My own sons, now 10 & 12, have been raised with a nature connection and the ground rules for hiking seem to come as natural to them as the breeze through the trees. They're reserved, enjoying the trail relatively quiet. They'll be still to observe small wildlife and insects or take in the big picture. They take notice of sights, sounds and intricate details of the environment. Hiking with the boys is simple and easy. It's been part of their life since they first began toddling down a trail which adds up to a decade of experience.
Which brings me to our time on the trail with a newbie hiker, my young grandson. I knew it wouldn't be like taking my boys out on the trail. But, I was still unprepared for his complete lack of connection or attention to nature. Afterward, as I processed the lessons I learned from our outing, I decided to share with others. Surely, I'm not the only one attempting to take on the responsibility of introducing an inexperienced preschooler to the great outdoors.
It's important to realize, beforehand, that your hike with a young child may prove to be a great exercise of your patience. My older sons grew up hiking trails and wandering through the woods, so they have naturally developed an appreciation for the benefits of hiking. My young grandson has little outdoor experience outside of park playgrounds where he is encouraged to expend as much energy as possible in small, confined and usually well-manicured areas. He's loud, very and consistently loud. He's into everything and blissfully unaware of potentially dangerous plants and animals. This hike isn't going to be about your connection with nature. Plan another hike to satisfy that desire and make the child and his/her desires your concentration.
Trail Choice & Pace
I can't stress enough the importance of choosing the right trail and letting the child set the pace. Choose a short hike on a trail with interesting features. Make time to explore the micro-environments, to move slower and to take breaks. We chose, for my grandson's first hike, an environment that is highly stimulating to the senses. We visited a local conservation park with a river, many song birds, and some small rock outcrops along the trail. It's a place we know very well and can direct attention to familiar features.
My older sons are wise to the ways of the wild. They both have keen senses of observation and will point out wildlife, plants and potential habitats for snakes and lizards. The younger fellow, along for our hike, has yet to develop these skills of observation. Some helpful tools to encourage the development of quiet observation are magnifying glasses and binoculars. Bring these along and help the youngster find interesting objects or animals and insects to observe.
Food & Water
This really goes without saying. Pack enough food and water to take several breaks and drink along the entire route. A young, inexperienced preschoolers is not going to be thrilled about carrying his/her own water bottle for a hike. Expect that you will be the pack mule for all food, water and equipment on these first hikes. Eventually, equipping a more experienced child with their own special pack is ideal.
Have Fun! This is what it's all about. Play games, like I Spy, or bring along a scavenger hunt to complete. Enjoy seeing the natural world through fresh eyes with your young hiking companion and don't be afraid of the dirt and mud!
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