Actually Enjoy Family Outings by Remembering How to Play

“We have to keep going if we’re going to see everything before they close,” I said over my shoulder as I began to walk towards the next zoo exhibit.

“No! I wanna see chimpanzees!” My daughter, then aged 3 going on 13, stamped her foot and gave me her best look of defiance.

I didn’t want to spend more than the 2 minutes we already spent looking at chimpanzees. They were boring, and besides, we still had a lot of zoo to cover. But I was also tired and hot, and it was cool down in the primate area. I looked at my daughter, I looked at the chimpanzees, and thought maybe a break wasn’t a bad idea. So I strode back over to her and looked around for anything that would keep me from dying from boredom.

Up to that point in my parenting life I dreaded family outings. I mean, I enjoyed them at the end, when we were all back home and in one piece and I looked at the photos and knew we survived. But everything before that was just pure stress. I had to get everyone ready, then to the place. And then kids dawdled and had to be reminded to keep up. Then ran off and had to be told to stay close. They’d get tired. Overstimulated. Hungry. Bored. And I had to get them from Point A to Point B in one piece with minimum meltdowns and a smile on my face, because that meant we were having fun.

I’m smiling which means this zoo trip must have been a lot of fun.

That day at the zoo was the first step of me re-learning how to experience the world playfully, like a child. As I scanned the area for anything interesting to look at, I found information about the individual chimpanzees. I read it aloud and I told my daughter I was going to see if I could figure out which chimpanzee was which. Her and her older brother quickly joined in. I tried guessing what the chimpanzees were thinking, giving silly voices to their inner dialogues that made the kids, and then me, laugh. I wondered what their natural habitat was really like, and found the plaque showing a map of where they would be living if they were in the wild.

We ended up spending 2 hours in the primate area, spending time with the monkeys and apes in a leisurely manner, then went home tired, but happy and fulfilled. It was the least boring zoo visit I had ever had.

That was 15 years ago, and although it isn’t always perfect (nothing ever will be), keeping these tips in mind has turned me from dreading family outings to cherishing them, and has given my family so many great memories in the process.

Be Openly Curious

Children ask questions. A lot of questions. As we get older we lose a lot of this natural curiosity. In fact, I am sure I actively destroyed curiosity in my own kids sometimes because of my own impatience. We’re not perfect – it happens! But curiosity can be such joy. By taking the time to wonder about things out loud in front of your children, you allow them into your personal experience. This connection opens up communications and gives your family the freedom to wonder about things just for the fun of it. Simply slowing down and allowing for it enriches not only the outing, but your lives. And bonus, you’ll be less likely to suffer from boredom (yours or your kids’) once you all get a little curiosity practice in.

Spending time just taking in the tunnels at the aquarium and talking about what we saw.

Pick and Choose (and know when to let go)

You don’t have to do everything. Pick what you know will be the most fun and stick with that. We do this with everything from our local zoo that we’ve been to a hundred times to our rare trips to Disneyland. We ask the kids what they most want to see, and we just focus on those. Everyone will remember the deeper experience better than if you had rushed through everything. And if you have the extra time and energy afterwards, you then have the freedom to be spontaneous.

If you’re like me and worry that you won’t get your money’s worth if you don’t see it all, a change of mindset is needed. This may take a fair bit of work and time to stick, but trust me, it is worth it. Accept that you are paying for a happy family experience, not for each thing there is to see. If seeing each thing will only make your family tired and cranky, then you’re wasting money. So slow down, have fun with a handful of things, and relax knowing you got every penny’s worth.

I will take this opportunity to give you permission to let go of an idea or plan. A couple years ago I took my younger kids to a sheep shearing demonstration. It was hot, it was hard to see the sheep because of the crowd, and my kids didn’t care. But, over in the shade someone had a bunch of big bubble wands, so that is how we spent our afternoon at the sheep shearing demonstration: blowing bubbles. Don’t worry about what you think you all should get out of the outing. Let go and follow the joy.

This isn’t sheep shearing.

It is Your Fun, Too

Playful living isn’t about only doing what your kids want to do. There will be times when interests diverge and it is important for children to know that their parents are people with interests and ideas, too.

On our last family trip to the coast I wanted to browse some art galleries. I had my youngest with me and it wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, but by sharing with him my thoughts as we browsed, he learned that perhaps it wasn’t as boring as he thought. Like me with the chimpanzees.

I didn’t explain things to him or turn it into and educational venture (though he certainly did learn from it), I simply said my thoughts aloud to include him. I wonder how they made that statue. How hot do they have to make the glass to melt it? I like this piece, but I’m not sure if I like the orange on or the green better. Could I make something like this myself? I wonder what is happening in that painting. Those animals are cute, which one is your favorite? The time spent there became a fascinating discussion that allowed us to learn more about each other, as well as allowing for plenty of silly jokes and laughter.

When family outings go bad.
“Don’t make me turn this platform around. I’ll do it!”

Play doesn’t have to be all games and make believe. The definition of play is to do something for the fun of it. In my first years of family outings there had been little fun. There was some, to be sure, but it was wrapped up in stress and topped with a bow of expectations. All I could see was the responsibility I had to make sure my kids had fun, whether they liked it or not. Now I focus more on me having fun, and the rest just seems to naturally follow. Lucky for us, play is contagious.

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