Gadgets Off, Backpacks On: Getting Your Kids Outdoors in Knoxville

Getting outdoors is a great bonding experience for kids and parents.
Getting outdoors is a great bonding experience for kids and parents. Brian McNeal/U.S. Department of Agriculture
Made Possible by
Curated by

As the weather warms, the woods grow green, and plants, animals, and critters of all kinds emerge cheerfully from their dens, there's one distinct, unique species that remains elusive and rare in the forests: kids.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Nature Conservancy found that only about 10 percent of kids spend any amount of time outside on a daily basis. Meanwhile, 88 percent say they dedicate time every day to surfing the internet, and 69 percent watch TV or play video games. A variety of factors contribute to this disheartening trend, but luckily, there's hope: Some 66 percent of the young people polled who had a personal experience with nature said that the experience made them appreciate it more.

That group was also twice as likely to say they prefer to spend their time outdoors and "more than twice as likely to strongly agree that protecting the environment is cool," according to the study. The future of our public lands, wilderness areas, local green spaces, and national parks lies in the small hands of these young people, and we want those hands to spend a little less time wrapped around game controllers and a little more time wrapped around canoe paddles and walking sticks. So to help with that goal, here are a few ideas on how (and where) to get our kids outside this summer.

Start Small and Work Up to Bigger

Walking through Knoxville's Ijams Nature Center.
Walking through Knoxville's Ijams Nature Center. Zach Hopkins

For kids who don’t spend a lot of time outside, an all-day hike in the mountains or a weekend fishing trip sounds intimidating or boring. One of the hardest parts about getting kids to enjoy the outdoors is to get them comfortable with discomfort. If most of their chosen leisure time is spent indoors and in front of a screen, they might not be used to the idea that something physically uncomfortable can also be fun. Heat, bugs, soreness, might not be aspects of what they’d consider a good time, so it's important to start with small, short excursions to build their interest and preserve your sanity.

Try a short hike at Ijams Nature Center or a swim at Mead's Quarry Lake to start, and work your way up to maybe a full day-hike at Big South Fork or a kayaking trip on Norris Lake.

Start Close

Opportunities for kid-friendly adventure abound around Knoxville.
Opportunities for kid-friendly adventure abound around Knoxville. Jake Wheeler

Provide Access

It might sound simple, but access is actually one of the major factors that keeps kids from connecting with the outdoors. In the nature conservancy survey, researchers found that 62 percent of kids polled said lack of transportation to natural areas caused them to forgo outdoor activities. Some parents in low-income families don't have time or resources to transport their children to green spaces. Other families might be held back because those who typically visit public lands don't look like them. A recent visitor survey from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park found that 97 percent of park visitors were white.

Fortunately, there are initiatives to help diversify the Smokies' guest list. Cassius Cash, the first African-American superintendent of the park, will hike with 20 different groups of kids this year, all from diverse backgrounds, in an effort to inspire the next generation to preserve and protect our national parks.

If you're ready and willing to take the kids outside, but don't know where to start, check out our destination guides.

Let Them Bring Their Friends

This approach can work great for camps too. There are some great summer camps  in Knoxville, and your kids will be way more into it if they have a group of friends to go with.

Sometimes, peer pressure can be a good thing. According to The Nature Conservancy survey, 91 percent of kids polled said that if a friend encouraged them to spend more time outdoors, they would listen. So if you're struggling to get your child outside, coordinate with other parents to make it a group outing. They'll all be more likely to engage in the adventure, and you might get to see a side of your kid that he or she doesn't reveal when it's just a family affair.

One of the best things to help a kid get outside is to show them that there are safe, fun spaces in town for them to play. This might mean discovering a new nearby park, exploring the woods behind your house, or participating in a local outdoor festival or event. As Knoxville's greenway system continues to grow, more and more of the city's neighborhoods will have direct pedestrian connections to parks, boardwalks, and wilderness areas.

Learn Something New Together

Discovering something alongside your kids allows you to learn from each other and experience nature in a fresh way.
Discovering something alongside your kids allows you to learn from each other and experience nature in a fresh way. Logan Mahan

Sometimes kids can be intimidated by learning something new—especially if it's something the you're already great at it. So try learning something  with your kids. Maybe you can try the new Navitat Adventure Course or take a stand-up paddleboard yoga class with Billy Lush. When you become a co-learner with your child, that also offers the opportunity to ... 

Show The Fun in Failing

It can be inspirational for your kids to watch you fail, and it shows them that it’s okay for them to fail, too. After all, one of the best things about the outdoors is how spontaneous and wild it can be. But that lack of control can also be intimidating for kids—and their parents. We're definitely not suggesting you forgo proper planning or intentionally but yourself at unnecessary risk. It's good that you want your kids to be safe, have a good time, and return home with minimal poison ivy, bug bites, and of course, injuries. But no matter how hard you try, you can’t control everything that happens in the outdoors, and that’s a great lesson for kids—and parents—to learn.

Don’t rob your kids of that lesson by creating an illusion of control and safety. If an experience is totally free of risk, it’s probably also free of spontaneity, excitement, adventure, and fun. Yes, you might get a little lost. Sure, you might slip and fall. Of course you'll eventually take a nasty whipper while rock climbing. But these things are all part of life outdoors (and life in general). And when your kids see see that fun can still be had even when things don't go exactly as planned, that's when they'll really start savoring the adventure of being outdoors.

Last Updated:

Next Up


Best Rhododendron Hikes in the South: On the Trail of Beautiful Blooms


5 Ski Adventures to Start Dreaming About Now