If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.
– Rachel Carson
Our children’s lives have become increasingly busy. There is intense pressure to sign up for enrichment activities, dance, karate, soccer. At the same time, our society rewards the sedentary, the ability to sit still for hours at a time, interacting with an often artificial environment. Yet we all carry within us, hard-wired, the capacities that made people farmers or shepherds, hunters, explorers, discoverers. We carry a need for connection, with each other and with the natural world.
From the time my children were small, I made an effort to get them out into nature, away from man-made artificial playgrounds and out into the woods, into open fields.
As they’ve grown older, and we’ve chosen to homeschool, hiking has become an integral part of their education and our family culture. This reflects not only the organic learning experiences that I believe the natural world offers, but also the effects I’ve seen such experiences have on my children. After a few hours in the woods or open prairie, my nine-year-old son seems more grounded, more himself. He’s better able to sit and do some written work. My daughter is energized, full of new thoughts she wants to share and pictures she wants to draw. As a family, we’ve also come together, sharing something deep and timeless. I feel myself unwind, as I let go of my monkey mind of reoccurring worries and nagging doubts and notice the lessons of rebirth, resilience and strength that the natural world can teach us.
It hasn’t always been easy. The hardest years by far were when my youngest child was three or four. Too large for a backpack or jogger, she insisted on walking but then would lose her enthusiasm, demand to be carried even as my older son darted ahead. During those years, we focused on shorter hikes, a half-mile loop on a flat, well-marked trail. My focus was less on distance traveled than just on time spent in nature. As I saw it, even those days when we barely made it past the trailhead were an investment in the future, in building my children’s confidence and enjoyment in nature, and our connection and culture as a family.
Now that my children are in elementary school, we may hike two miles or more, weather and conditions permitting. We still hike at a leisurely pace. I’m always willing to stop if someone sees an interesting bug, or a lizard scurrying across a rock. Sometimes we hike in silence, as each of us goes within or focuses on the world around us. Other times, my children may be eager to talk. I find that my son, now nine, opens up on our hikes, tells me things that are happening with his friends, or about some problem he’s been having.
My daughter, at six, often needs a bit of imaginative encouragement or engagement to overcome her resistance. We play games; “My grandmother went hiking and she saw….”
She may request the “hiking story,” a seemingly never-ending tale of elves and fairies who live in a dark and enchanted wood. “Get your ideas from nature,” she says, if I appear to be blocked on a plot twist, as she mirrors something I once told her about storytelling. It is then my turn to rise to the challenge, look around and outside of myself. A hawk enters our story, or a mossy rock that hides a colony of tiny forest spirits, or a magical cobweb that links forest dwelling to forest dwelling, another kind of communication web.
In other moods, we may recite favorite nature verses, or multiplication tables and math facts. I may offer them a quest: Find a rock shaped like a triangle. Spot something red. Together, we look for signs of spring, or fall, as the seasons change. I make space for synchronicity. Rather than setting out with a definite destination (even reaching the end of the trail,) I focus instead on an intention: being open, being present, letting the day unfold as it will.
In the summer months, I try to choose hikes that may end or intersect with a shallow creek where they can play, a kind of reward to look forward to. My children strip down to swim suits and water shoes. If the car is close by, we may retrieve our tub of water toys and buckets. My son made a creek viewer by cutting both ends off a metal coffee can and securing sturdy saran wrap to one end with rubber bands. My children may collect small fish or crawdads, which we always return to their natural environment after taking a close look.
In my backpack, I keep a coil of clothesline and a folded piece of fabric and I may rig up a little shaded tent between bushes or trees where I can rest while the children splash in the water or play in the dirt. I pay close attention to what they’re doing, but don’t intervene unless they are endangering themselves or nature. I try to model for them some purposeful activity: reading, knitting, or sketching in my journal. I keep a story book nearby for when one of my children wanders over to sit in my lap. They might ask for a story, or better yet, may just want to sit there with me, listening, watching the trees, practicing being still. Being present.
I cannot begin to count the number of lessons my children have learned from being in nature. They’ve learned cause and effect: If I step in the creek, I get wet. They’ve learned to handle risk, to judge when it is safe to cross a log or reach for a higher branch of a tree. They have learned creativity, as a bush becomes a house or the eddy of a stream an entire ocean.
They’ve learned by watching animals, from observing the industry and cooperation of tiny ants, or noticing how the circling of a hawk, searching for food, differs from the flight of a song bird.
My children have delighted in seeing the first flight of hundreds of ladybugs, emerging from the ground with the warming weather. They’ve found discarded snake skins and broken bird eggs. They notice subtle changes as the first buds show in March and a few leaves start to turn red around the edges in late August. They’ve learned about cycles, about impermanence and resilience. They’ve learned to pay attention.
Some of the places we hike become like old friends; we visit them again and again, see how they change from season to season, from year to year.
At the end of the day, we are careful to pick up everything we have brought, to arrange our space as we found it. My children usually need to wander about, saying goodbye to a favorite tree, the squirrel they’ve befriended. Tired, we spill into the car, recharged, grounded and more present and open to the wonder of the world around us.
Tips for Hiking with Children
:: Start with short hikes close to home, especially when children are young. Work up to longer hikes as you and your children gain confidence and stamina.
:: Allow for a leisurely pace. Let children stop to rest when they need to, or just when they want a quiet moment in nature.
:: Rely on your creativity and imagination to urge on reluctant hikers. Sometimes the promise of a celebratory treat at the end, a stop at a favorite ice cream shop or popsicles from the freezer, can do wonders in overcoming discouragement or fatigue.
:: Dress appropriately with long pants, close-toed shoes or boots, hats and layers to accommodate weather changes. I keep our hiking clothes in a plastic bin along with our Camelbacks, our first aid kit and trail maps, to make getting out the door on sleepy mornings that much easier.
:: Bring plenty of water (at least 32 ounces per person), as well as energy snacks such as granola bars, nuts and seeds. Even when my children were small, I urged them to carry their own water. Camelbacks are great, especially if they have added pockets for snacks and sunscreen.
:: Before you begin your hike, remind your children of the ground rules: Stay on the path (for the sake of the ecosystem and your child’s safety, since snakes may hide in the long grass off the trail.) Stay close together, ideally with an adult in the lead. Don’t pick any flowers or berries or leaves, as some plants may sting or be poisonous. Know your local fauna, and point out plants to avoid, such as poison ivy, poison oak or nettles.
:: Have a good trail map and know where you’re going. If there is a ranger station, it’s always a good idea to check in so someone knows where you are. In my experience, park rangers are friendly and eager to share their knowledge with children. They can give you some pointers on animals to look for, and may alert you to any weather systems moving in.
:: Pay attention to weather, and get under cover (or at least off an open trail or mountainside) at the first sign of lightening or building storm clouds.
:: I bring a first aid kit on our hikes complete with bandaids, gauze, first aid tape and scissors, as well as alcohol swabs, Bach Rescue Remedy, lavender essential oil, arnica tablets and cream for bruises and apis mellifica, a homeopathic remedy for mild reactions to bee stings. Other handy essentials include safety pins, bandanas, and duct tape, which can be used for everything from mending a shoe to removing cactus spines. My daughter now carries her own first aid kit, and getting it ready is one of her favorite ways to prepare for our hikes.
:: Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect your family from sun and insects. I make my own natural bug spray solution by mixing equal parts water and witch hazel, and then adding 10 drops each of citronella, cedar, eucalyptus, rosemary and rose geranium essential oils. You may also include 5 to 10 drops of basil, thyme, sage or lemongrass essential oils; the more pungent the better. I keep the mixture in a small spray bottle and spray my children’s clothing and limbs, keeping it away from their faces. Remember, it’s important to reapply herbal sunscreens every few hours.
:: Above all, have fun. Leave your expectations and goals at home, and focus instead on being open to experience, and making space for connection…your connection to each other, and your connection to the natural world.
Erin Fossett-Walsh is a freelance writer and homeschooling mother of two. She lives in Colorado and enjoys reading, hiking, knitting, and studying herbal medicine. She writes the At Home section of Living in Season e-magazine, as well as her own blog, Wild and Precious Life.