Remember being allowed to roam the woods as a kid? Being in the forest was exciting, awe-inspiring, and even a bit scary. Nevertheless it stimulated exploration and adventure. Safety and education were not always on the agenda.
Today, sadly, it is not the best idea to let children roam alone, even in public parks and nature preserves. However, taking them on a walk where you are the guide enables you to instill in them that same sense of adventure. With a few precautions and a bit of common knowledge, your kids can enjoy the wonder of nature in a secure way.
1. Know the path before you go
Knowing the path is fundamental when you have young ones in tow. Try to use paths and trails that you have already been on. Take note of any obstacles like holes, large roots, narrowing of the path, or poison ivy. Guiding your children around these will be easier if you are aware of them yourself. You can also point them out so they will be aware of such things when they start to wander the woods by themselves.
If you do start down a trail you have never been on, stay in the front of the group, so you can spot any possible dangers. Be sure to spread overhanging branches out of the way. Little ones will want to hold your hand, but if that is not feasible, tell them to hang onto your shirt or pants leg.
2. Show them the many varieties of plants
Plant life is an excellent way to let children know that there are other flora besides daisies and dandelions. Wildflowers can be decorative and edible. Children will be delighted to know that they can eat “weeds” like burdock or cattails. Planning a wildflower picnic with food picked by the children is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Taking the time to show and tell about poisonous plants is a good way to build their confidence for when they go off on their own. Ivy, oak, and sumac should be on the teaching agenda. Inform yourself about other irritating substances from plant life in your area.
3. Be aware of animals you may encounter
If you know that one of the young ones is skittish around animals, take time to find out what critters may cross your path on your walk. Talk to the child before you go and tell them what to expect. Squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, and birds are only the beginning. Be on the lookout for holes that might have snakes, groundhogs, or mice living in them. Introduce children to nocturnal animals by describing their habitat and then asking them to point out what they think might be a burrow or nest.
Safety first should be your motto when you hit the trail with kids. Do not dig into a burrow or break down a thicket to see if anything is there. And if you do encounter a wild creature, be sure to keep quiet and let the children know that disturbing an animal is probably a bad idea.
4. Differences in seasons, weather
Summer is the most popular time to go hiking. With sunshine, warm breezes, and lots of green plants, it’s easy to encourage your children to learn about nature. There are some downsides, though, such as overgrowth which makes navigating a path difficult.
Spring is the time of budding flowers and baby animals. Rain can be an introduction to the planting season. The smell of fresh earth could turn into a discussion of earthworms.
Autumn brings colder weather which can cause disinterest in the great outdoors. However, a lesson in decomposition, along with an afternoon of collecting leaves, makes for a special outing.
Winter may not be the obvious time for nature walks, but there are many opportunities for learning. A conversation of endurance can begin with showing how some plants stay green while others wither and die. Talking about hibernation may start an imaginative story of what animals dream about.
5. Let them find surprises
Be on the lookout for surprising things. Seeing a baby rabbit just coming out of a nest is a wondrous thing to a small child. Older ones will be delighted when they spot a woodpecker after wondering where that knocking sound is coming from.
If you should spot a nest of baby birds, or an unusually bright patch of sunlight, suppress the urge to point it out. Instead, guide the child so their line of sight picks it up. They will be so thrilled to have “found” something they can show you. “Look what I found!” are happy words indeed.
Roaming the woods is an age-old tradition of most cultures. Passing on this legacy to your children is a satisfying method of encouraging life-long learning along with the love of nature.