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Teaching Kids to Love the Trail

Teaching Kids to Love the Trail

By Erin Trombley 

Hiking. It’s great exercise, helps relieve stress, and takes you to some of the most beautiful, scenic places on earth! Of course you want to share your love of the outdoors with your kids, give them those great benefits, and share wonderful experiences too. But does the idea of taking your school-aged child for a prolonged outing of any kind put a knot in your stomach? Does taking your child away from a screen and WiFi seem like a struggle?  

We’re here to give you some pointers to help you connect with your child and smooth the experience as you plug them into the outdoors. 

It Starts with a Plan 

Include your child in all phases of planning your hike. Ask them what they’d like to see, and what foods they would like to bring. Let them help you look at maps, and research the weather. Encourage them to assist in gathering up the 10 Essentials for each member of your party. Talk to your child about ways to reduce your impact on nature when you hike using the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. The more they help plan, the more engaged they’ll be on the hike.  

You can help guide your child to a route most interesting for them by suggesting things you know they’re interested in. For example, if your child is interested in dinosaurs, you can suggest hiking where there’s an abundance of fossils. If flowers, small animals, or butterflies and other insects interest your child, consider trekking at or near a wildlife management area, refuge, or sanctuary. Conservation areas, preserves, wetlands, grasslands, marshes, and Audubon centers are great too, and many have interpretive signage to help your family learn as you observe. Depending on your child’s interests you can plan your outing around waterfalls, large animals (like horses), interesting rocks, or historical sites. 

A dad and son on a summit
Joanne Kennedy

Stop to Smell the Roses 

girls on a trail
Joanne Kennedy

It’s important to recognize that some kids aren’t as motivated by a big “tah-dah!” moment at a destination, especially if walking there and back feels like two long trudges. It’s about the journey, not the destination. No matter where you venture, kids are sure to find something interesting on the trail. Since you’re likely to see a variety of rocks, animals, fungi, and much more on any given trail, consider a scavenger hunt to keep kids (and grown-ups) tuned in to their surroundings through the whole outing. 

Whether your child is 4 or 14, allowing them to take turns leading the hike helps them stay engaged and makes them feel important. They can practice navigation skills, and by leading they won’t feel like they are just tagging along on your excursion. You’ll also have lots of opportunities for teachable moments about how to lead the group safely and how to use the navigation tools you packed. 

Know When to Say When 

With young and inexperienced kids, keep expectations low for going a particular distance in a set amount of time, and plan to stop often. The slowest person in your party sets the pace. Start with shorter hikes, and be prepared to turn back too. Pressing on for the sake of “finishing” the hike will be counter-productive to the goal of teaching your kids to love the outdoors.

If they’re too tired or cold, not feeling well, or just plain cranky, not only will they not enjoy the hike, but neither will you! Better to cut your losses and try again another day. With this in mind, for your first few hikes, stay close to home so if it doesn’t work out on a given day, you haven’t spent a lot of time and resources just getting to the trail. Having patience with your kids and being flexible with your plans will pay off greatly in the long run, on and off the trail. 

Family at Heart Lake
Ben Brosseau

An Investment in the Future 

A family registers at a trailhead
Jake Wilde

Taking time to include your kids in planning, having patience on the trail, and showing interest in whatever shiny rock or funny-looking mushroom your child points out will pay off in spades. Before you know it, your child will be an enthusiastic, conscientious, and experienced hiker who’s ready to out-hike you and take on bigger adventures!  

Moreover, as you bond with your child, you’ll kick off a lifelong love of the outdoors and spark a will in your child to protect our natural resources. The investment of time you will have made in these experiences will have positive ripple effects for generations to come. Savor every moment along the way. 

Resources for 4th-graders 

If your child is in fourth grade, you can take advantage of ADK’s school outreach programs.  

For children whose classrooms participate in the Marie H Haberl School Outreach Program: Three Seasons at Heart Lake, they will be introduced to the wonders of nature in fall, winter, and spring in their classrooms as well as at the Heart Lake Program Center. Others can participate in our online program, Bringing Heart Lake to Your Backyard. Both programs integrate New York State’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

Support ADK’s school outreach programs here.  

To learn more about ADK’s School Outreach programs and to register for our online program, click here.

3 Seasons group walking


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