One of my favorite ways to recreate outside is to take a hike. I used to do a lot of hiking before we had kids and now I’m really enjoying helping my kids get out on the trail. We are fortunate to have trails just out our door and I try to get my children a few times a week. If you have been on a toddler-led hike you know that hike can be a loose term! Sometimes we go a few feet from the trail and others we can hike a few miles. It all depends on my kid’s interests that day. To make the hiking process pleasant for everyone I typically have some hiking activities ready. I choose activities that are no-prep and easily keep my kids engaged.
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The Power of Language
Have you ever said to your children, “we’re going on a hike today!” only to be met with moans and the occasional “noooo! I don’t want to do that!”? Yeah, me too. When my children are reluctant to go on a hike I typically change the language I’m using to describe the adventure. Instead, I’ll say “we’re going on an adventure today.” That will get their attention right away. Then I’ll answer any questions they have about the adventure we’re going on.
I will also just describe the destination that we are going to. If we are hiking down to the lake I will say “let’s take a secret path down to the lake where we can throw rocks!” Knowing what they will be doing after walking to their destination gives kids more sense of control. They know the goal and can express how they feel about that adventure.
At some point over the years, we began calling hikes and walks with all four of us a “family walkabout”. My husband works long hours and typically only has one day off a week. To hear that dad is going to be joining us on a hike is usually motivation enough to get us all out of the house! You don’t need to call your family time outdoors a “family walkabout” but I do suggest you find a term that everyone can get excited about.
Language is a powerful tool and can be a major motivator to get kids hiking on trails.
Let your children have some say in where they are hiking. When they have a say in where they are going they will be more willing to participate in that hike! I recently took my kids to see a fish hatchery that also had hiking trails nearby. Would I personally choose a fish hatchery as a hiking destination? No. Do my kids love fish? Yes. Is visiting a fish hatchery going to be something exciting and new? Yep. When I told my kids about the fish hatchery they were very excited! They were also happy to hike the trail after checking out the fish.
This is just one example of giving my kids input into the destination. I do this all the time at camp. Whether it’s hiking to a treehouse, down by the lake, to a muddy bay, or hiking to a remote picnic table for a picnic, I let the kids take the lead in where we’re going. Sometimes we don’t make it there. Sometimes we find moss-covered rocks under a canopy of trees or we climb a pile of rocks and play on the rock scramble. All these locations tap into my kid’s favorite hiking activity – using their imagination!
Imaginative Play on Hikes
Children learn through play. Play is formative to childhood, and I am a strong proponent of plenty of free play both indoors and outdoors. When we are hiking I tap into my kids’ imaginations through the elements around them. We may spend 20 minutes under a canopy of trees playing house. Or we may stomp along the trail pretending to be dinosaurs. Wherever their imaginations lead them, be sure to join the play! The important thing to remember is when you are hiking with young children, completing the hike may not be the priority.
Sometimes you need some games in your back pocket as a distraction to get your kids motivated to continue hiking. One of our favorite easy games to play together is I Spy. This classic game is so simple. Just describe something you see on your hike. Sometimes I describe objects by color, other times I will describe them by texture or shape. My son at 4 will describe what he sees, but my daughter at 2 will typically name the object that she sees.
Hide and Seek
Another great trail game is Hide and Seek. Usually, we play hide and seek along the trail. The person who is “it” will count to ten while the other people will hide along the trail in the direction we are walking. Since my children are young, I like having us count to ten so I know nobody can get very far! We also typically hide as a group at this younger age.
Huckle Buckle Beanstalk
A modified version of Hide and Seek is Huckle Buckle Beanstalk. In this game, one person hides an object (like a small toy, ball, or even a water bottle.) The object needs to be hidden on three sides but should be visible without players moving other things. When the seekers find the object they yell “huckle buckle beanstalk”. The last one to find the object is the new person to hide the object. Be sure you all run down the trail in between rounds to continue to make some progress on the hike!
Complete a scavenger hunt! There are so many scavenger hunts available online today! They are an interactive and simple way to keep children entertained while hiking.
Sing Songs on the Trail
Singing songs on the trail is one of our favorite ways to hike! First, it is entertaining for the kids to hear mom belting out silly songs. Secondly, it’s a great way for the kids to focus on something other than hiking. The last reason why I love singing on the trail is that we are making plenty of noise to alert animals to our presence. We have a lot of cougar activity in our area, thanks to our huge deer population. We also have grizzly bears in Northwest Montana. I try to choose trails known for NOT having grizzly bears, but there is certainly a chance we could encounter one. There has never been a grizzly bear sighting at camp. There is also plenty of moose and elk around here. Sometimes I start worrying that we may encounter large mammals while hiking on my own with two little kids. Singing keeps these thoughts at bay and helps us make plenty of noise while on the trail.
Some of our favorite songs to sing while hiking includes:
Can You Hear the Lions Roar?
Other Hiking Activities
There are so many other activities you can do while hiking. They don’t need to be structured, or pre-planned. They just need to keep your child’s attention and help make hiking easier.
Carry a Stick
What is the magic in giving a child a stick? Carrying a stick can be such a motivator to get kids hiking down the trail. Our kids always carry a stick on their hikes to keep them moving. Let them choose their sticks. I don’t know why, but apparently, I am terrible at choosing the appropriate stick for my kids!
One of my children’s absolute favorite things to do lately is to tell jokes. They create silly jokes that don’t make very much sense, but do they ever think they’re being funny! We usually take turns telling jokes and we always laugh hard.
Some of my go-to jokes are:
What’s the most musical fish in the sea?
A tune-a fish!
How do you make a tissue dance?
Put a little boogie in it!
What do you call a sleeping cow?
These jokes are seriously cheesy, but my kids LOVE them!
Carry Small Toys
Another activity that keeps us going on the trail is to let my kids carry a backpack with a few small toys. Usually, we opt for Schleich animals or construction trucks. Once we reach a spot to rest, the kids can pull out a couple of toys to play with!
To see some of our favorite backpacks for kids, check out this article on toddler hiking gear.
Identify Animal Tracks
One of our favorite winter hiking activities is to identify animal tracks on the trail. We have identified plenty of deer, rabbit, racoon, dog, and geese, among others. Check out these identification cards for what to look for on the trail! You could even bring them on your hike.
The last activity is so simple, but so loved. It’s telling stories. Whether those are stories from their baby days, adventures mom and dad did before kids or made-up stories about animals, my kids love it when I share stories! They even request the same made-up animal stories over and over (at least the good ones!) Our son is beginning to create his own stories now too, and I love hearing all his creative ideas.
Hiking with Kids is Fun
Hiking with kids doesn’t have to be a struggle. With a little creativity and a lot of imagination hiking with kids can be a blast! As you head out on the trail just remember to keep some ideas for activities in your back pocket. These can be simple structured games, unstructured free play, singing songs, telling stories, or whatever your family loves to do on a hike!
More Hiking Information
Check out our other articles on hiking to read more about getting your family on the trail!
Podcast Episodes on Hiking
Becoming Outdoorsy with Hannah Johnson