Grow Your Own Nature Hikers

My kids are not walkers. Bikes they can ride for miles, both had no training wheels before they were three and a half and could cover good distance, but walking they hate (or so they think). Which is a shame because as whole we love the great outdoors. I’m trying to change this. Read on for the ideas that are training up their little legs…

The first rule of walking with children? Don’t talk about walking! Do not even say the word ‘walk’. One sniff of ‘we’re going on a walk’ and I promise you it will be over before it’s started! What we need is a plan and new vocabulary. More than that. A whole battle chest of tactics and tricks to engage their minds while their legs get used to covering the distance. Here’s what I have in mind…
Ways to Engage Reluctant Walkers at Any Age or Phase:

Scavenger hunts are a great way of engaging younger children. This can be as simple as giving them a bag or bucket to collect ‘treasures’ in as they walk along. They particularly love it if you use what has been collected in a project afterwards: making mud pies, gluing collages, adding the treasures to playdough can all be as much fun as the mini-hike itself. Alternatively, you could make a bracelet of packing tape – sticky side out – for them to decorate with their (small) finds as they go along.

As children grown you can have them collect items with more of an agenda. Give them a color card and ask each child to bring you one natural item of each color. You could focus on texture and send them off after something soft, then prickly, then squashy, then furry altering your requests based on what you see around. Illinois is highly seasonal (is that a term?!) and what we observe and find seems to vary nearly every time we go out.

If you are after a more classic nature scavenger hunt you could download these picture cards from http://www.momdot.com .

Add Some Whimsy – It can be fun for children to tie your hike into whatever they’ve been reading lately. When my oldest was younger we used to regularly go for make believe Gruffalo hunts in the woods behind our Yorkshire home. More recently we’ve all enjoyed the Morton Arboretum’s Troll Hunt by Thomas Dambo. Looking for trolls really caught their imagination. While older hikers can cover 6 or 7 miles walking between all 7 exhibits we made two separate visits, driving between the different trolls viewing areas on each side of the arboretum and then hiking up to sculpture. We still covered a good distance for 3 year old legs! Interestingly, it was the troll habitat (camp) that captured their imaginations most fully. Be on the look at for fun outdoor art to hunt in your area.

On a smaller scale, children can often be encourage to use their imaginations to look for fairies, elves and other woodland dwellers. If you point out a likely spring, glen, tree stump and add a little suggestion they are likely to make up their own stories and want to walk out and check on their friends regularly.

All the world’s a playground… The great thing about nature hiking is that there’s always something to play with or on! There’s no need to rush the walking; stop and jump off rocks, balance along logs, climb up boulders, pause for some Pooh Sticks and wade in the stream. It’s great time not only to hone the gross motor skills but to learn how to be safe in the great outdoors. While I try not to hover and fuss, an element of risk taking is great for children, I do try to teach them that rocks that are green and/or wet will be slippy, that depth and speed of water needs to be considered before putting feet into it, and that you don’t always know what might be under a lovely pile of fallen leaves. These things shouldn’t scare us but just help us think out our actions before we make them so we can enjoy what we are doing.

Work With the Weather – Too often I think we wait for good weather before we head outdoors. Instead, when the weather isn’t too extreme (because, lets face it, that does happen around here) we need to don the right clothes and footwear and embrace the changes. We managed many an extra uphill half mile in the past because of the fascination of the new stream headed down the path or jumping between puddles the rain created. Crispy, fallen leaves are made for kicking through and while deep snow can make walking hard work it can make a short hike a lot of fun.

The only thing I’m not so keen on hiking in is the heat. If I can find a shady spot then I’ll give it a go, otherwise it needs to be a quick hike to a cool water hole to tempt us out!

Let Them Stop and Study – It can be very easy to try and push on with a hike and miss out on the parts that children actually have enthusiasm for. I try to allow time for their little diversions – to let them look under the rock, watch the ants in line, and stop and smell the roses so to speak!

For children to continue to love nature they need less route march more exploration as they grow into hikers…

Forge your own route– For older children there is great opportunity to let them take the lead and to learn map and compass skills. You can start off with basic compass skills with a treasure hunt in the garden (www.thecraftingchicks.com provide easy instructions here) and then introduce map reading skills as they grow. Many nature areas have simplified maps and trail markers which you can point out and study together, there’s so much confidence to be gained from letting them take the lead an it helps improve their awareness and natural sense of direction.

And if you fancy combining nature hiking and technology you could give Geocaching a try. Take a look at www.geocaching.com and join in with the word’s largest treasure hunt. Treasure hunters use GPS to find hidden caches of varying sizes each containing a ‘treasure’. To start simply download the app and set up an account. Use the maps to choose a cache and navigate towards it; a clue is normally given as to precise location and size. Once you’ve celebrated your find, fill in the log book and pick a treasure – but make sure you take something to leave in exchange for the next treasure hunter – and don’t forget to note your experience online. I haven’t done any geocaching since we left the UK but it is certainly going on my to do list. It’s fun for all the family.

So, for now my children willingly go hunting, scavenging, orienteering, treasure collecting, studying cartography, puddle testing or scaling mountains. As long as we don’t go for a walk everyone is happy! Let me know what your nature loving hikers are enjoying this summer…

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