I grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi, where I hunted and fished and tended a garden. I learned how the natural world works because the majority of my childhood was spent outside. As is true for most kids, I loved exploring and playing in my own yard and beyond.
I’m now an adult with children of my own, and we don’t live on a farm.
One day I had the epiphany that my kids weren't being exposed to the same things that I was as a young boy. That realization quickly gave way to going on short urban hikes and bird watching and more frequent trips back home to visit my family’s land. I have spent the last decade ensuring that my kids knew that I loved spending time outside and trying to instill that same love of nature in them.
As a family we have been hiking and camping all over the southeastern United States. The most memorable is when we camped in North Carolina at Mount Pisgah and Mount Mitchell State Park (the highest peak east of the Mississippi River). It was July and a storm rolled in. The temperature dropped down to the 40’s. It was cold and damp, but after I built a fire, we all warmed up and ate well. During dinner, clouds descended on the mountain and rolled through our campsite. It was a wonderful experience that my family still talks about to this day.
Children are naturally curious and inquisitive.
They also naturally show an interest and want to learn about the things their parents do. They learn by watching and then mimicking others. Children can learn a great deal about themselves by spending time in nature; a child’s first classroom outside the home. In their home, children feel safe and protected. In the great outdoors, children begin to realize just how big the world is. Yet they come to understand that they are able to have an impact on the world around them.
Spending time outside can help to instill self-confidence, bravery and better decision-making skills in young children. Attempting to jump over a mud puddle and not quite making it is a lesson that won't be quickly forgotten.
Which is to say: being outside is great for kids. Here are some tips to encourage your little one(s) to enjoy hiking:
- Start them out young. Carry them out and introduce them to the great outdoors; even as babies.
- Lead by example. Let your kids see you enjoy being outside. Show your kids that you are interested in the things you encounter while on the trail.
- Make it fun (hiking should not be "work" when children are young if you want them to continue hiking as they get older). Playing games can be a perfect way to get kids to enjoy being hiking along a trail. A scavenger hunt can keep kids engaged and having fun. Be sure to allow them the freedom to do other things if they grow tired of the activity. A game of "Silly Sticks" can go on for hours. Kids love sticks and something as simple as trying to find the stick that looks the silliest can keep them entertained for quite a long time. Other games like counting the number of birds you can hear or how many animals you can see can be very engaging too.
- Set aside time for free play. While playing "guided" games can be fun all kids love to play without having a stated goal in mind. Playing just for the sake of having fun is the ultimate form of fun.
- Don't be afraid to be silly.
- Teach your kids to respect all wildlife. A good lesson on empathy and compassion for a small bug just might be carried over into all areas of their life.
- Don't panic or overreact. If you happen to encounter a snake or any other animal (large or small) near the trail try to remain calm and keep a level head. Children learn how to react to their surroundings by watching how we react. If you panic and scream when you see a snake your will remember that as the appropriate behavior when they next encounter a snake. This is one way that unhealthy and irrational fears develop. Once something like that happens it will be very difficult to get any child to enjoy being outdoors.
- A better way to handle an encounter with a snake would be to avoid the snake while talking about respecting it and not harassing it. Talk about how dangerous some snakes are and that it’s best to leave all snakes alone until you can learn how to distinguish between the venomous and toxic snakes and snakes that are relatively harmless.
- Teach children how to judge dangers and risks for themselves. This is a big one for me. I see helicopter parents "hovering" around their children trying to keep them safe and to navigate the dangers/risks for their children. This type of parenting stifles children's individual growth and development; self-confidence takes a really hard hit when children aren't given the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them and realize that they can overcome "obstacles" on their own.
- Allow your kids run ahead of you on the trail. Ensure they know and understand the rules for being on the trail so that they stay safe but let them be kids. Let their curiosity get the best of them. Everyone hates it when "Buzz Killington" or the neighborhood "fun sponge" shows up to the party. Don't be your child's "fun sponge" because you are afraid they might scrape their knee or fall into the mud. Those experiences just might end up being some of their most memorable moments of their childhood with you.
Nkrumah Frazier is the Sustainability Officer for the City of Hattiesburg, MS. He founded the non-profit organization Hikes Across America through which he hopes to inspire Americans from all walks of life to enjoy the great outdoors. In his spare time he enjoys camping, hiking, gardening and various other forms of outdoor recreation.