In Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble’s, The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, two influential outdoor education advocates write about the deep connection that children forge with the environment, natural and unnatural, in which they grow up. Trimble writes:
Seeing with a naturalist’s eye is neither eccentric nor artificial. Human brains evolved in the natural world, not in a clinic or lab. Infants prefer patterns a little different, but not too different, from those they have seen before. And so, once children learn “bird,” they may naturally move on to observing the differences between a robin, a sparrow, a blackbird, and a jay. Infants push out toward the adventure of the unknown, but only so far: the security of the known tempers their reach. This tension between the old and the new, safety versus growth, dominates much of infancy and childhood.
In this case, Trimble reminds us how much development can occur with appropriately timed and supervised experiences in nature. The natural push toward adventure that infants feel as they develop can be nurtured in a way that will be beneficial for both adults and children. Taking your child out on a short hike on a local trail, a trip to the backyard or local park, or a longer more advanced multi-day hike is a great way to spark that sense of adventure.
Here are some tips for when you get out there.
1. Take only what you need
One of the most important things to remember when you are going hiking with children is that they don’t really need a whole lot. We love going to stores like REI and Patagonia, but most of that stuff is for people who spend more time outdoors than most of us can afford. You don’t have to pack a backpack full of supplies that you probably won’t use or don’t need on your hike. Once children’s shoulders get sore or they get tired of carrying all that stuff, they’ll either give it to you to carry or they will have a hard time enjoying the freedom of the hike. Take only what you need.
Here is a simple list you can rely on:
- Small and packable first aid kit (It’s always better safe than sorry. Unless you are on a backcountry four-day hike, you’ll only need the small kit.)
- Snacks and water. Do bring more water than you think you will need. There are some really great pouches and bottles that can be folded up after use.
- A phone is great for pictures, videos, and emergency purposes.
- Small stick of sunscreen, but you may just be able to apply before you go depending on how long you’ll be out.
2. Do some scouting ahead of time
The element of surprise is ever present in nature, but it can be beneficial to have a general sense of what is out there. Are you headed to a nice spot that you can plan to have lunch? Is there a pond, lake, or stream? Are there going to be a lot of dog walkers or other families? Doing some scouting ahead of time can not only make you feel more comfortable, it can allow you to plan out your experience a little better knowing your audience as you do. In addition, it allows you to see how long the hike is. It is best not to go too far before turning back for the walk home. Once fatigue sets in, much of the excitement and joy can be taken out of the experience. Don’t try to do too much.
3. Answering “What is it?” Questions
Don’t worry about being able to answer all of your children’s questions accurately when it comes to things they see or find during an outdoor adventure. In his go-to manual for environmental education, Earth Education: A New Beginning, Steve Van Matre gives a few examples of responses when children ask “What is it?” or “What is it called?” Practice using these during a hike and be amazed at where they can take a child’s curiosity and learning:
- “I don’t know what experts call it, but if it’s really important for you, maybe we can figure out some things about it, and come up with a name ourselves.”
- “Use action. Take a closer look yourself. Examine it. Use several senses. Ooohh and ahhh, a bit. Most of the time you will find (children) were just curious about it. (Don’t be afraid either to just grunt in response. That’s a humorous way of getting people out of the traditional pattern.”
- “Use silence: don’t say anything at first. Always count to ten very slowly before commenting. Often that’s when they will remember that you are not going to be naming everything. (But don’t just stand there, follow #2 above.)”
4. Figure out a safe system for exploration
It can be a scary thing when children take off without you because they are so excited. First, be happy that they are excited and confident enough to go out on their own. Next, reel them back in and work out your system. It could be a call, it could be a sight distance, or it could be a time limit. Whatever you choose, make sure they know that it is a safety point. You want them to be free but safe.
Help them build on their sense of confidence by allowing them to explore at a distance from you with a plan in place. One of my favorites is a call and response using natural sounds like a wolf, an owl, or a bird call. Perhaps you need to start small with a 20-foot distance maximum. That is ok. It also gives small children a sense of how far 20 feet is. Start to extend to 30 and then 40 on your next hikes. The important part is that you know you are helping your child build a sense of self-confidence, and nature is doing most of the work. Sometimes less is more.
5. Set natural boundaries
A lot of times on our hikes in the Outdoor Science Program at Lowell School, I’ll say to a young line leader as they are crossing the street, “Please stop the line at the big tree.” Inevitably, they will look at me and ask, “What big tree?” I simply respond by pointing and saying, “You’ll see it.”
This does a number of things. It forces them to pay attention to their natural surroundings, looking at each tree as they pass and determining whether or not it is considered “big” by adult standards. It also gives the child a sense leadership; they are in charge of stopping their classmates by the all-important “big tree” Finally, it sets routines in a new environment, allowing children to be familiar and comfortable with where they are.
Try this out on one of your hikes. A natural boundary could be a meeting point if you were to ever get separated. It could be a distance boundary such as, “Always stay within 5 trees of the adult.” It could even be a halfway point, “We’ll stop and turn around at the big rock.” Whatever your boundaries are, they are more than just boundaries. They are the small focus points that lead to children making decisions, feeling confident and comfortable, and taking ownership of the natural world.
6. Add a little magic
Any chance you have to add a little magic can create a sense of excitement and creativity that you may just remember for years. For example, during our hikes at Lowell, I like to go out ahead of time to place things along the hike. The children generally know that I placed them, but sometimes, I like to place things and act like they are the ones who discovered them. You could set up some “curious animal tracks” or leave a note or prize. Whatever type of magic you try out, the extra excitement can make a regular hike turn into a lasting memory.
7. Create some incentive
My family and I have a nice tradition of hiking the day after Thanksgiving. One of the best parts of those hikes are the loaded leftover turkey sandwiches we eat at the halfway point. The rigor of the hike always seems much more worthwhile if we have delicious sandwich to look forward to. Try adding in a little incentive of your own. It could be food, a beverage, a hike that ends at an exciting spot, or the use of special tools like a walking stick, binoculars, or maybe even the a pocket knife for some whittling lessons during a break depending on your child’s age.
8. Test out some “natural navigation”
In Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature Be Your Guide, he teaches the reader how to, “Locate the North Star using the Big Dipper, trace the Sun’s arc by the faded paint of a signpost, use spiders’ webs as a compass and orient yourself by the crescent moon.” Although some of these can be challenging, there are certainly some great activities that can be easily done with children that can give them a deeper understanding of the world they live in. Become a natural navigator with your child and you just may see the world differently yourself.
9. Create objectives or themes
Some of the best hikes are focused hikes. You could be trying to get to a summit for a beautiful view. But you could also go on a backyard hike looking for bugs. You could bring a magnifying glass to search for the small things that get overlooked. You may want to try to find five different trees that you can name. Go out and look only for song birds. After that, try to find birds of prey. Walk along a stream with a net and find little critters. Whatever the theme, adding a focus can create a sense of purpose and success for young children who may need a little more structure.
10. Be aware and ready to point things out
One of my colleagues at the Echo Hill Outdoor School was a brilliant naturalist. He was always able to find wildlife and point it out to the children we were teaching. He was a talented, but humble, outdoor educator, and he had a saying, “The best way to find wildlife is to simply just look.” The truth of it is so relevant when you walk with children outdoors. Often, children are so excited and dealing with an overload of sensory experiences that they may pass right by that woodpecker sound in the trees. They may not look that extra 25 yards into the woods to see the herd of deer or the fox watching from the comfort of the brush. My colleague was trying to teach children a little nature awareness, but children need help to get there. So, try to pay close attention, look into the woods, stop and listen, and point out those special findings to your little one.