I’ve always noticed that most kids love being outside. Once you break through their worries and coax them away from the tv their natural curiosity takes over. With the right attitude and a little planning even blackflies, pouring rain, hungry bellies and tired legs won’t detract from the fun. Bottom line: kids are primed to love the outdoors. It’s your job to make sure it happens. Here’s how:
Change Your Expectations…
As adults, we tend to be goal-oriented — get to the viewpoint, complete the loop, tag the summit. Kids, being naturally Zen, are more interested in the journey than the destination. Pressing for the “end” can be rewarding for us, but not necessary for them.
Don’t ditch goals entirely, just recalibrate them. Keep destinations within reach — nothing encourages like success — and make them progressive. For instance, aim to hike to the lake and then gauge the youngster’s energy before pushing on for the pass. And most importantly, be flexible. If a pond begs for rock skipping, then throw rocks. On a multi-day trip, set out a few “must-dos” and leave the rest of the experience to the whims of the kids.
…And Your Destinations
While you and I may enjoy a pleasant walk in the forest, monotony breeds whining in kids and no one likes a whiner. Pick destinations with the youngest member of the party in mind. Avoid big elevation gains and long featureless stretches. Pick journeys with a lot going on: rivers, bridges, views, boardwalks, staircases, big trees, open meadows and beaches. These not only create mini-goals to encourage tykes along their way — “We can have a break at the next bridge” — but the changing scenery keeps kids engaged as well.
• Hike up a mountain bike trail. The built-up stunts and rugged terrain never fails to keep kids interested.
• Hike lake loops or river trails. Water offers endless possibilities for swims, rock-throwing, log races and fishing.
• Find ocean beach routes — even if it’s a rocky beach, there will be plenty to see and do: collect shells and catch crabs, or build sandcastles, rock-towers and driftwood forts.
Ease Them In
Kids are capable of hiking a lot farther than most parents think. But, just like us adults, they need to work their way into it. Start with a two-hour hike or a two-day camping trip and progress gradually from there.
Hunger leads to crankiness. You don’t want that.
• Feed kids what you know they like; this is not a time to try new things. Fresh air breeds hunger — add new experiences and exercise, and your kids are going to need three big meals a day. Expect them to eat more than they would at home.
• Snacks matter — stop for breaks every hour (at least) and make sure they eat healthy, hearty food like granola bars, fruit or nuts. It helps keep them motivated and maintains blood sugar levels, a key to happy kids.
• It’s okay to bribe. Bring treats like M&Ms or gummies and dispense freely to help get kids over the humps along the way. As long as they’re also eating healthy meals and snacks, a few treats are good for everyone.
Fun & Games
When the trail fails to inspire, it’s time to become Captain Fun.
Let them lead: Hand your kid the map and have him or her take charge. Every kid likes to feel important.
Tell a joke: Or riddle. Or a funny story. One of our favourites is to tell a “fill in the blank” story where everyone adds a line or word in progression.
Treasure hunt: See how many different cones or leaves you can collect along the trail.
Hot lava: The trail has suddenly turned to lava and the rocks and roots are small islands! Hikers must jump from island-to-island without touching the “lava.”
Build a fire: From scratch. First make sure it’s OK to build a fire at your location and then get the whole team to help collect the wood following the 4D’s: Dead, Down, Dinky and Distant. Extra points if you brought marshmallows.
Start seeing things: With a little imagination, clouds, trees and rocks can all look like something more interesting.
Stop and play a game: When all else fails, it’s time to take a break and get creative. Race sticks down a river, try to throw rocks into a circle on the trail or try one of these three games:
Camouflage. This is a variation on hide-and-seek; find a spot with some open ground and lots of nearby hiding spots. “It” stands in one spot and counts to 20, while everyone else hides as close by as possible. “It” opens his or her eyes and, without moving, tries to spot the hiders. When he can’t see anyone, “It” covers his eyes, yells, “Camouflage!” and counts to 15. All the hiders then have to run from their hiding place, tag “It” and hide again before “It” opens his eyes. The game continues like this with “It” counting for shorter and shorter amounts of time until one person is left hiding.
Shelter Building. Whether figurine or full-size, build a home in the woods. This could be a log cabin, tipi, lean-to or something even more creative. Make sure you decorate it with lots of leaves and berries and add a front yard.
Stick Stealer. Pile a bunch of sticks against the legs of “It,” who then closes his or her eyes. Everyone else backs up 20 paces. The object is to sneak up on “It” and steal a piece of wood without her noticing. When “It” hears someone, she points at that person, who has to start over again. The person with the most sticks at the end wins.
Do It Right
You’re raising the next stewards of the environment. Take the responsibility seriously and teach them how to travel in the backcountry safely and gently.
Leave No Trace: The easy to follow principles of “leave only footprints and take only pictures” should be your creed.
Proper Hygiene: When nature calls, make sure they follow the guidelines of 30 giant steps from water sources for liquids and 70 or more for Number Two. And bring hand sanitizer.