Hike with Your Toddler!

by Baba

A little fresh air is good for everyone, including your toddler.  Being out in the sunshine, feeling the breeze on your skin, the warmth on your face, and listening to the natural sounds of the woods is great for forgetting about a stressful work week, stepping away from the frustration of potty training, or dealing with what items need to be added to the grocery list.  An afternoon spent with nature is a great way for parents to connect with toddlers, each other, and the environment.

Hiking with your child has the potential to be a great learning experience for him.  In addition to the physical aspects of walking in the woods, including stamina, coordination, and strength, there are many mental skills that you can develop as well.  Think of five words that your child does not know, or does not know well, but you will probably use during the hike.  Words like trail, waterfall, boulder, acorn, or earthworm are all great.  It doesn’t have to be a long, complicated word.  Simple names for things you will see will work the best.  Talk about them before the hike and use them during the hike.  Your toddler will be picking up new words in no time.  A little time in the woods is also a great time to work on counting, colors, shapes, or comparing and contrasting.  Count the rocks along the path, name the colors of flowers you see, talk about the shapes of the clouds, and compare which tree is taller, leaf is bigger, or bird is louder.  You’ll be amazed at what your toddler observes and is able to discuss with you.

Even though you see the benefits of a family hike,  planning to spend an afternoon in the woods can make any parent anxious, especially those that do not spend a lot of time outdoors.  The key to having a relaxing, enjoyable time with your child comes from planning ahead and preparing yourself and your child for the experience.  Take a few cues from the families that do it all the time, a little tried and true advice, grab your backpack, and get ready to go.

Before the trip:

  • Check the weather!  Unexpected extreme temperatures are sure to make everyone uncomfortable.  If the weather is going to be hot, seek a shady destination, dress lightly, and bring lots of fluids for everyone.  If a cold snap is expected, pack lots of layers and a thermos of hot chocolate.  Rain?  Pack boots and dry clothes for the ride home.
  • Know your destination.  If you are new to the whole getting-out-in-the-woods thing, find a local state park or wildlife preserve that maintains clear trails.  Many locations have printable maps on their websites, allowing you to prepare a route in advance and have a clear plan for the outing before you hit the trailhead.  Nothing is worse than slogging through deep mud and climbing over downed trees with a toddler as a hiking partner.
  • Talk to your child.  Don’t throw a toddler into the woods without building a foundation for the experience.  Parents should introduce the idea of hiking in the woods at least a few days before the first hike.  Talking about what happens during a hike, checking age appropriate nature themed books out of the library to read before bedtime, or looking at pictures from previous hikes or a web search will prepare the child for the outing.
  • Be prepared for emergencies.  You are probably not going to face any life threatening emergencies during a short nature outing with your family, but you never know.  Make sure that you know what to do if an accident happens.  Build an adequate first aid kit, learn how to treat common injuries through a First Aid Course, and take CPR classes.  You probably won’t use any of it during a hike, but being prepared will help you stay relaxed when things are going as planned and may save a life if things don’t follow the plan.  Many CPR Certification programs are available that allow you to learn everything you need in a matter of hours from the comfort of home.
  • Gather your supplies.  Make sure that everything is you need fits in your bag and is ready to go.  This includes snacks, drinks, diapering/potty supplies, extra clothes, and a trail map.

During the Trip

When the weekend finally gets here, the sun is shining, and you’re ready to get out of the house, go for it!  Strap your toddler into their car seat and head for the woods.  You can do this!  Here are a few things to keep in mind during the outing:

  • Have fun!  Let you child set the pace and lead the group.  Stop to talk about things that interest your toddler, as often as he wants, even if it is every ten feet!  Collect sticks and rocks and leaves and other things that your toddler wants to touch.  Just avoid poison ivy, oak, and sumac.  There is no “right way” to do a hike.  Go with what feels right for your group.
  • Stay fueled.  Dehydration is a serious health risk.  Make sure that your toddler gets enough fluids throughout the hike.  Toddlers are likely to ignore the signs of thirst when distracted by exciting surroundings, so make sure to push the fluids.  Don’t forget about yourself either.  Parents need to drink plenty of water too, especially in hot or humid weather.  Snacking along the way will maintain everyone’s energy level.  Snacks also provide great motivation for a reluctant or sluggish hiking partner, “you can have another animal cracker when we get to that big tree up there…”
  • Know when to end it.  A toddler is probably not going to walk for several miles without serious complaining.  It may make more sense to go by time instead of distance when planning a hike.  If you want to spend an hour and a half on the trail, but you aren’t halfway at 45 minutes, don’t keep going.  Turn around and hike out the same way you came.    Making the day enjoyable for everyone is more important than finishing the trail.
  • Carry an emergency toolbox.  This isn’t an actual toolbox, but rather a set of activities you can pull out when things are hitting a low.  It may be a special snack, singing songs, I spy games, or other things that keep tired feet moving.  Walking sticks have been known to rejuvenate even the most exhausted kid.  A splash in creek or flipping rocks to find bugs has a similar effect.

Family hiking has so much to offer, no matter the age of your child, where you live, or your fitness level.  It’s a great way to spend time together, have common things to talk about, and learn about the world around you.  Start slow, make sure everyone has fun, and stay flexible to help make every hike enjoyable and relaxing.  It is an inexpensive hobby that doesn’t require a ton of supplies, and it is always there waiting for you.  If you have not hiked with your toddler yet, try it!  You may be surprised and find yourself doing it again and again!

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