Earlier this month, my co-worker was talking about how much fun her kids had on the Sauer’s Mountain Trail the previous weekend. I was surprised — that trail is beautiful, but it’s a steep climb. Sometimes I turn whiny on that trail, and I am a full-fledged adult. Her kids are 6 and 9 years old. I asked her what her secret was — how did she keep them having fun?
She was half-joking, half serious. There is an art to guiding kids to love exploring the outdoors. But like all arts, it’s something any parent can pick up with a few tips and some practice. And it’s an art children can learn themselves, which can lead to a lifetime love of nature.
Any kid can be an outdoor kid. It’s just a matter of figuring out what works for each child, and starting small.
By starting small, I mean your backyard, or your sidewalk, or your local park. One famous scientist got his start watching butterflies in the weedy vacant lot down the street. Allow kids unstructured time to watch ants, build forts, collect rocks, and create imaginary worlds.
When you do venture onto trails, pick short ones. Leave your expectations behind. Have a close-by destination in mind (a bench, or a pond, or a creek, or a certain tree). Be prepared to turn back before you get there. Set small goals, and gradually work up to longer trails.
Bring snacks, stop often
Nothing leads to temper tantrums faster than low blood sugar. Bring trail mix, chocolate, apples, crackers, cheese — or whatever snack your children like best.
Walk at your kids’ pace. I usually let the slowest person set the pace. If they want to stop and stare or poke at something interesting along the trail, let them.
In hot months, pick shady places, destinations with water, or explore after the sun has set behind the ridge. Drink lots of water (I often have groups of kids toast to things they are thankful for, then drink). In colder months, bring hot chocolate in a thermos. Don’t forget to dress for the weather.
Here are a few games I use to help pass the time while exploring:
♦ Try to find things along the trail in each color of the rainbow.
♦ Start at the beginning of the alphabet and try to find something that starts with each letter.
♦ One person starts a story, then the person behind them adds to the story.
♦ Collect riddles, and have the kids guess them on the trail. See if your kids know any riddles you don’t — or can make them up.
♦ Try to identify how many different sounds you can hear.
♦ Bring paper and colored pencils and have your child create a map of their favorite place to explore.
Expect the unexpected
Be prepared for some trial and error, and know that whining doesn’t mean your explorations were a failure.
For years, my mother thought she made me hate the outdoors after a camping trip to New Mexico that included heat, mosquitos, rinsing off in the freezing creek and getting lost in the woods for a day. I told her recently that that trip is one of my favorite memories. I remember watching a wren sing for hours with its tail flicked up, finding our way home after that day in the woods, and exploring sun-filled meadows with my sister. Now I help other people to love nature for a living.
Often, while adults remember what went wrong, kids just remember how fun and exciting exploring was. So take a chance and get outside with your family!
Hillary Clark is the membership and education coordinator for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust. This piece previously appeared in The Wenatchee World. For more ways to get outside with your children, visit www.cdlandtrust.org/whats-new/events.