true.

With Red, I have to work a little harder at persuading him that it’s worth it because he’s reached the age where it’s rarely appropriate to lift him up and force him into his outdoor clothes. And as he gets older I want him to want to go outside, so I need to find a way to help him to see that this is the right choice for him.


When we are out doing something fun, especially if he complained about having to make the transition to that activity, I ask him to take a mental picture. We hold our hands up to our face, pretending we are holding a camera. Then we use our index finger to press the button, and we make a ‘click’. It was pretty funny to begin with, which made it fun and easy to persuade him to try. It also helps that Red has an intense and detailed imagination, so it’s really easy for him to remember this picture he has taken with his mind, and how he felt at the time. This rich imagination is one of the things I love about him, but it can also cause him problems as it leads to anxiety and negative thinking, and he goes through in his mind all the difficulties that may arise in any situation.  So when I can use that detailed imagination to help him, I will!

Now when we’re preparing to go outside and I sense that pull of negativity from him, I ask him to look back through his mental photo album. If I can, I try and remember the last picture we took together in this way, and I’ll talk about the detail of it with him. We’ve been doing this practice for a few months, and recently he has started to describe the last mental picture before I do, and describe it far better than I can. Which is fantastic, as it means I have to do less cajoling as he talks himself into going outside. I’m hoping this will be a great addition to his toolbox for dealing with his emotions, and it’s certainly making my life easier!

Do you struggle with persuading your kids to go outside? I’d love if you could leave a note of any tips or tricks you use in the comments below.

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