Get outdoors with your children.
By Trent Jonas
There is a lot of research backing the notion that hiking is not only good for an individual’s physical health but also their mental and emotional well-being. For centuries, in fact, Japanese culture has embraced the practice of Shinrin yoku, “forest bathing” for its health benefits. The benefits of hiking have become so widely accepted that doctors actually prescribe hiking as a therapeutic activity. It only goes to follow, then, that the younger you start hiking, the more attuned you will be to its advantages. Here are some of the ways that hiking improves your child’s mental and emotional health.
One of the most obvious benefits of hiking comes from the physical aspects of the activity: Kids exercise their muscles. Going hand-in-hand with this, of course, is the side benefit of using up any pent-up energy that can make children agitated and prevent them from concentrating or getting sufficient rest.
One study conducted by researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California linked being out in nature with reduced levels of stress and anxiety. The simple act of hiking can help release chemicals in your child’s brain that will help him or her to feel less anxious.
The Stanford study also indicated that hiking can help improve your child’s sensory perception. Being outdoors opens a child’s senses to the sights, feelings, and smells of the natural world, which, in turn, helps to improve attention to detail and mindfulness of their surroundings. In addition, when hiking with your child, you can point out the plants, animals, birds, and insects that you encounter. You can even try to identify bird calls. These activities not only help children learn to pay attention to details and improve their outward awareness, but it will also help learn to identify the plants and creatures that share the landscape. Such activities have the added benefit of keeping younger children engaged in the hike so they don’t become too bored or grumpy.
In a world that is increasingly dominated by screens and devices, especially for younger generations, hiking offers an opportunity to model social engagement for your children. Putting down the devices (except maybe to take the occasional photograph), engaging in conversation, making observations, and simply enjoying one another’s company will help your child learn skills that can be used in social situations that they will encounter throughout their lives.
When you take your child hiking, it creates an excellent opportunity to teach him or her life skills that will help build confidence and self-esteem. Where better than a trail for a child to learn compass and map-reading skills, to read the sky for weather, and to be prepared for the unforeseen. Fire-making and shelter building skills are also something that can be taught while hiking.
Although part physical and part mental, balance and equilibrium are key to everyday movement and to help a child walk confidently through their world. When a child moves with uncertainty or awkwardness, it can lead to confidence or even self-esteem issues. Walking over uneven terrain, as trails often are, engages core muscles and brain functions that control balance and equilibrium in ways that walking on a smooth surface or a treadmill do not. With frequent forays onto the trail, kids will be surer of foot and surer of themselves.
Tips for hiking with kids
• Make sure that your child is wearing appropriate footwear with protected toes and a sole for gripping.
• Always bring enough water and snacks for yourself and your children.
• Don’t forget sunscreen, hats, bug spray, and dry socks for everyone.
• Let somebody know where you’re going.
• Teach your kids not to hike alone.
• Have fun!