by KIMBERLY BLAKER
Want to spend quality time with your family and get in touch with nature? Then enjoy a fresh, invigorating walk in the woods, along a river or on the beach. What’s more, family hikes create fun learning opportunities for kids and parents alike. Try some of these hiking activities with your children.
A stone is a stone is a…mineral?
Go on an excursion to learn about rocks and minerals. Before you go, learn which rocks and minerals are abundant in the area and have each family member choose several to scout for. Take along a small plastic container with dividers, a descriptive rock and mineral guide, and a magnifying glass for viewing the colors, layers and details of your finds. As you identify stones and minerals, discuss their uses and other fascinating facts.
Sounds of nature
Wander through a forest and listen carefully for a variety of bird and animal sounds. Before you go, visit your library for a video or DVD of birds and wild animal calls. Use a phone or other recording device to record some of the sounds you hear. Listen to the recording again at home and try to determine the source of the sounds. Search online, encyclopedias and books to discover the makers of the mystery calls.
Capture nature’s splendor. Hiking trails provide plenty of photo opportunities and kids will love snapping shots. Discuss in advance what each family member wants to photograph such as a huge oak tree, a monarch butterfly, deer tracks or a close-up of a nibbling squirrel. At home, have them create a nature scrapbook or photo album on your Facebook page with the photos.
Family hikes create fun learning opportunities for kids and parents alike.
Trees are the “giants of nature” even if they’re not sequoias or redwoods. They are not only intriguing because of their sometimes-massive size but also because of the variety and history behind them. Borrow some library books that describe the unique features of trees and that offer history on them. Use clues such as the shape of the tree’s leaves, the texture of its bark and even its size to determine the kind of tree.
Which way do we go?
Roam the countryside and teach your children directional skills. Show them how to read a map, use a compass or determine direction using the sun. Before setting out choose a trail system that provides maps or make up your own. Take a trail that branches off several times to allow for plenty of skill building opportunities. For even more fun, turn the excursion into a treasure hunt. Hide a small prize just off the trail under a bush or pile of leaves, mark the location on your map and let the journey begin. Some families have gotten into a more advanced form of hunting for objects hidden by others using geocaching.
Animals all around
Take a quiet hike in a wooded area with grassy clearings and see how many animals you meet. Watch for snakes, turtles and geese if there’s a lake or stream nearby. Look for chipmunks and squirrels playing chase or gathering food. Check for birds of prey circling overhead or grazing deer. Discuss the unique features of the animals you find and how those qualities help or hinder them. Talk about the animals’ food sources, their shelters and other species they are related to. Also, keep your eyes peeled for animal tracks to identify and determine how recently they were made. If you are in an area with potentially dangerous animals (bears, foxes), be very cautious and don’t approach them.
Creepy crawly things
Scouting for insects is an all-time favorite among kids, and the variety of creepy crawly creatures in the woods is remarkable. Carry an insect book, clear container, tweezers and a magnifying glass for close examination of insects’ fascinating features. Bring a journal and track the types of insects you find. Read about insects’ defense behaviors and characteristics (such as colors) that indicate danger to predators.
Plant life—old and new
Discover the amazing diversity of plant life with your kids. Before you head out, review some books on plants to spark your children’s interest. On each hiking trip, choose a different trail or area and see what plants grow in different soils, climates and seasons. As you inspect plants, look for their seeds and discover the variations. Talk about how seeds travel by catching on the fur of animals or blowing in the wind. Carefully brush away ground covering and look for seeds that have sprouted their roots. Tell your children about how those sprouts will soon develop into a new plant or tree. Learn how certain plants have evolved natural defenses to protect against creatures that would otherwise devour them.
Where to find trails
National forests and parks across the United States have extensive trail systems, but you might be surprised to discover nearby trails that you never knew existed. Check with city, county and state parks for a list of trails. Also, look for trails along rivers, lake shores and beaches. One website for finding local trails is traillink.com. If you have access to a wooded area that isn’t too dense, a trail may not be necessary. When hiking off trails, use safety precautions to protect against tripping, poison ivy or other hazards.
Before you go
For your comfort and convenience, carry a small daypack and extra clothing for cool air along trails. Don’t forget hiking boots. Bring along hats, sunglasses, sunblock and insect repellant. Be prepared for emergencies by carrying a small flashlight and batteries, watch, map, bandages and plenty of water and snacks. Finally, make the most of your nature quest by carrying binoculars, a magnifying glass and small camera.
Trekkin’ tips for tykes
When hiking with children, keep these suggestions in mind:
• Know your child’s limitations. Allow small legs plenty of time for breaks and make the journey fun.
• Be familiar with potential dangers in the area and teach your children trail and animal safety.
• Before you set out prepare your children by informing them there may be rules against bringing their nature finds home.
KIMBERLY BLAKER, of Arizona, is an author and freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in more than 200 newspapers, parenting and women’s magazines, and other publications throughout the U.S.