For many nature lovers, their enjoyment of the outdoors originates from childhood experiences spending time outside with family and friends.
Summit County is a haven for people who love adventuring into nature, but it is also a place where outdoor passions such as hiking can be passed from parent to child. Hiking can include long days in the sun, inclement weather and tiring exercise, which are not always conducive to making happy kids.
Despite its challenges, hiking is a fun and educational way for a family to leave the Wi-Fi connection behind, explore nature, spot wildlife and spend quality time together.
While explorations into nature can be daunting for parents with young children, there are specific things families can do to make hiking enjoyable for all ages.
Dave Miller, director of marketing at the Keystone Science School, points out that children enjoy nature and thrive in an outdoor environment.
“We forget that kids do very well outdoors,” he said. “If you tell them to go outside and play, they really do a great job.”
Parents should begin hiking with their children on shorter hikes and build up to longer adventures depending on their children’s ages and abilities. Knowing a route ahead of time also can help parents communicate clear information and expectations to their children.
“Kids do really well when they understand their expectations and have a basic itinerary,” Miller said.
Miller emphasized that kids thrive when they are aware of their schedule.
“They are similar to adults. If you tell them we are going to climb up this hill, and it is going to hurt a little, but then we are going to take a break and rest, they handle it very well,” he said.
Games and activities
While parents can provide clear expectations to their children before a hike, there are also games and activities parents can use to distract their kids from the less comfortable elements of hiking. Miller plays a game with his students where kids attempt to pin a clothespin to another student’s clothes without them noticing. As the group hikes, each person must look out for the clothespin until everyone has been tagged.
Other games families can play on the trail include scavenger hunts. Parents can give a list of items for their children to find like a certain color leaf, pine cone, rock or stick. Kids can then practice Leave No Trace principles by returning their items to the location they found them.
For younger children, parents can bring a special treat on their walks, such as a candy bar or snack, and hide it near the end of the hike or along the path.
Parents can then send their kids on a scavenger hunt, giving them directions if they are “hot” near the item or “cold” and straying away from the hidden treasure.
Another entertaining game on the trail is hide-and-seek. Rather than typical hide-and- seek rules that could lead to children wandering off the trail, Emily Bruyn, marketing and events manager for Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, proposes alternate forms of the game.
“You can do a variation where the seeker stays in one place and counts to 30 and then has to find everyone without moving from their spot. This challenges kids to use camouflage. All hiders must be able to see the seeker,” Bruyn said.
Another variation of hide- and-seek includes establishing a home base that the hiders must reach before getting tagged by the seeker.
- Plan ahead and prepare: Adequate trip planning and preparation helps backcountry travelers accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably, while simultaneously minimizing damage to the land.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Move through natural areas while avoiding damage to the land or waterways.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out trash, dispose of human waste appropriately.
- Leave what you find: Allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts and other objects of interest as you find them.
- Minimize campfire impacts: A true Leave No Trace fire shows no evidence of having been constructed. Camp in areas where wood is abundant if building a fire. Choose not to have a fire in areas where there is little wood at higher elevations, in heavily used areas or in desert settings.
- Respect wildlife: Learn about wildlife through quiet observation. Do not disturb wildlife or plants just for a “better look.” Observe wildlife from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee.
- Be considerate of other visitors: Many people come to the outdoors to listen to nature. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets and damaged surroundings take away from the natural appeal of the outdoors.
Hiking also can be used as an educational experience. One of the main purposes for the Keystone Science School is to get students thinking about the natural environment around them and think about specific questions, such as considering state water rights and conservation or identifying members of an ecosystem.
“We take kids into nature to improve their critical thinking skills,” Miller said. “Every time you are in nature, you have a chance to learn, whether that is about the ecosystem and environment, social and emotional learning, working as a team or even economics.”
In addition to games, parents can make hiking entertaining and educational for children. Parents can bring nature and wildlife guide books with them
on the trail and help their children identify specific plants and animals as they hike. Not only does this teach children about different species, but it encourages kids to be analytical about the natural environment around them.
While it is common to spot some wildlife on the trail, families can go even further in searching for clues of local animals.
“Parents can integrate education by challenging their kids to hunt for signs
of wildlife, like scratches on the trees, holes in the ground, chewed up branches/ sticks, scat, prints, etc., and then guess what animal it came from,” Bruyn said.
The natural environment also can be a way to encourage children to be artistic. Kids can use natural items to create art and then return objects
to their original locations. Parents can bring clipboards, paper and pencils for their children to have some quiet time drawing views, wildlife or flowers and plants they observe during their hike.
“Hiking is the perfect way to get kids excited about thinking and excited about the outdoor world,” Miller said.
Studies have shown that physical activity during childhood can lead to more active lifestyles in adulthood. By helping children engage with nature, parents are able to pass on healthy practices, a sense of adventure and outdoor hobbies.
Tiernan Spencer, the assistant Director of Mountain Top Children’s Museum, attributes her current passion for nature and educating young people about the environment to her upbringing in Minnesota.
“We definitely had a lot of time outdoors, and we went up north every weekend,” Spencer said. Her love of the outdoors continued into adulthood, when she moved to Summit County at age 18 and began a career working with children in nature.
“Now my passion is to get kids integrated with the environment,” Spencer said. “It is amazing how much you can learn by taking away a screen and just going into the world and seeing nature.”
Making a plan
Spencer also works to make the outdoors accessible to children with special needs. With thoughtful preparation, every child can experience and enjoy being in nature.
Before setting out on a hike, Spencer encourages parents to research trails to be aware of a path’s accessibility and demands. Families can tailor outdoor excursions based on their individual needs, such as the length of a hike, distance from home and nearby amenities.
“It is helpful to choose a trail ahead of time and be aware of how long it is, if it is a loop or out-and-back path,” Spencer said. “Some trails are not wheelchair accessible, but many more are.”
While hiking often focuses on reaching a specific destination, Spencer believes that just being outdoors is the ultimate point of a hike. Rather than focusing on a final destination, families can take the pressure off hiking by enjoying the trail.
“Slow down and allow your child to really direct the hike,” Spencer said. “For kids, you want to make sure that you are letting them explore, throw rocks in the water, play with the sticks.”
While there are ways that parents can prepare for a hike and tricks to keep the experience fun for all ages, both Miller and Spencer encourage families to approach outdoor adventures with their children with a relaxed and flexible mindset.
“It is not about, ‘We have to get to this lake’ or ‘We have to get to this summit,’” Miller said. “It should be about being comfortable, having fun and exploring along the way.”
Families should be prepared for the logistical elements of hiking.
The National Park Service encourages families to go hiking with children in the mornings, when weather is cooler and before afternoon thunderstorms roll in. Parents should encourage their families to wear layers in preparation for either cold or hot weather conditions. Hikers also should plan to bring essential supplies on hikes, including sunscreen, protein-heavy snacks and plenty of water. It is important for families to take plenty of breaks during hiking, to evaluate how their children are handling the hike and ensure each hiker is drinking plenty of water.
When families are equipped with important supplies as well as tips for a successful outing, hiking with kids can be a productive and enjoyable adventure. Not only is hiking beneficial to children’s physical wellbeing, but it can improve mental health through relaxation, heightened sensory perception and boosted mood.