How to get your children out for a walk on a cold, wet day

Jessica Hatcher-Moore, journalist and author of After Birth: How to Recover Body and Mind, described by Marina Fogel as 'essential reading for all parents to be', understands the very real importance for body and mind of spending time in nature. All photos credit to Phil Hatcher-Moore

Finn Hatcher-Moore putting the Töastie 3-in-1 Raincoat through its paces.

We are so grateful to Jessica for sharing her inspirational ways to entice little ones out on adventures this January, leaving no valid excuses to not step out into the great outdoors. 

"Run ahead and devise a game where you become a train station. Allocate jobs on the train and then move onto the next station. Your imagination can carry you a very long way. Race them. Chase them. Get a tickling stick from the hedge ..."
A good walk is a simple pleasure. Unless you have small children. In which case it can — at times — feel more like a military operation that tests even the most unflappable of parents. In January, enjoying the outdoors with your children can feel harder than ever. Last week, I found myself cursing the hill, the weather, the children, my life; I felt my patience ebbing away as my usually ebullient elder child refused to take another step because his legs “had run out of energy”. I consoled myself with the mantra that it's always worth it, no matter how great the effort. Nothing beats the triumph of returning home and knowing that it doesn’t matter what you do with the rest of the day, because you have earned it (even if it does then involve a remote control). 

The first rule is of walking with small children is that it is never predictable. A walk that may begin badly – crying, whining, or just a polite refusal to leave the house – can turn into a glorious, unparalleled success, with smiley, sunlit pictures to show for it. A walk that is initially met with enthusiasm by your smallest team members can quickly descend into misery and failure when someone gets cold or falls face-first into a puddle. All whilst you, the parent(s), are pounded with alternating waves of regret, frustration, self-pity and desperation. More often than not, though, enjoying the outdoors involves a walk through all of these emotions: a bit of moaning and a few tears balanced out by smiles and laughter. The key is to remember the latter.

We live in North Wales, in a walkers’ paradise. Being extremely hilly, however, its soul-stirring contours are less than ideal when your legs are 35 centimetres long. We therefore spend our weekends chasing the Holy Grail of walks: dramatic scenery for the adults, manageable terrain for the 2- and 5-year-olds, and freedom for the dog. In the process of this, I have developed some basic rules of engagement, which I am happy to share with you. 
  1. Don’t mention the w…
Some children love going for walks; a friend’s daughter complains that her legs get bored and begs her parents to take her outside, no matter what the weather. My children are not like that. They like watching cartoons, jumping on sofas and playing with trains when it’s cold and rainy, and playing with tractors, hose pipes and mud pies when the sun is shining. For this reason, I avoid using the word ‘walk.’ We go on picnics, bike rides, treasure hunts, bear hunts, fairy hunts, climbing expeditions, literally anything as long as it’s not a “walk”.
  1. It’s all about the destination. 
Adults like circular walks; children like to get somewhere. Set a destination – a particular rock (we have a ‘picnic rock’ that tops our steepest footpath), a hollow tree where fairies live – and focus on what you’ll do when you get there. In our case, that usually involves food, climbing, or a combination of the two.

  1. Talk and sing your way around. 
Children walk better when they forget they’re walking. Sing – you know the songs, the ants marching or the wheels going round – or ask them questions that will get them to talk. You’ll be amazed how much faster they walk if you can get them talking about something they find interesting. (The risk here is that you find yourself bursting into song sans enfants. My husband recently found himself atop Snowdonia’s Carneddau mountains in thick fog, belting out Winnie-the-Pooh songs to no one – which was fine until another rambler emerged from the mist.)
  1. Make it a game. 
Run ahead and devise a game where you become a train station. Allocate jobs on the train and then move onto the next station. Your imagination can carry you a very long way. Race them. Chase them. Get a tickling stick from the hedge if you need a prop – I can usually get another 500 metres out of my eldest with the help of some cow parsley (not to be mistaken with giant hogweed – a poisonous menace that with caustic sap that could have the opposite effect).

  1. Break it down.
Offer rewards for reaching waypoints. I used to run marathons and would spend the race doing mental arithmetic to determine what proportion of the race I’d run and when I should next have an energy sweet. It’s the same with the kids – set small goals, and reward them for reaching them. 
  1. Take props. 
If you still need nappies, the last thing you want is to have to carry more in your bag but hiding a teddy in a tree – ‘a bear hunt’ – or sticking a fairy door to a hollow stump – ‘a fairy glen’ – can get you through a tough patch. Random props can help. 
  1. A word on sweets.
We don’t buy our children sweets – but other people do. The most common source of sugary sweets in our house is children’s party bags, which often come stuffed with candy cane, Haribo and Skittles. I feel churlish confiscating them, either to eat myself or throw away, so instead we keep them for walks, and let the kids consume them in small quantities when they’re on their way up a hill and need a boost. It seems fair, and it gives me a handy weapon in my arsenal for when someone refuses to go for a walk because it’s raining outside. The more contraband the sweet, the greater the physical feat required to eat it.

  1. Add an extra layer.
Until kids walk themselves, they get very cold. For anyone under three, add one or two more layers than you think necessary – because as soon as they get cold, they get miserable.
  1. Make it a microadventure. 
When I’m on my own with the children, I lower my expectations considerably. Sometimes we go for a picnic on the hill just a few metres above the house. A friend of mine, the explorer Al Humphreys, coined the term microadventure – an adventure that is short, simple, local and cheap, yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding – to prove that you don’t need to go far to have an adventure. And it’s the same with your children – with a bit of imagination, even the back garden will do. As Al says, “Adventure is only a state of mind.” 

  1. If all else fails, pretend.
Occasionally, the weather really is too filthy to make it worth dragging small children outside, no matter how weather-proof their gear. In this case, my children like to role play a walk and a picnic. I let them pack the hamper and the blanket and off they go – singing marching songs around the house and setting up an elaborate ‘picnic’, the bigger one bossing the little one around and handing out Mini Babybels with magnanimity.
Think about who you’re doing it for. Are you doing it to give your children a respect for nature or their physical and mental health? To burn off their pent-up energy or walk the dog? Or is it simply because you need some air – an equally valid reason? Whatever it is, steel yourself, turf them out, and get them walking.