"Da-a-a-a-d...I'm tired." "My feet hurt." "Are we there yet, Mom?"
It's almost enough to make you think twice about taking your kids hiking. However, with proper planning and some creative games, hiking with your kids can be healthy and rewarding for everyone. It is also one of the cheapest forms of entertainment available in a day where it can cost $80 to take a family of four to the movies.
Planning Your Hike
Hiking with kids is different from hiking on your own, from your choice of the trail to what you bring along. Here are some things to take into consideration when you are planning your hike:
- Be realistic about how far your kids can hike and how long it will take. You want this to be fun, not feel like a forced march. Keep in mind that your child needs to take about three steps for every one of yours, so a two-mile hike involves a lot of steps for a four-year-old.
- Make sure you bring plenty of snacks and water, even if you are only hiking one mile. While you might not think it is necessary on such a short walk, hunger or thirst can quickly become an obsession that will put a dark cloud over the whole experience.
- Choose a hike with some fun natural features like a creek, a waterfall, or some rocks to climb on. Stop frequently to let them explore these things.
It's all in your attitude. Think about your hike as a time to bond with your kids and develop their love of nature - not as a time for you to get fit - and you will all have a wonderful time.
Fun on the Trail
It is very unlikely that your child will appreciate the simple joys of walking. They are natural explorers and will love hiking if you engage their sense of adventure while you are out on the trail. Here are a few games you can weave into your hike to keep it fun and exciting for them:
- Have your child wait on the trail while you take a unique stick, rock, or even your jacket and hide it about 50 yards ahead. Make sure it is visible from the trail. Then let them run ahead and try to find the object. Not only will you be keeping them engaged in a way that keeps them moving forwards, but you will also be developing their natural observation skills.
- Look for colors. You can either set this up as a competition (who can find the reddest things in the forest) or work as a team (let's see if we can find 30 yellow things). You will be surprised how many different colors there are around you, and there is no end to the hidden treasures you will find while looking deeply into the landscape around you.
- Create a story with the things you see. Odd-shaped trees and boulders can easily become wizards or princesses, and the squirrel that scurries across your path could be running away with your magic seeds. "As you go" stories are a lot of fun for older kids, where you take turns adding pieces to the story.
- I Spy. This classic game is perfect on a hike. Choose something ahead of you (to keep your kid's attention moving forward), and say "I spy with my little eye, something round/wet/tall/whatever." They keep guessing until they have found the object you have chosen.
- Touch things. Smell things. Eat things. The more senses you engage while in nature, the more involved your child will be in the experience. See if you and your kids can learn to identify different conifers by the taste of the needles or the smell of the bark. Roll over the occasional log to see what is living under it, and gently roll it back into place when you are finished. Of course, before you eat anything in the wild, you need to be sure that you know what it is and that it is safe to eat, and that you make it clear to your kids that they should never eat plants if you aren't there. Also, avoid all mushrooms unless you are VERY sure you know what they are and that you are gathering them in the right season.
The more you learn about the natural history of your area, the easier it will be for you to keep your kids engaged. It is fun to gather a feast along the way that you can eat as part of your lunch. If you learn some of the tracks of the animals in the forest, you will be able to ask your child deeper questions about what that animal might have been eating, why it might have been in that spot, etc. Learning the alarm calls of the songbirds can help you know when a sharp-shinned hawk is about to fly past. The more you learn, the more the world of nature will open up to you and your kids.
It Will Get Easier
Just like for adults, the more walking your child does, the easier it will get. Kids these days spend many more hours sitting in front of computers and televisions than they do running around, so it might take some time for them to get into shape. Start slowly, with short hikes, and gradually increase the distance and the pace over time. If you try to do too much too soon, the whole process might backfire and your child will never want to go on a hike again. By making hiking a fun family experience, you will be offering your child a lifetime of enriching, healthy explorations in the natural world.