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May is National Walking month and this has inspired my latest blog on 11 ways to make hiking fun for young children. Now that our ski gear is packed away and the weather is getting warmer, it is much easier to get out and about (although as I write this winter is still trying to mustle in on spring time here in the French Alps).
Hiking is something that all the family can enjoy and benefit from. Some children will happily walk for hours, and others will moan and groan every step of the way. We get round this by turning a hike into an adventure. As a family, we mostly hike in the spring and autumn months. While the girls are young, we often plan around the weather. Although I am a big fan of the statement ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’, with young children I prefer to hike when it is dry. However, anyone that lives in the mountains will tell you how quickly weather can change and become unpredictable.
Starting kids hiking at a young age is a great way to build up their strength and stamina. It helps teach them to love the great outdoors and embrace nature. It can also teach them resilience by showing them that when you push on through the tougher bits, it feels especially good to reach your goal.
When planning your hike, have realistic expectations and choose your route carefully. Many children will surprise you with how far they can walk, but think about your route in terms of their age and fitness. From a young age, our eldest has been able walk a few miles. Our youngest is still too small and will mostly be in a carrier on our backs, however she likes to run along as much as she can. She is a ‘free range’ toddler and I’m yet to decide whether this is a positive thing or not!
Dress well and take sun hats. I like to layer so that we are prepared for all weather. I prefer long sleeves and trousers on the children for two reason: firstly to avoid too much sun exposure and secondly to avoid tics. My eldest daughter came back from a school trip with a pet tic on her chest age 4! Because we don’t know how long she had had it, she was treated with antibiotics (and yes she went on a 3 day trip with the school aged just 4 years old!). I am now paranoid whenever the girls run in long grass and I regularly scan them for little flecks of black!
Discuss your destination with the children and let them help with the planning. For example, aiming to do a hike to a water fall or around a lake helps give them a goal. Don’t worry if you don’t get as far as you had hoped and don’t put any time pressures on yourselves. Some days, children may surprise you with their enthusiasm and energy. Other days it may be difficult to get them out of the car! Try and go at their pace and don’t make it too challenging. Little legs can only walk so far. Know when it is time to call it a day.
Pick a fun trail with a purpose or a destination. In the UK there are lovely woodland walks such as Gruffalo trails and fairy hunts which make it more exciting for children. These are also very accessible if you are just getting started with young ones. In the Alps, you can incorporate a ride in a cable car or paddling in a stream.
If you are visiting the Alps, be sure to go to the local tourist office to pick up a walking guide. These are often free and will provide you with a wealth of local knowledge and information. Here is an example of one that is available in the Haut Chablais region. As I mentioned in 10 Reasons living in the mountains is awesome, the scenery in the Alps is stunning and if you really enjoy hiking as a family it is a great place to visit.
So, here are some of our favourite ways to make hiking fun with children. We’d love to hear your ideas too.
1 – Coin Trail
If you have a handful of coppers, take these on your hike. Distract the children while someone drops a trail of coins for the children to find and collect in a Hansel and Gretel type fashion.
2 – Scavenger hunt
At the age of 4, my daughter would often get a little bored if it was just the two of us on a hike. So before we left, we would plan a nature hunt. We would write or draw a list of things to look for or to collect and she still loves to do this today.
Things we look for may include a horse, a butterfly or an aeroplane in the sky. It may be a ladybird, an ant or the biggest tree that we can find.
We also take a bag to collect various items such as a yellow flower (dandelion), a feather, a white stone etc.
Don’t forget to take a pen so they can tick the items off their check lists. We also try to remember to pack a magnifying glass or a pair of binoculars as a more novel way of helping us to discover our hoard.
3 – Ready, Steady……..Go
Have some races, especially if you have been plodding along slowly. This will help to speed things up and cover some ground. Make the races fun by varying the activity such as:
- walking backwards
- first to get to the big tree / the river / the large rock etc
- piggy back races
4 – Animal tracking
Look for foot and paw prints on your route. Now, depending on the terrain type these aren’t always that easy to spot. This is where a little bit of creativity can go a long way…….
Did you know that unicorns are very light footed, but if you look closely you can see a light print here and there. They look a little bit like hoof prints but are heart shaped!
Or did you know, that dinosaurs had huge feet. Look for a big indent in your path and that may well be a prehistoric maker.
And have you ever seen a Woolly Mammoths foot print? They are really hard to find!
But the hardest of them all are the fairies. The best place to look for these foot prints are around the base of trees or toadstools.
5 – Picnic and snacks.
Let them help to prepare for your walk by choosing the snacks that they would like to eat. Ideally, a bag of healthy snacks is best, however a lollypop goes a long way on a long walk!
Children can help make their own trail packs from dried fruit, chocolate drops and nuts which they can look after and eat when they like. This will give them a sense of choice and independence.
However, you will also need to take a bag of extra snacks, water and
bribes incentives (many parents will disagree with using treats as an incentive and I only bring out the big guns when they are needed, but a pack of smarties can work wonders in times of stubbornness and fatigue)!
Stopping for a rest to eat your picnic and snacks is a great opportunity for little legs to have a good rest and refresh.
6 – Play follow the leader
Most children like to have an important role and one way to do this on a hike is to get the children to lead the way (subtly guide them to make the right choices if necessary), taking it in turns from time to time. This will empower them and give them a sense of responsibility. In turn this will make hiking more fun for children .
7 – Water
I love being by the water and so do most kids. Walk along a river, end at a water fall, picnic by a lake – being by the water can make hiking more fun for children. You can skim stones, play pooh sticks and paddle in a stream to cool down. You can also see who can throw a stone the farthest, although as a word of advice – keep an eye on the direction that little hands are aiming. Much to my husbands amusement, I took a rather large stone to the head when my then 3 year old misaimed at the Lac de Sassiere a few years ago. Hiking with children
8 – Play games
Distracting kids by playing games is a great way to divert their attention and entertain them if they are flagging. We like:
- I spy
- Chasing each others shadows
- Looking for shapes, animals and creatures in the clouds
Taking a ball with you can also help to make hiking fun for children, although this may depend on the terrain. Should there be any steep drops or cliffs along your path this may not be such a good idea.
9 – Collect sticks
Improvise with your newly acquired piece of wood. Use sticks as:
- musical instruments
- hiking poles
- rub them together to see if you can make fire (good luck with this one!)
- arrows to show you the way home later – again, Hansel and Gretel style!
10 – Parcours
This will obviously need to be adapted to a child’s age and ability but turning the great outdoors into a big adventure playground can be lots of fun. Jump off this, jump over that, balance over there, cross a stream, jump a ditch or a puddle; the options are endless.
11 – Take breaks and let them explore
Let them be distracted. Encourage them to climb. Help them to enjoy nature. Allow them to get grubby and have fun.