Anyone who’s been hiking with children probably knows you are less likely to see wildlife or hear birdsong than you are to face endless questions about whether the walk will ever end, is this poison ivy, why are you torturing us, etc.
Nevertheless, inspired by the gorgeous fall foliage here in central PA, I set out on the trail with my kids (Lorelei, 5 and Luke, 10), promising them a grand adventure and ignoring their withering stares. What they didn’t know was that I had a whole new strategy for making it fun, courtesy of blogger Helen Olsson, author of the The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids: How to Plan Memorable Family Adventures and Connect Kids to Nature. In her top ten list of tips for hiking with kids, she advocates making it short, playing games along the way, letting the kids set the pace, and when all else fails, bribery.
Armed with healthy snacks & drinks, pop tarts (for bribery), and the Olsson plan, we hit the trail. We went in the morning, picked a short trail with a cool destination (a pond for skipping rocks & feeding fish), stopped frequently for drinks and snacks, and played games including Follow the Leader and Rainbow Walk, in which you look for all the colors of the rainbow on your journey.
The end result? A fantastic hike that my kids want to make into an annual event! It was definitely less stressful to have a bag of tricks at my disposal, rather than hoping for inspiration at desperate moments. Being flexible was key: for instance, when both kids were frustrated that we hadn’t reached the pond yet after quite a lot of hiking up a mountainside, we had a pop tart picnic right alongside the trail. Also, I let my daughter wear her new Halloween butterfly costume, because she convinced me that “butterflies are a part of nature.” Best of all, we ALL had so much fun, and Lorelei’s butterfly outfit garnered lots of smiles from other hikers along the way. We’ll be heading out again soon. ~Jen
1. Time the hike. Most kids are at their best in the morning. And in many mountain environments, the weather is best in the morning, too.
2. Dangle the destination carrot. Choose hikes with landmarks, like a bat-filled cave, a pond with a beaver lodge, a ghost town, or a waterfall.
3. Play mind games. The homestretch on a hike is often the time to break out your arsenal of thinking games. Try “Name that Tune” or just sing songs to pass the time. Other thinking games ideal for the trail: I Spy with My Little Eye, Twenty Questions, I Went to Africa, and the Never-Ending Story.
4. Play physical games. One of our favorites is Hot Lava. The trail is covered in hot lava, and kids need to hop from rock to root to log to avoid having the soles of their shoes melted clear off. Another is to have kids search for trail blazes, the colored plastic or metal trail markers that are affixed to trees. A hike is also the perfect time to do a photo safari or a scavenger hunt.
5. Recalibrate your expectations: Let the kids set the pace. You might not cover too much ground, but you’ll have a more relaxing hike if you’re not prodding and cajoling reluctant kids at ever bend in the trail in an effort to log miles.
6. Start seeing things. Just as you can stare at the clouds and see sharks and turtles, you can see animal shapes in inanimate objects in the woods. With a little imagination, you might see a dragon’s profile in big boulder or a bird’s head in a broken stick.
7. Take breaks: Stop often for water breaks, tossing rocks in a lake, or to sit near a burbling river reading a picture book. Curious George Goes Camping, perhaps. Take time to listen to birdsong and smell the pines.
8. Keep topping off the tank. Keep energy levels up by stopping for a healthy picnic lunch and plying kids continuously with ample snacks and water. Each child should have a water bottle or hydration system.
9. Bring a friend. Having a buddy on a hike helps motivate kids, and they seem to whine less in front of their peers. Just like adults, kids chat along the way.
10. Incentivize with treats: On hikes, bring a bag of M&Ms or gourmet jelly beans. When kids begin dragging their feet, start dispensing one sweet for every stretch of ground covered. I won’t sugarcoat it (pun intended), this is a bribe. But when all else fails, a little sugar boost can propel you back to the trailhead.