Blog Post Susanna Klingenberg May 9, 2023

5 Ideas for Engaging Kids on the Trail

Hiking with kids in the national parks can be a blast…but only if the whole crew is dialed in. Here are a few easy tips to spark curiosity and elevate trail time from memorable to magical. 

Think about the kids in your life. They’re naturally primed for discovery, right? I bet they’ve got endless curiosity, an unbridled sense of awe and energy to spare —a recipe for trail magic!

But tapping into that magic doesn’t always come naturally. We grownups can get antsy when we’ve got a goal in mind, and the realities of childhood — namely, short attention spans and even shorter legs — can feel at odds with our hiking agenda.

The good news is that it’s totally possible to create a national park hike that’s fun and memorable for everyone in your family.

The key? Engage kids in the adventure of hiking, so their time on the trail is curiosity-driven, playful and meaningful to them. Once you know a few tricks, keeping wee ones involved will be as easy as lacing up your boots.

Before we dive in, though, ask yourself why you take kids on the trail in the first place. Maybe your reasons are practical: You’re going for a hike, so of course your kids will come too. Besides, it’s good exercise, right? Or maybe your reasoning leans more philosophical, with an eye toward cultivating a stewardship ethic in the next generation.

“Taking kids outside is a small but vitally important act of environmental activism,” said Kelly Majmudar, co-founder of the research-based Instagram community Puddle Parenting, which was formed by three moms: an elementary school teacher, a public health communicator and an environmental educator. “We want our kids to grow up to be adults who will protect nature — our Earth desperately needs this. And it’s hard to protect something you don’t love or see the value in,” she said.

Whatever motivates you to take kids on the trail, keep it up. Loads of research has found (and continues to find!) that getting kids into wild spaces is good for their bodies, their minds and even their family relationships.

Ready to hit the trail? Here are five tips for engaging kids so your national park hike becomes fun and meaningful for everyone in the family.

Challenge kids with a short-term, child-driven goal

Grownups often think of hikes with a geographic goal in mind: the waterfall at the end, the view from the peak, the famous arch. But for many kids, those goals are not only abstract, they’re also beside the point. After all, there’s a lot to see and do and wonder about between the trailhead and the adult-determined destination.

So, try shifting your framework: Think of the hike in kid-sized snippets or set mini-goals that aren’t related to distance at all. Challenge kids to find the perfect snack spot. (I guarantee they’ll have opinions.) Ask them to warn the hikers going in the opposite direction about a trail hazard or to give them a heads up about a noteworthy trail find. And, of course, you can always go back to basics: “Oh, I can’t see the next trail marker. Can you help me find it?” Nothing engages kids more than a chance to be in charge, and they’ll tackle their job with gusto if you present it as a real need.

Break out some cool gear

Sometimes the difference between hiking the national parks and soaking in the national parks is just the right piece of gear. The Puddle Parenting crew advises that the youngest kids will love simple supplies like nets, a magnifying glass and yogurt containers for scooping water or holding insects.

child with phone app

An identification app on a cell phone can lead to “ah-ha!” moments. 

camera icon ©Susanna Klingenberg

Older kids may enjoy more tech-y gadgets: a pocket microscope or an identification app, like Seek, by iNaturalist. (Or, if you’re intent on a device-free hike, invest in a paper guidebook for whatever topic most interests your crew — birds, bugs, plants or mammals.)

Of course, if you hand a kid an ID app, they’ll want to snap pictures of every living thing. And, technically speaking, that’s not hiking. But remember the framework shift from the last tip? It applies here, too. The discoveries kids make while they’re ID-ing and asking questions — those “ah-ha!” moments — are what make kids fall in love with hiking.

So, take the long view: If you hope to hike with your kids for years to come, encourage exploration and embrace a slower pace for now.

Make the surroundings into a game

Who doesn’t love a game? Challenge your kids to find the 26 letters of the alphabet in the roots on the trail. Lead them through an obstacle course in the landscape. Create an in-the-moment scavenger hunt or use Go Find It cards to inspire some deliberate poking around. Older kids may appreciate the competition aspect, but really, if it adds a dash of fun to the trail, then everybody wins.

Games can also serve the more practical purpose of getting little feet moving when you need to cover some ground. Maybe you’re trying to beat the sunset or meet a park bus — a Mary Poppins “spoon full of sugar” approach can help you get in the miles. In those moments, Puddle Parenting’s Jennifer Gautam loves Red-Light / Green-Light, where declaring “Red light!” means stop and “Green light!” means walk (or run or waddle or skip or … you get the idea). “For older kids, you can add in new colors,” she said. “Black light means instant dance party!”

Connect kids with the bigger picture

Hiking is always more than just a tromp through the landscape. When we set foot on the trail, we’re also setting foot on the scene of scientific discoveries, history, politics and a whole lot of uncertainty about the future of our planet.

children crossing bridge in Great Smoky Mountains NP

Children and a grown-up cross a bridge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

camera icon ©Susanna Klingenberg

Empower kids by connecting them to these unseen layers. A good place to start is by checking out the National Park Service’s Citizen Science projects: Your hike could make real contributions to environmental knowledge. Or tune kids into the Park Service’s Leave No Trace initiative and turn your hike into an act of stewardship.

Also consider striking up a conversation about the history of the land you’re hiking on. Remember, every national park occupies ancestral land, and while it’s a hard truth to discuss, it’s an important one.

Erika McLemore, an outdoor educator and member of the Mvskoke and Seminole Nations of Oklahoma, recommends keeping it simple when you talk to kids about Native lands. “Native people today and all their family and ancestors have always lived on the land where our country is built. The ______Tribe is from the land we’re hiking on,” she said. You can read about the human history of your favorite parks here.

McLemore also encourages wondering together how Indigenous people may have used the land. When you’re back home, set aside time to learn about the Tribe today.

Invite kids to help plan the trek

One final note about making the most of trail time: Remember that a fun and successful hike begins before you even hit the trail. You already know to pack plenty of snacks and water. Now consider involving kids in the planning stages of the hike.

children in Yosemite

Children in Yosemite National Park. 

camera icon Image submitted by Heather Head

Gautam recommends inviting older kids to help with research and encourages asking younger kids what they want to see: “A waterfall? Birds? Do they want to walk by a pond or climb a mountain?” Getting buy-in up front can go a long way toward engagement later on.

The kids in your life are naturally primed for curiosity-driven, movement-filled adventures like hiking in our national parks. Why not tap into that natural energy and create some cherished family memories? This summer is a great time to get started.

Happy hiking, everyone!

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