Hiking with kids can be a wonderful experience that leads to cherished memories. But sometimes, things don’t go so smoothly.
Here’s a scenario that I think many people can relate to: You’re about a third of the way into your planned hike. Everything’s going great. Then, all of the sudden, your 5-year-old hiking buddy decides he doesn’t want to hike anymore. Is he hungry? No. Is he tired? No. He just wants to do something else.
While nature is a great source of entertainment for kids, sometimes they need a little encouragement to stay engaged and keep moving along a trail. Hiking games can help. It’s good to have a variety of these games up your sleeve, just in case you need to switch it up.
This is a simple game of make believe that requires listening and reacting quickly. When one person calls out “lava,” everyone pretends that lava is flowing down the trail and will soon cover the ground. To escape, everyone must quickly move to a nearby rock or high point, such as a downed tree, and stand on it.
The game rules might vary depending on what type of terrain you’re dealing with. If the trail isn’t rocky, maybe the goal is to stand on an exposed tree root or reach out and touch a tree trunk. However you play, it’s important to reinforce that everyone must stay on trail. And if you want, you can add a time element to it, counting down from 10 or 5.
For this age-old activity, all you need is a list of items that you are likely to encounter along the trail. If you aren’t sure what you might see, don’t worry. You don’t need to be specific. In fact, the hunt can be more fun (and require more thinking) if some or all of the items on the list aren’t specific. Some examples: something fuzzy, a small flower, smooth tree bark, a natural object that smells good, a beautiful rock, an insect with wings and something that’s the color purple.
You can look for these items as a team, or you can compete against one another. In that case, only the person who finds the item can count it. This is a great opportunity to talk about the Leave No Trace principle to leave what you find. Don’t collect the items you find. Leave them where they are so others can enjoy them. And if you want to remember your discoveries, you can take photos or draw them on paper.
You could also try a variation of this game in which instead of looking for objects, you look for an opportunity to perform certain activities. Examples of the objectives on your scavenger hunt list include: jump over a puddle, balance on a bog bridge, look for your reflection in water, hug a birch tree, smell the needles of a balsam fir tree, do jumping jacks on the grass and lightly touch a bed of moss. Get creative when coming up with your list of activities and tie them to things you’ll likely encounter along the trail.
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Nature journals and sound maps
Each person in your hiking group can carry their own small notebook, then use it to document what catches their interest along the trail. This will keep kids occupied during rest breaks, and it’s an opportunity to practice writing, drawing and observation skills.
One fun activity you can do in your nature journal is create a sound map. At the center of a piece of paper, draw a tiny version of yourself — or maybe just a simple shape that represents you. Then simply listen. Close your eyes if it helps. Each time you hear a sound, record it on your piece of paper by creating a symbol for it and placing it on the paper where you think the sound was produced in relation to you. For example, if you hear a bird’s song to your right and far away, you might draw a bird at the edge of your paper or “map” to the right of the figure that represents you.
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This game is a form of “I Spy” that demonstrates just how intricate and different things in nature appear if you look at them up close. To play, someone takes a smartphone and walks just a short distance ahead on the trail. (Or, if you’re uncomfortable separating for that distance, you can simply have everyone close their eyes.) The person with the camera then takes a close-up photo of an object, such as a rock, mushroom or leaf. The photo should include just a part of the object rather than the whole thing (that would be too easy to find). The camera person then calls over the rest of the group, shows them the picture, then defines a 10-by-10-foot area to search for the object. From there, it’s a race to see who finds it first.
This game can certainly slow down a hike, so only play it if you have time to spare. It’s a great opportunity to observe nature more closely.
Carry a magnifying glass with you on your hike and use it to inspect natural objects. This is a great activity for younger kids. At the beginning of the hike, tell them to find things along the trail that they’d like to look at closely. Every time they point out an object, let them use the magnifying glass. You can also count the number of different objects you inspect.
Children — especially young children — like to count. This game is similar to a scavenger hunt but you don’t have to prepare a list ahead of time. All you do is select an object along the trail, then try to spot that same type of object four more times, counting to five. For example, you might see a bird. From that point on, the goal is to spot four more birds.
Once you’ve accomplished that, the next person in your group selects a trailside object. They might select a white rock. The goal would then be to count four more white rocks. If your group gets stuck and can’t find any more white rocks, then you can all acknowledge that white rocks aren’t very common, and you can move on to the next thing.
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Walk Like A…
Duck. Crab. Frog. Bear. Take turns selecting an animal, then walk the way you think that animal would move along the trail. This is especially fun for little kids, and may only be suitable for easy trails where there aren’t a lot of obstacles to trip over. Have fun. Be silly. And if you decide to make animal noises, do so quietly so not to disturb other hikers or resident wildlife.
Find the Rainbow
Starting with red, go through every color in the rainbow in order and find objects of those colors along the trail. You must find the colors in order. Remember: ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet). Add some colors to that list if you’d like. You can even bring examples of colors on your hike, such as crayons or squares of colored paper, to pass out and use during this activity. Older kids may even enjoy this, especially if tasked with finding an exact match to a color swatch.
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The Alphabet Game
This activity is great for children who are learning how to read and spell, though it can be a bit of a challenge to get all the way from A to Z. Starting with A, try to find an object along the trail that starts with an A — for example, an ant — then spell the word. Then move on to B, and so on.
Whatever game you play, be sure to follow the rules of the property you’re exploring. Many trail owners and maintainers ask that visitors remain on trail and practice Leave No Trace principles, such as leaving what you find, respecting wildlife, disposing of waste properly and being considerate of other hikers. And before you hit the trail, plan and prepare. Dress appropriately and carry a backpack filled essentials so you can have a safe, fun and successful hike.
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.
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