We go to the parks to feel small again. These are places of enormous grandeur which fill us with wonder and remind us that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves. And so we are drawn, year after year, to the rim of the Grand Canyon, the floor of Yosemite Valley, the base of Denali, and we measure ourselves against those expanses.
But what about those of us who are small?
For children, the most meaningful interactions with the natural world are hands-on, and they often happen on a smaller, more intimate scale. While we might marvel at a massive rock formation, a giant sequoia, or a vast sweep of seashore, a child might be captivated by an individual stone or leaf, or the tiny life to be found in a tide pool.
Our national parks—from the wilderness parks that span millions of acres to the urban parks in the backyards of millions of Americans—are incomparable places for fostering and affirming the vital connection between kids and nature. Simply by remembering that children perceive the natural world on a different scale and explore it at a different pace, we can make their experiences more enjoyable and rewarding.
1. Keep it simple For each step that you take, a child might require two just to keep up. Remember to move at a kid-friendly pace, with frequent breaks for resting and refueling. Resist creating an ambitious itinerary in favor of keeping one goal at a time—and rather than making a beeline to your endpoint, try to choose trails and paths that offer a variety of natural features and points of interest along the way.
2. Keep it flexible Because the destinations themselves can be so incredible, it’s easy to focus on simply reaching them. For children, however, curiosity is the greatest guide and each step along the way is part of the adventure. When possible, let children lead the way and remain patient with frequent stops to investigate new discoveries. Stumbling upon interesting insects, unusual rocks, and unexpected animal tracks all are rewards unto themselves.
3. Keep it positive The parks are wonderful learning environments, and that learning is often preceded by a sense of wonder. Keep your eyes and mind wide open and you might experience the same joys as the children in your care—or at least enjoy them seeing things for the first time. Discoveries are waiting to be made in even the most familiar settings, which change with the seasons, the weather, even the time of day. Remember, too, that for children, repetition can be a prerequisite to mastery. Be patient if their adventures take them along the same paths to explore the same settings, and try to see the extraordinary in the commonplace. At first glance, the leaves of a tree might seem unremarkable, but they are a marvel of colors, shapes, textures, and patterns worth investigating—even of mysteries to solve. (Why, for example, are the leaves on the lowest branches of a tree larger than those at the top?) Share your knowledge, but remember that showing often beats telling, and that discovering together can be one of the most effective ways of teaching.
4. Keep it safe Equip children properly for whatever environments you will encounter, paying special attention to having the right footwear and breathable layers that can be added or shed as body temperatures fluctuate. Pack sunscreen and hats for protection from the sun’s rays and be sure to have plenty of water on hand to avoid dehydration—as a rule of thumb, divide a child’s weight by two for a quick estimate of his or her minimum daily water needs, in ounces. Stick to established trails to reduce exposure to possible hazards like ticks and poison ivy, and to steer clear of potential falls or injuries.
5. Keep it stress-free There’s something about the parks that fuels our sense of adventure, but a visit with children is probably not the best time to be blazing new trails or exploring unfamiliar backcountry. Know where you’re going–and make sure others know where you’re going as well. Avoid the possibility of becoming lost by choosing reasonable trails and having good maps; a mobile phone with GPS is a useful safety net. Empower children by letting them use trail maps and spot the blazes and markers that define the trail. Consult park rangers and staff for advice on family-friendly trails, and to learn about activities and programs tailored to young visitors.
Looking for more tips for hitting the trails and making the most of park visits with kids? You might you enjoy my book, The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids, which explores many ideas for the kinds of nature play and outdoor investigation that benefit children in mind, body, and spirit.
About the author
Todd Christopher Senior Director, Digital & Editorial Strategy
Todd guides NPCA's content strategy and leads the team that produces our website and magazine. He is also the author of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.