Hiking With Children
Do you remember how your heart raced as you gazed on your first moose? Can you recollect the first time the haunting call of a Sandhill Crane resonated on the chords of your emotions? Is the picture of the graceful Trumpeter Swan still imprinted on your mind? Many of us who have surrounded ourselves with the wild and beautiful have relished such encounters. For most of us, it is not hard to think of trips we’d still like to take and places we’d still like to see. However, how often do we think to include our children in our outdoor excursions?
Studies have shown children under six learn best by using their senses. The great outdoors offers our children unlimited opportunities to do just that. And many of us have a treasure store of options at our fingertips.
However, it is often easier to plan around our own interests, or our older child’s desires, than to arrange outdoor excursions which include the toddlers who play around our feet. Nonetheless, there is no better time to begin sparking their appreciation for nature than before their interests are engaged by the television, the video games, and the computer games which will vie heavily for their attention in a few short years. Getting them young, while they are still curious about the wonderful world around them, is a great place to start.
According to the American Hiking Society, hiking lowers our blood pressure, strengthens our hearts, and helps us lose weight. Hiking clears our heads and relieves stress. Hiking is good for the environment, and, hiking adds to our awareness of it.
Children enjoy hiking — especially when we start them young. They don’t seem to care about mileage or destination. As one dad so aptly put it, “”Have fun. Look at the world through their eyes, and it becomes new again.””
Little ones are interested in the here and now – the up close and personal. Give them the hands on; the touch and taste things. A walk is a great way to do that. Be creative. Don’t stick to the park. Take them to a meadow. Walk along a chattering brook. Climb a small hill. Meander among the trees. The options are only limited to your imagination.
When you are hiking with children, especially the young ones, you become an adventurous walker. It is the journey that is important, not the length. Let them see you enjoying nature, and they will grow up thinking it is special too. Don’t rush. Don’t have plans. Just walk. And pay attention.
Get down on their level: spider webs, a dew drop, a crawling bug, tossing pebbles. Little faces, close to the ground, often see things we stride over without a second thought. The feel of the grass, the smell of a flower, the taste of a rock, the joy of climbing a ‘huge’ boulder, the texture of a tree’s bark, the sensation of sliding (or rolling) down a grassing hill, or the adventure of crawling into a hole. This is what excites them.
One experienced Mom likes plopping on her belly with her children and examining a small section of ground. They count the bugs. They look at the color of the dirt. They watch the busy ants. They study the plants and grasses. They wonder at the candy wrapper left by some irresponsible soul to mar their patch of soil. Then they roll over and ponder the vastness of the sky above while they search for pictures in the clouds.
Don’t forget to talk. For the youngster just learning her words, you are in a goldmine of new vocabulary. For the child using sentences, simple explanations and dialogue will add to his understanding of the world around him. Talk about safety. Talk about the dangers and value of the world they are walking through – good and bad plants, helpful and stinging bugs, trickling versus swiftly running water. And, what if I get lost?
Capture their hearts and imaginations. Show them how to love being outside; how to love seeing animals and birds; how to interpret the sounds and smells and textures. Teach them how to love the great outdoors.
One way to start is to plan a vacation with this in mind. Choose a spot, near or far, which offers safe hiking opportunities and terrain without too much rise and fall. One of our favorite spots in Montana’s Centennial Valley is up Narrows Creek, the canyon which begins behind our Western Montana Lodge. The lightly used trail meanders up a small draw, following the softly flowing water. Up the draw a ways we come to a pond where we explore the bugs and birds which are drawn to the water. Past the pond we wander through a narrow meadow, up through a rocky scree, and into a larger meadow.
The conifer trees mingle with the aspens. The birds vary from water fowl to neo-tropical warblers to birds of prey. Often, if we are relatively quiet, we even get a chance to observe a deer, elk, or antelope – grazing along the gently flowing stream. What better classroom can one find?
As you head out the door, remember to grab a simple first aid kit for those bumps and bruises. Be sure to include a child-safe sunscreen (at least SPF 15), and a child-safe bug spray. A few other things which might add to the adventure are a magnifying glass, plastic bags (for the take-home treasures – be sure to check local regulations if you are not sure what these include), snacks, water, and diapers – if needed.
Every child who becomes enamored with nature as a toddler is another brand snatched from the fire of a synthetic, asphalt and concrete world. Every child who learns the joy of time spent in the great outdoors is another little one who will grow up filled with an appreciation for the intricacies of this masterpiece we call earth. Every child who learns to care for their world is another up and coming adult who understands their role in protecting and improving the vast resources we all enjoy.