Help your child connect with nature.
By Trent Jonas
Introducing your child to the great outdoors from a young age helps to develop a positive, lifelong relationship with nature. But with small kids, it's not always so easy to get them excited about going for a trek on the trails. Between fun games like animal identification to junior park ranger programs through the National Park Service, there are plenty of ways to help your child look forward to hiking. Here are a few ways to get them started.
When children are little, they are naturally curious and, often, strive to emulate what their parents are doing. This is a great time to get your children outdoors on short, local nature walks and point out the things you see. Do the same when you travel. On the other hand, small children can tire easily, and their attention may wander. For this reason, try and keep the early nature walks and hikes relatively short. There’s no guideline, but if your child seems to be losing interest or is complaining about being tired, don’t push them too often: You don’t want to teach them that hiking is something to be dreaded. Let them come to it on their own terms and at their own interest levels.
No matter how old your children are, make hiking fun. This is probably the most surefire way to capture their interest in hiking and keep it. Make up games, see who can see the most animals or find the most yellow flowers or who can see the most fungus growing on logs. Look into a stream or a lake and try to spot fish or frogs or turtles. Point out the different kinds of bark on trees and the shapes of their leaves. Look for birds and listen to their songs. Look for cool rocks and bugs. Try to explain what lichen is (that’s a really tough one, but it was fun to try!)
A great way to make nature more fun—and educational—is to try and identify all the organisms you see. Bring a guide for the birds or plants or animals in your area along with you on hikes, as well as a pair of binoculars. Another great tool is your smartphone. The iNaturalist app, which was created by the California Academy of Sciences, in partnership with National Geographic, helps you to identify and keep track of the plants and birds and animals and other organisms that you come across in your hike. If you can’t identify it, their community of nature lovers will jump in and try to help. It makes nature an even more wonderfully interactive experience.
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Start teaching your children about maps early on. Even with GPS technology, you still need to know basic map reading, and planning a hike is a great way to teach this skill while looking toward the next adventure. Give your children some agency in deciding where they want to go hiking, then help them look at the maps for the locations and talk over what trails may be best and why. Another great way to interest your kids in hiking while building their orienteering skills is through geocaching. Many park systems even have geocaching programs and GPS units that children can borrow. Local geocaching clubs expand the opportunities out there.
The National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program is designed specifically to get kids interested in connecting with nature, and their park passport program is another way for kids to document their visits to America’s wonderlands. Fortunately, many state and local park systems, as well as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, have their own passport, hiking club, and other kid-oriented programs that get kids excited to be out on the trails.
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