Baby meets the great outdoors

My in-laws live in rural Maine, and this means ample opportunities for outdoor fun when we visit. One time, when my daughter was about 2½ and my son was around 8 months old, we decided to take them on a hike. 

We read about a relatively easy trail that meandered through a forest before ending with the great reveal of a magnificent waterfall. Surely the kids would have their socks knocked off! 

We packed Lydia into her “queen chair” (our hiking-friendly backpack carrier) and Felix into the Ergo. We trekked through the woods and finally arrived, sweaty and triumphant, at the waterfall. Then we checked on the kids — both asleep. Eventually Lydia woke up, an event my husband remembers: 

“She was all groggy, and complained that the sun was in her eyes when I tried to get her to look at the waterfall. I asked if she thought it was beautiful and she nodded unconvincingly. She freaked out when I tried to bring her closer to the waterfall because she was afraid of a dog that was prancing around and barking. Then she started whining for snacks and water (which we had hardly any of). We just started back down at that point.” 

Maintain perspective
Venturing into the great outdoors with your baby can be a magical thing. If you’re like me and had your baby (or babies) in the fall or winter, the beginning of warm weather can seem like the herald of utopia. 

After months spent pacing your dimly lit rooms, there are suddenly so many sunny options — splashing around in Lake Calhoun! Visiting the dandelion fountain in Loring Park! Flopping around on a blanket near the Lyndale Park Rose Garden!

But there’s also the potential for new pressures. 

“I must take my baby outside in order to expose her to nature and support her cognitive development!” you might find yourself thinking. This perspective is widely backed by Early Childhood Google Education authorities. 

For example, one article — Why Outdoor Play Boosts Your Baby’s and Toddler’s Brain Cells and More — promises that outdoor play will result in a child who “shares better,” has a “more pleasant personality,” is “worldly” and destined to become a “great thinker.” 

Focus on fun
Call me contrary, but all of this focus on the enriching aspects of outdoor time can really suck the fun out of a casual walk down by the river. 

“Look at her there, all passive and miserable!” I’d think to myself. “She should be rolling around in the grass, improving her chances in life through direct contact with the earth.” 

Elizabeth McLister of Minneapolis — mother to Wolf, age 3, plus a second child on the way in August — recently bemoaned modern parenting’s obsession with finding “educational” benefit in every activity. 

“I love spending time with my little one every single day, but I remember feeling put-upon to maximize my son’s enrichment at the expense of my own well-being during the first year of his life,” she said. “I assumed that a surfeit of undivided attention and structured, child-centered activities equated to better parenting.”  

Keep it simple
So what should you do? Of course it’s completely up to you, but I’d like to offer the reminder that your baby’s very portable and he doesn’t talk back. 

So get outside this summer for sure, but keep a strong focus on your own enjoyment. That might mean a trip to the patio at Bauhaus Brew Labs takes precedence over a trip to gaze upon the lemurs at the Minnesota Zoo. Remember, you’ve got the rest of your life to visit the “Wells Fargo Family Farm.”

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Write her at