One time while heading uphill on a hiking trail, I encountered a boy coming downhill huffing and puffing warning us that it got really steep up ahead. Knowing that the trail was about as flat as they come, I asked him how far they got and it seemed that they made it only about a half a mile.
Countless times I’ve seen young kids or even teenagers hiking with parents where it doesn’t look like that much fun. It reminds me of a forced march. What is important to remember is that if you want to make it to a destination with kids, you have to take your time and keep kids engaged.
Kids have very little endurance. While fantastic scenery can keep adults going, kids will tire out unless you discover some interesting things along the way. For instance, get them searching for different kinds of pine cones. The cones from Douglas fir, subalpine fir, lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce all look different.
When you’ve got a collection and you’ve identified which tree they’ve come from, play a feeling game where one person closes their eyes and are given a cone that they have to identify by feel.
Trick them into looking for male cones. These mini pine cones found toward the tips of the branches and are the ones that produce pollen. This is a good time to play the hotter/colder search game and let them discover these cool little things with their own eyes.
While picking wildflowers is illegal because it takes away their seeds for future years, the picking of leaves for studying is just fine. Start a leaf collection on your way uphill. See who can find the coolest leaf. When you reach your destination and are relaxing, you can pull out a crayon and piece of paper and do a leaf rubbing.
Leaf rubbings are fascinating for anyone regardless of age. If you flip the leaf over, the bottom side has the interesting veins and patterns. Simply lightly rub the crayon back and forth and discover the fascinating details that come alive. If you want to preserve the leaf shape in a journal, a rubbing gives you perfect detail, much more so than a drawing.
For instance, you will learn inadvertently that some leaves have serrated edges, while others have smooth or entire edges. Sometimes leaves are shaped like a lance or spearhead, while other times they are deeply lobed like your fingers if you look at the palm of your hand. Are these palmate shaped leaves? Wow, you can introduce basic concepts of botany to little ones and pique their interest. You can discover that leaves can come in a pattern off of a main stem where they are directly opposite of each other or sometimes they alternate.
How about discovering pollinators? Look closely into flowers as you pass by and see what critters are moving the pollen around. Isn’t it fascinating that you see beetles in rose blossoms, bees near berry bushes, ants on balsamroot, and flies on parsley?
Flower shapes evolved to favor their specific pollinator, which can lead to discussions of which came first, kind of like the chicken or the egg? These questions have never been fully answered by even the smartest scientists on earth, so a child’s theory or yours may hold just as much validity.
Ask questions to kids rather than telling them the answer. For instance, you could hear a bird singing away being rather persistently with its song. You may ask them, “Why do birds sing?” This gets their imagination stirring. They may have some fun answers like, “Oh, because its happy.” But adults can explain that birds sing for a couple of good reasons. Typically it is the male bird that sings, and it is to attract females, and to maintain a territory where other birds that compete for the same food sources are not welcome.
Wow, the singing bird is actually doing something, and not just acting randomly. This leads to further observations of, “What are they doing now?” Is the bird foraging for food? Is it an insect eater? Is it finding seeds? Is it carrying nesting material in its bill?
How about animal tracks in the mud? It’s easy enough to find faint trails that lead to the edge of a stream. In the rich muddy soil along the stream bank are often excellent prints with lots of details. Is it a hoof? Does it have claws? How many toes does it have? This type of activity keeps the imagination alive.
Finally, you need an attainable destination and a nice little snack or picnic. I like spots near a creek where we can soak our tired feet. A snack is key because everyone will find a nice comfortable spot to sit and hang out for a while and just be.
Sitting still and being in the moment is often so hard to find in our daily lives. When we are out in nature searching for cool stuff, observing entertaining birds and animals, and feeling the sensation of cold water on our feet as we soak them in a stream we are enjoying being in the moment. Teach your children well.