Hiking—or even just taking a walk around the neighborhood—is a beneficial family activity, and not just for tiring kids out. Time in the outdoors gives kids a chance to show us what they’re interested in and take the lead in a safe environment. As parents, we have an opportunity to slow down and see things from our child’s perspective. That said, it’s important to adjust your expectations about what a family “hike” really means (and what it really looks like).
If you’re an active adult looking to rack up the miles and perhaps work up a sweat on a hike, it’s probably best to call up your bestie. Children don’t really hike—their tiny legs and shorter attention spans can only walk so far.
To nurture a love for nature from a young age and begin building lifelong relationships with your children, turn a simple hike into an engaging adventure with the fun activities below. These games will help your child develop critical skills, ignite their curiosity, make memories, and build respectful relationships that will last a lifetime.
Children love to collect things. And although it’s not advisable to take items from public trails or state or national parks, you can collect memories in different ways. Rather than taking things from your adventure, bring a camera or sketch book for children to record items seen on their walk. Avoid sharing a scavenger-hunt style list, which they may fixate on and which can pull them away from the experience of exploring. For young children (ages one to four), simply let them take the lead and find what interests them. As kids get older, begin to call out items to look for based on color, texture, or shape.
Stacking stones is an exercise that has been used in meditation practice for centuries to teach patience, mindfulness, and balance. As it turns out, it’s also a fun game for children that teaches size, weight, measurement, and engineering principles. Stack stones, one on top of another from largest to smallest. If the stack falls over, that’s okay! Encouraging kids to try again teaches that iteration is normal before we get something right.
Tap Into Natural Resources
The forest has an abundance of natural resources, and we can take the opportunity to find and use these items in real time. Finding Aspen trees and using the dust on their trunk as a natural sunscreen is a fun one–especially since kids are used to seeing sunscreen in a bottle (just don’t forget to apply regular sunscreen too). As children get older, they can be taught about water filtration or how to identify safe berries to eat.
Pack a pad of paper for plant stamps. Ask your child to choose a leaf, then use a flat rock to rub the leaf on the paper to make an impression. The chlorophyll will act as an ink, leaving behind a plant stamp. It’s also a fun way to make greeting cards.
Encourage your child to be on the lookout for a walking stick. They can switch them out if they encounter better ones throughout the walk. Bonus: Take the stick home and have them paint or decorate it with items from the walk.
Create a Trail Map
Drawing a trail map allows children to take note of their surroundings (what they notice to put on the map may surprise you!). For older kids, incorporate a lesson in using a compass and allow them to “lead the way” back to the car, helping them to hone navigation skills.
Trail Clean Up
Taking care of our environment is a learned behavior, and it’s important for the longevity of our planet. Help instill a sense of responsibility and love for Earth by bringing a bag to collect trash along the trail. This allows children to visualize their impact on the environment.
Bushcraft is a component of wildlife survival and fun to do when hiking or camping. Just as children have fun building forts at home out of couch cushions and blankets, building one together as a family outside takes fort building to a whole new level. It can be as simple as leaning sticks and brush against a tree for shelter, but most likely will take on a shape and function of its own as you get going. Make sure to enjoy the fruits of your labor and eat a snack or read a book inside.
Children love rocks. As they collect rocks throughout your hike, be sure to notice together what’s underneath. Did you find worms? Roly-poly bugs? Maybe a rock has a cool fossil imprint.
Scat and Tracks
Kids’ fascination with poop runs deep, and parents can lean into that fascination to make it educational (without kids even realizing it). Ask them: What kind of animal scat is this? What kind of footprints do you see? Or encourage their curiosity by saying, Let’s play forest detective and look for animal tracks around it.
Tricia Martin-Owen is the founder & Head of School at The Oak School, a nature-based, holistic school in Lakewood that teaches Pre-K and grade school levels.