Tell Your Kids to Take a Hike
As a parent and pediatrician, I believe quality family time is crucial. It’s how we bond, pass down traditions and learn life’s most basic lessons. But I also know carving out that time isn’t always easy. Between homework, endless practice and even part-time jobs, our children’s lives are as tightly scheduled as our own. When they do have a free moment, it’s typically spent in front of a screen – be it a smartphone, television or video game. That, in turn, is contributing to a near epidemic of childhood obesity nationwide. What’s a parent to do? My wife and I chose to introduce our two children to something we both love dearly – hiking in the great outdoors. It’s fun, healthy and inexpensive.
Benefits of hiking for children
What I enjoy most about hiking with children is watching their excitement as a whole new world of sights, smells and sounds opens up. As they hike, children also:
- Get healthier – Walking, climbing and campsite chores are great for weight control, flexibility and bone strength. They also promote better sleep.
- Relax – Even just an hour on a trail is a welcome break from the stress, restrictions and electronic intrusions of everyday life. (It’s great for you too.)
- Learn – Hiking is a hands-on opportunity to learn new skills and better appreciate nature. There are no tests or homework, so the learning feels like fun.
- Grow – Independence, creativity and confidence grow as kids gradually take on more responsibility during hikes. It’s especially important for them to see success as something outside of “winning and losing.”
- Bond – Exploring together and achieving common goals (like gathering wood for a cooking fire) demonstrates the importance of teamwork and strengthens family bonds.
Tips to get you started
Your first step is to make sure you’re comfortable with hiking (day or overnight) before taking children with you. If you’re new to hiking, pick up a guide book and get acclimated by hitting some trails by yourself.
Here are some other tips:
- Invest in the right shoes. If you plan to hike regularly, sturdy hiking or trail shoes (no smooth soles) are a must.
- Start slow. Don’t go too far at first, and let the youngest one set the pace.
- Be patient. The journey is more important than the destination. You never know when you’ll discover something really interesting, so you may not make it to the end of the trail, to the first mile or even out of the parking lot.
- Make it fun. Immerse children into nature with games like “count the butterflies” or a stone-stacking contest. Or turn pieces of driftwood into sailboats and race them down a stream. Challenge older children to take creative photos they can share with friends on social media. Even better, let your kids use their imagination to make up their own games.
- Keep them comfortable. Take along plenty of snacks and more water than you think you need, and younger children may appreciate a favorite stuffed animal. Also leave a change of clothes and extra food in the car. It’s a welcome treat when you return.
- Include everyone. Children with mobility issues have more opportunities than ever to enjoy hiking, as most parks now offer ADA-accessible trails. Before going, visit the park website for a listing of these trails. Looking for something more organized? My son is an Eagle Scout, so I know the Boy Scouts of America has a program designed to help boys with disabilities interact with nature.
Beyond the woods
Don’t limit your hiking to the woods. It’s also fun to explore historic sites like Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Boston’s Freedom Trail.
- com is a website I often use to discover new trails. Actual hikers rate the difficulty of each hike, so you can get a good idea if it would be good for a young child.
- I really like the Washington Trails Association website for its simple, down-to-earth suggestions, even if you never plan to travel to Washington.
- I also like the “50 Hikes in Pennsylvania” series of guide books by Tom Thwaites. It includes books for eastern, western and central Pennsylvania.
- The Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, a state park located in Nazareth, includes a number of casual hiking trails that are great for families. It also offers a variety of education programs for students (pre-school age through college) that focus on outdoor recreation, natural history and environmental issues.