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Secrets of a Park Ranger: 8 Ideas for Making Hikes With Tots a Heckuvalotta Fun

Ranger Hikes

When it comes to family outings, it doesn’t get much better than a little quality time spent in nature—whether your local landscape is salty beach, aspen glade, or high desert. Kids are born explorers, after all, and walks in the natural world can provide everything from mental calm and focus to happiness and healthy hearts.

But there are little tricks to hiking with young children, as National Park Service Lead Park Ranger Caryn Davidson told us. This spry ranger with a smile as big as her heart has been showing children the wonders and wilds of Joshua Tree National Park since 1987, so she knows, well, pretty much everything there is to know about making hikes with kids really great. She even credits desert explorations with strengthening the bond between her and her own daughter.

So just say no to your inner couch potato and check out Davidson’s fantastic tips for making your family hike a wild success. And then, just go: After all, nature is the world’s best place to really be a kid again (even for adults).

1. Support Your Budding Naturalist: Show Interest in Her Trailside Discoveries.

I believe in the adage, Children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Be interested in what they observe, whether it’s an insect, a rock, or the call of a bird. It’s fine to point out the things that catch your interest, but your experiences shouldn’t overshadow what attracts a child’s attention. Ask questions!

2. When Hiking with Children, It’s All About the Journey, Not the Destination.

Sometimes an adult’s expectations of reaching a goal (like a view or a waterfall) may interfere with the pleasure of discovering what is most interesting to the child. One never knows what lies behind the stump that has attracted the child’s attention—encourage his or her curiosity and openness to discovery. Inspecting the smallest patch of grass or desert may yield surprising details: a bee inside a flower, a lizard basking on a boulder, or a desiccated leaf lying against a dark branch.

3. Encourage Nature Inspection: Always Bring a Magnifying Lens.

I can’t emphasize enough what a delight it is for kids to discover the fine details of a rock, a leaf, a patch of lichen, or a wildflower through the power of magnification. Jewelers’ loupes are the best, but for younger naturalists, a larger lens with a handle is easier to manipulate. A small notebook or sketchbook is a nice addition to the hiking supply kit.

4. Pace Yourself—By Following Your Child’s Pace.

I usually take kids on a one-mile loop trail, but the distance isn’t as important as the length of time. Again, be open to the child’s pace and don’t inflict a predetermined goal on a tired hiker. The ideal is to head back before they get too tired to enjoy the return to the trailhead.

5. Pack a Bag of Tricks: Play Color Match.

I like to bring paint swatches from the local hardware store with me on a hike with young children. I hand them out and ask them to find things in the landscape that match the colors they are holding. It’s really fun!

6. Play a Game of Snapshot.

A new game I recently learned is called Snapshot. Kids are paired up; one shuts his/her eyes while the other guides the partner to an interesting spot. The guide then asks the other child to “take a snapshot” by opening his/her eyes for the count of three. On three, the child’s eyes close again, and she talks about what she saw. This exercise in intense focus helps isolate and store in memory a scene that might not ordinarily be noticed.

7. Anticipate Potential Bummers: Always Pack First Aid and Food.

The biggest challenge when hiking with kids is to anticipate unforeseen events, such as a bruise or scrape, a sting or bite, inclement weather, or anything that causes physical discomfort. The most important thing is safety—bring a first aid kit, plenty of water, and some nice snacks (dried fruit, nuts, something salty). Don’t weigh yourself down with a week’s supply of food, but be prepared to stop and rest and enjoy something tasty along the trail.

8. Focus on Connection and Togetherness.

Being outdoors and moving through a landscape with someone frees up one’s thoughts and feelings, so conversations about all sorts of things arise. The bond between my daughter and me grew stronger as we explored the desert together. Developing an interest in the wider world, sharing observations, and comparing notes…these emotional and intellectual exchanges are important elements of our relationship.

And we hope they will part of yours.

Free park bonus: If you have a fourth grader, or age-equivalent free-choice learner, you and your family can receive an Every Kid in a Park pass that will give you free access to hundreds of parks, lands, and waters for an entire year! Find out more here.

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