Summertime means plenty of opportunity to get outdoors, away from TV and video games, and enjoy nature at its best. If there is a nature center in your city, check out the programs for both kids and adults – they’re usually FREE or just charge a few bucks to cover costs.
But maybe you’d rather spend some one-on-one time with your kids (and maybe a few of their friends)? Take them on a nature hike. Surely there’s a natural area within a short drive from home. Look for a big park, a nature preserve or a designated open space with trails, and hit the road.
If you choose to do this, think ahead a bit. Here are some tips for planning your own hike with kids:
Evaluate the difficulty. Be sure the hike is appropriate for the age and abilities of the kids you’re taking. Kids younger than 6 probably won’t hike as far or be as interested as those of school age. Try not to mix ages too much (a 3-year-old with an 11-year-old won’t work).
Be prepared. Make sure kids wear sturdy shoes and clothing appropriate for the weather. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen BEFORE you head out. Carry some bug spray, if that could be a problem. Each kid needs a light backpack with water, snacks, notebook, pencil, a hat and a jacket, in case the weather turns ‘iffy.” If you are pretty sure it’s going to rain, hike another day.
Set a goal. It could be a beaver pond at the end of the trail or it could be a meadow frequented by butterflies. It gives the kids something to look forward to. Don’t make the hike too long or they’ll get tired and cranky. Better to have it end before they’re tired – they’ll want to go again.
Take a guidebook. If you’re bird-watching, a field guide to birds is a perfect accompaniment to your hike. Let the kids look up the bird you’ve just spotted, and whoever spotted it first gets to read all about it. The National Audubon Society has a series of regional field guides that include animals, plants, flowers, birds and more. One guide serves many purposes. Or pick up a FREE guide at the trailhead, if one is available.
Bring binoculars, if you have them. It is much more exciting to see a magnified view of a bird feeding its young or a deer grazing with its fawn. It will help the kids keep a respectable distance from the wildlife and get an up-close-and-personal look at the same time.
Make a game of it. See who spots the most wildflowers that are NOT yellow. Have them write down what they see or even take time to stop and sketch it. (Artistic types may want to add colored pencils to their backpacks.) Or encourage kids to bring a disposable camera. It makes them really look at the subject.
Give each child a task. One child can be in charge of identifying insects, or trees, or even animal scat. You can pick up small identifier guidebooks at bookstores – tuck one into each backpack to surprise them with their specific role in the hike. Another child might be tasked with finding litter on the trail, or seeking out heart-shaped rocks or leaves. Make it fun for everyone.
Talk about respecting nature: not feeding wild animals, not picking wildflowers, staying on the trail and not leaving trash behind (the old “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures” idea). It’s a good lesson given in the perfect environment.
Make a scrapbook. When you get back, take time to review what you have seen. Maybe it was just a bee collecting pollen or a turtle sunning itself on a rock. Let the kids draw pictures or write down what they saw. The “scrapbook” doesn’t have to be anything more than a spiral notebook. Find a picture in a magazine to glue on the cover, to individualize each one.
You’ve created a fun outdoor experience with a little education thrown in, and a great memory to boot. And it didn’t cost you much but time.
For more summer fun: