Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, MA, LMFT, of Odyssey Outdoors
Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, founder of Odyssey Outdoors.

Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, MA, LMFT, of Odyssey Outdoors

TJ On The Trail With…, exclusive interviews with Hiking Experts,  By T.J. Fraser

“But I don’t WANNA’…..”

We’ve all heard that phrase which is often delivered with a bit of a whine and maybe a foot stomp. It comes from our kids, our friend’s kids, nieces, nephews and maybe a stranger’s kid which makes us shake our heads in adult commiseration and be thankful we’re not the ones locking in to battle.

Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, founder of Odyssey Outdoors.

Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, founder of Odyssey Outdoors.

While we may want our kids to eat healthier they might not “wanna’.” We might ask them to put down the smartphone and go outside and play but there’s a good chance they don’t “wanna’.” And inviting a resistant child to head out on the trail to walk in the dirt? “I don’t wanna’” typically means an impasse has been reached.

Unfortunately, this impasse is playing out around the nation with a generation of overweight children becoming ever more disconnected with the natural environment and our animal instinct to be outdoors. Thankfully, there are individuals and organizations out there who seek to change that.

Seattle-based family counselor Debbie Steinberg Kuntz is the founder of Odyssey Outdoors a family adventure group the focuses on character strength development and positive psychology with nature serving as the classroom.

With a background that includes working as a ranger in Mt. Rainier National Park and as an international business analyst for REI, Debbie was also one of the co-founders of leading online outdoor retailer Altrec.com. She has melded her passion for the outdoors with her career as a counselor to help children develop confidence and character while providing parents with an invaluable shared experience that resonates long after the sun sets on a day spent in nature.

T.J. Fraser: Really appreciate you taking the time for Mountain Hiking Debbie.

Debbie Steinberg Kuntz:  I’m very glad to do it. Thanks.

T.J.: So what was your motivation to create Odyssey Outdoors?

DSK: Odyssey Outdoors began as an offshoot of my family counseling practice.  I kept hearing a theme among clients that they were too busy to research, plan and put fun activities on the calendar.  Fun is the glue that keeps families connected and thriving. I wanted to provide a framework to make it easier for families to get outside, both through the blog and family adventure groups.

T.J.: I have to guess there was some trial and error involved in figuring out what kids responded to best on the trail.

DSK: Absolutely.  We have a formula down now that includes three things that make kids happier on the trail: friends, treats, and a fun destination that preferably involves swimming or getting wet.

T.J.: What are some of the benefits to families who spend time together in nature?

DSK: If you think of relationships like an emotional bank account, then spending fun time together is like a deposit, and difficult times are the withdrawals. We all need a surplus of deposits and spending time together hiking, camping, biking and skiing is like money in the emotional bank account.  There’s also been a number of studies that show that time spent in nature reduces stress. Plus, it’s just plain fun!

T.J.: It is fun, isn’t it? But as we know, that fun comes with responsibility. I think that’s what sets hiking apart from many other recreational activities. So how can we teach kids to be safe without making them feel like nature is something to be afraid of?

DSK: We focus on conscientiousness and that begins with packing the ten essentials at home. The kids help pack the backpack and they understand how all the essentials work.  As long as we’re prepared there should be no need to worry.

T.J.: So by their taking part in the preparing they have a personal investment in the outcome.

DSK: Not sure if the investment is in the journey or the outcome, but either way they experience a greater sense of belonging and also feel more confident that they will know what to do outdoors.  That sense of “I can do it!” is the bedrock of a child’s self-esteem.

T.J.: What lessons do you think children learn from being outdoors and how are they carried over in to their everyday lives?

DSK: It’s really easy to find opportunities to use and develop character strengths outdoors. There’s the conscientiousness in getting ready, perseverance when the going gets tough, kindness through ‘leave no trace’, teamwork, and so many others.

T.J.: So when the going gets tough, which is frequent fact of hiking, how can we walk the line between challenging kids and providing a sense of accomplishment and turning them off when things stop becoming “fun?”

DSK: First of all, it’s important to set expectations. Pick a hike that is well matched to your kids’ age and ability and then let them know what to expect.  Hiking goes much better when kids bring a friend.  Also, have treats ready when kids start to grumble. Even better if the treat is something special they don’t normally get to have.  Maybe even save something as a reward when they get back to the car.

T.J.: I like that. I’m going to need to start leaving a Snickers bar in my car at the trailhead. So after having led many family outings, what are your top “Do’s and Don’ts” about hiking with kids?

DSK: I think the important “do’s” are to plan a hike with an interesting destination that preferably has a lake or waterfall. Reaching a goal provides something to work towards and a sense of accomplishment when it’s reached. Kids also tend to have more fun with other kids so bring some friends along on the hike as well as some treats they’ll enjoy. Geocaching is also a great way to provide some excitement on the trail.

Some don’ts for hiking with kids is to avoid picking a hike that is too long, steep or boring. Also, they’re not half as excited about scenic viewpoints as you are. And while a lot of hikers like to rack up the miles when you’re hiking, with kids it’s important to not rush. It’s all about smiles not miles. And as is the case for anyone hitting the trail, don’t leave unprepared and make sure you bring the 10 essentials.

T.J.: What can we do, whether we have children or not, to encourage young people to get out and take a hike?

DSK: The single most important thing you can do is invite a child to hike.  If their parents and friends aren’t doing it, then the kids won’t either.  Monkey see, monkey do. _______________________________________________________________________________

According to a recent nationwide Nature Conservancy poll of 600 children about their attitudes toward nature, 80 percent said it was uncomfortable to be outdoors due to things like bugs and heat and only 66% said they had some kind of “personal experience” in nature.

But most interestingly, 91% said that if they had a friend or relative who encouraged them to spend time in nature they would listen.

We all know how hiking impacts us even when we’re off the trail. The lessons we learn and the respect for nature we gain carries over in to many facets of our lives. Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, and others like her, understand that by reaching our children today and introducing them to nature in a way that is fun and exciting, we are helping to develop character, teaching personal responsibility and instilling a lifelong appreciation for our natural environment.  Debbie is doing her part. And we should too.

A big Mountain Hiking thanks to Debbie for sharing her thoughts. To learn more about her work, and get some great tips about hiking with kids and the benefit to families, you can pay her a visit at Odyssey Outdoors.

And if you’d like to catch an awesome clip of the kinds of adventures Debbie leads; click on this link. It answers the age-old question: “How many kids can you fit in a snow cave?”

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