November 02, 2017

Tips for Hiking with Kids: Part 4 - Keeping Them Engaged

Ideas to Keep Them Interested

For a lot of kids, especially those who are accustomed to staying indoors and staring at a screen, the excitement and novelty of a hike can wear off quickly when they get out on the trail. What once seemed like an adventure, full of possibilities, can become "just a lot of walking" in no time flat.

In that scenario, you could adopt a couple of different strategies:

Option A)
You could morph into a military drill instructor, pushing your young soldier up the mountain on a death march through relentlessly barking order at them (we don't recommend that).

Option B)
You could take advantage of their gullibility and motivate them through deception by promising untold treasures just around every other bend (we don't recommend that either).

Option C)
You could just put a little bit of forethought into the hike and make it fun. In our humble opinion, this is the clear way to go to ensure that everyone has a great time in the wilderness.

This part of our series on Hiking with Kids (start here if you want to catch up) is all about helping you identify some creative ways to engage your little hikers with different activities on the trail that will keep them interested and wanting to go out again. Here are our 9 best ideas for making hiking fun.

Photo by Madison Grooms
1. Make an Art Project
As you're hiking along the trail, there's a good chance your child is going to find a cool rock or a pine cone that they're convinced is better than all of the rest and they'll want to pick it up. Then the question becomes how you can harness that appreciation for the natural world.

One idea is to make an art project out of the available resources when you break for lunch. It could be a scene made entirely of seashells, or a sculpture of literal stick figures.

Whatever the task, they'll have to use their creativity, resourcefulness, and perhaps even their favorite find from the trail to complete the project.

Once the work is finished and you've documented it with plenty of photographs, it can be an excellent opportunity to teach them about leave no trace ethics as you deconstruct it and return the components to their proper places in the environment.

2. Assign Roles
Everyone likes to feel useful, so make sure your pint sized partners aren't just along for the ride by coming up with different roles for them.

Do you have an aspiring photographer? Let them take all of the photographs. Do you have a child who asks tons of questions? Perhaps they'd be a great person to hold onto the field guide so that they can identify the birds and flowers that you spot on the trail.

Once you've identified several important roles, you can keep them on their toes by switching them up every 10-20 minutes so that they get a chance to focus on more than just one thing. Who knows, you might just learn something about what they enjoy in the process.

Photo by Jean-Frederic Fortier
3. Let Them Navigate
On the note of roles, navigation is one of the most important skills anyone can have out in the wilderness, because getting lost can lead to big trouble. Making sure people know what to expect when they hit the trail with reliable directions is central to the founding of Trailvoyant itself, so developing good navigation habits is near and dear to us.

Since way-finding is so incredibly important, delegating that responsibility to your child (within reasonable circumstances of course) can be a powerful way of engaging them in the experience. After all, how often do they normally get to tell you which way to go in the rest of everyday life?

In order to prepare them for the role, you may need do go over some basic skills like how to read a map, how to use a compass, and how to research a trail network beforehand so that they can simply practice what you've taught them out on the trail, with a little bit of guidance as needed.

4. Play Games
"Time flies when you're having fun," or at least when your mind is occupied. Although we sympathize with the argument that hiking is fun in and of itself, the whole reason for this list is that children often haven't developed that same appreciation at their age. Consequently, it can be helpful to have a pool of ideas to keep them occupied, and games are a great way to do just that.

Obviously we're not talking about card games, board games, or video games, but mostly the kind of verbal thinking games that you're probably familiar with playing on road trips. These can include games like:
  • 20 Questions
  • Name that ______ (song, movie, book, birdsong, etc.)
  • Categories (i.e. countries in Europe, Disney movies, etc.)
  • The Never-Ending Story
  • I Went to Africa
  • Hide & Seek
  • Hot Lava
  • I Spy
  • ABCs
  • Look for Anthropomorphisms
Okay, so we should probably find a better name for that last one since it doesn't exactly roll off of the tongue. The name aside though, it can be a blast using your imagination to find objects (faces, animals, etc.) in the clouds, trees, and rock formations along the trail.

5. Scavenger Hunt
Yes, a scavenger hunt could easily be listed among the other games above, but since there are a number of ways to do them that involve more than just words, we thought it would be worthwhile to identify a couple of extra ideas around the simple scavenger hunt.

For instance, you could obviously make it into a photo scavenger hunt and let each child have their own camera to document their finds, but another fun idea could involve a visit to the hardware store.

If you swing by your local paint store, you'll be able to pick up a ton of different color paint swatches that are typically used to help you figure out what color would look best in that one room of your house. However those same swatches can also be the rubric for a scavenger hunt where the kids need to find something on the hike that matches the colors you've selected. Browns, greens, and grays are probably going to be pretty easy, but you can throw in some whites, reds, oranges, yellows, purples, or blues to see what their keen eyes can spot out on the trail.

Aside from colors, here are some examples of other things that you might consider having them watch for:
  • A leaf bigger than your hand
  • A trail marker or cairn
  • A bird
  • A reptile
  • A mammal
  • Animal tracks
  • A mushroom
  • A fallen tree
  • A shiny rock
  • A wildflower

6. Pick a Hike with Interesting Features
In our second post in this series where we discussed how to pick the right trail for a hike with kids, our top tip was to pick a hike with a great destination, and that's a helpful tip to remember in this context as well. Children are much more likely to be able to entertain themselves for longer if lunch is by a body of water as opposed to at a scenic vista.

But what's true of the destination is true of the journey as well. Picking a trail that follows a stream that meanders through the woods and creates several waterfalls along the way is much more likely to keep a young hiker interested in the activity than a steep slog up a barren mountainside. If you want to keep them engaged, make sure to pick a hike that features a lot to engage with.

7. Sing Songs
Okay, so we realize that we said going military on your child was a bad idea, but there is something to be said for using a rhythm to help a march...errr hike go by more quickly. You don't have to strap a drum to the front of yourself, but it can be a good idea to pick out some songs beforehand that they know and be prepared to sing them together on the trail.

If you have a small speaker that you can bring along, use it to help warm things up before you lead them in the a cappella versions. Just remember that you may not be the only ones out there and blasting tunes from a small stereo can really disrupt the serenity of the wilderness.

8. Try Geocaching
Geocaching is a worldwide hobby that involves finding "caches" of knickknacks at specific latitude and longitude coordinates. The containers can vary significantly in size and difficulty to find, which can make it super rewarding to discover them. Once you've found a cache, you can swap a trinket that you've brought with one in the cache and in so doing, you can participate in helping that tchotchke travel around the globe.

Participating in an epic game of hide and seek can be a lot of fun for kids and adults alike and seeing the log books of all of the other people that have found the cache can be a cool way to remind yourselves that you're part of a global community. If you want to learn more about geocaching, go here.

9. Let Them Help Plan It
In the grown-up world, much is made about the idea of "ownership". You've probably heard someone at work talk about how they wanted to instill a sense of ownership in other people about a project or idea. What that usually means is that they want someone else to care about an idea at least as much as they do.

What does that have to do with hiking with children? Well, chances are pretty good that your child is going to appreciate the experience all the more if they have a sense of ownership in the event. One of the best ways to help foster that is to let them help plan the hike.

As you're kicking around ideas for the excursion, make it a point to get their input and even let them make some of the decisions completely. Should you hike to a waterfall or a cave? Should you hike up in the mountains or down in the desert? Once you have a list of possible hikes that are all pretty similar, why not let them make the final call? If they are personally invested in the planning of the hike, they're probably going to be more interested in the execution of it as well.

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."

What do you think?

Have you used any of these ideas while hiking with children or have you been fortunate enough to lead youngsters who are mature beyond their years? Are there any ideas that we missed that deserve to be shared with the world? We'd love to know what you think of the post, so tell us your thoughts in the comments.


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