When our daughter Seneca was in preschool, her favorite weekend
activities were camping and hiking. By the time she was in kindergarten, she
could hike 4 miles. I can still see her joy as she discovered a bluejay feather
or roasted a marshmallow over an open fire.
Now Seneca is nine years old. Her love of nature has had a tremendous influence on her life. Besides being the most accomplished frog catcher among her friends, she has learned a sense of unlimited freedom and self-confidence. "Nature has so much to teach kids," says Cindy Ross, a coauthor of Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation (Mountaineers), "and children's minds are so ready and willing to absorb." Here's how to have a great experience on your next family trip to the great outdoors.
What's in It for the Kids?
Hiking with kids enables them to get up-close-and-personal with fascinating natural wonders: A child can stop to touch a smooth patch of moss or to examine an interesting rock. Parents should encourage such discovery as a way for kids to learn about the environment. Of course, be sure to teach kids to respect and keep their distance from all wild animals.
How can you make the most of your child's hike? For your first trek, plan to walk about a half mile, and be prepared to carry her part of the way, advises Ross. Next time, make the outing longer. Don't set a prescribed route; instead, leave time for spontaneous adventures. To help motivate your child to complete his journey, plan hikes that have a specific point of interest—a waterfall, say—at the end of the trail. Don't forget to bring along healthy treats, such as trail mix, fresh fruit, and carrots. Also keep plenty of water on hand.
What about camping with preschoolers? If you're going to camp out for a weekend or longer, call state and national parks for information about child-oriented facilities and activities. Some parks feature guided nature-trail walks and arts-and-crafts programs. Keep in mind, too, that some national parks are less crowded than others but just as beautiful, such as Great Basin in Nevada (702-234-7331), the North Cascades Complex in Washington State (360-856-5700), and Cumberland Gap in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee (606-248- 2817).
"While a cabin offers creature comforts, like indoor bathrooms, camping has more kid-pleasing advantages, such as campfires, star gazing, and sleeping outdoors," says Steve Gilbert, recreation programs supervisor of Cumberland Falls State Resort Park near Corbin, Kentucky. Preschoolers can help collect wood for a camp-fire, but should not be allowed to actually help build the fire.
If you want to camp out in a tent with your preschooler, don't be overly ambitious the first time out. A child might get homesick or frightened sleeping outdoors, so conduct a trial run at home. Pitch a tent in the backyard, and see how your child adjusts to the novelty.
Wherever you hike or camp, consult the forest rangers about dangers, places to avoid, and the location of a nearby hospital, advises Cindy Ross. Bring along a complete first-aid kit. Always hike on marked trails, and don't allow kids to run too far ahead. Be able to identify poison ivy and poison oak. And of course, activities like kayaking, white-water rafting, and rock climbing are not appropriate for preschoolers.
So, are you ready to go out and have a wild time? Just plan, prepare, and have fun.
Don't Forget to Bring...
"If you're planning on pitching a tent, bring one that's designed for the number in your family plus an extra person," says Cindy Ross, a coauthor of Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation. "Children and their gear take up lots of space." Other essential items are sleeping bags, warm clothing, hats, rainwear, sturdy shoes, a flashlight, matches, and some books and games. Remember to bring along a child's favorite toy or cuddly.
Eric Goodman writes frequently for Sesame Street Parents.