Hiking With Kids – Keeping It Fun

Peg and I frequently went hiking with our 3 girls as they were growing up, and that often included them bringing friends or cousins along. There is something different and special when you are hiking with kids. There is the slower pace and the sense of novelty, and every outing is more of an exploration. Now, as those kids have crossed the threshold into young adulthood and beyond, they message me about the fond memories they have of those “adventures”. For some it was a rare intimate exposure to nature that left a positive mark on their childhood.

Recently my niece Amanda was reflecting on our shared outings from when she was a child, and I thought that it was the perfect time to introduce her two daughters to a real hiking experience. They were on spring break, and luckily we had chosen the best weather day of a challenging weather week. We selected Rock Bridge and Sky Bridge Trails in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky, as we thought that it would be a memorable experience for our great nieces….and we were right.

The key to hiking with kids, like education and sports, is to keep it stimulating and fun. You want to challenge them somewhat physically and cognitively, but still keep it low pressure and wrapped in a sense of awe.

From a safety point of view, take the time to review some of hiking’s golden rules with them:

  • Never hike alone.
  • Always let someone know where you are going (They watched us text our daughters as we started the hike).
  • Carry a whistle in case you get lost. To lessen fear it may be best explained as “in case you can not see mom or dad”.
  • Research the hike and have a map. You may also take a photo of a map at the trailhead if one is available.
  • Carry water and energy rich food if it is a longer hike.
  • Dressing in layers allows for better comfort over the duration of the hike.
  • Bright clothing is best (in case of getting lost or if hunting is taking place nearby).

Demonstrate that a safe hike is a planned hike. It can be spontaneous but you still have to mitigate any risks.

Simple things will add to a child’s experience:

  • Give them some element of control about the outing, like what would they like to do or see? Where do they want to stop for a snack and a drink? What direction do you go on a loop trail?
  • Let them be the “line leader” and set the pace.
  • If age appropriate, make them the reader of the map. This will improve their confidence and skill set.
  • Consider carrying a small net to capture butterflies or water life for catch and release study.
  • Provide a small magnifying lens to allow close up study of nature.
  • Take breaks along the way. This will let them rest a little and usually allows for better observation of nature.

Chloe, Erin, and their Dad Andrew using magnifying lenses to study fungi on top of a stump.

The girls take a well deserved break after the climb out of the valley.

Some things that have always been well received on our kids’ hikes are:

  • Interacting with water or a wetland. Laying down on a board walk and studying the activity below, or wading in a creek.
  • Measuring how many kids, hand to hand, does it take to reach around a large tree.
  • Feeling the textures of things found along the trail, especially the assorted mosses.
  • Laying down on their backs beneath a large tree and just watching all the activity that is taking place above.
  • Pre-planned Scavenger Hunt cards that anticipate what they are likely to see along the way. In hiking, scavenger hunts are best done as a single team. The list for this hike included the following and nearly all of them were found.
    • Wildflowers (pink, white, yellow, purple/blue)
    • Flying Bug
    • Crawling Bug
    • Fern
    • Nut
    • Pine Cone
    • Animal Poop (this is always on the list)
    • Nest
    • Vine
    • A Natural Bridge
    • Mushroom
    • Animal Foot Prints
    • Feather
    • Water
    • Flowering Shrub
    • Flowering Tree
    • Evergreen Tree
    • Moss
    • Clam Shell
    • Mammal
    • Hollow Tree
    • Woodpecker

Here you can see Chloe toting the scavenger hunt list and pencil.

When the hike is over celebrate the experience, the goals achieved, and special things that were seen. Especially any sightings that they were responsible for. For our outing it was completing the climb to Sky Bridge!

There are many positives that come from hiking with kids. The obvious one is the relaxed family time and shared experiences. Undoubtedly, the demonstrated active lifestyle will help their physical and mental health. What may surprise some is this statement from the American Psychological Association: “Spending time in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and improvements in mood, mental health and emotional well-being“. But the less spoken benefit may be for the health of the planet, for hiking with kids will help them develop a love for the outdoors and nature. It will make their lives richer and more well rounded, and in the end may give Mother Earth one more advocate in these challenging environmental and political times.

I think the smiles say it all.

And in the end, I suspect that Peg and I were the greater beneficiaries of this outing….we had a lot of laughs and it warmed our souls.

Finally, the thank yous that we received from Chloe and Erin.


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