Looking back at my early years as a parent, I probably spent more time getting my daughter ready for our nature walks than we actually spent outside. Weather-appropriate clothes? Check. Glasses? Hat? Sunscreen? Check. Nature scavenger hunt worksheet? Check.
I was a first-time mom and my daughter loved the outdoors, so I wanted to be sure to make the most of it.
Now, 10 years later, as long as I have my keys and a bottle of water we’re good to go. As my daughter matured, so did I. We came to see nature as a full journey, not just a destination. It goes without saying that being outdoors can be restorative to your physical and mental health, but the sheer act of “letting go” adds another layer entirely.
As adults we tend to have trouble allowing our kids to be in charge. We see mistakes and instinctively want to help rather than watch our children suffer or fail. But in nature, the tables are turned. When given the opportunity to explore on their own, children show us just how creative, curious and resourceful they can be…and how much better they are at it than we are.
Walking or hiking without a purpose or plan can open your eyes and mind to things you never saw before. Letting your child take the lead might put you down a path you may not have considered. If you have multiple children, try taking outdoor trips with each child individually so they are free of the constraints of their siblings and can truly be in charge. Here are some tips to get you started.
Offer outdoor time outside of your usual time.
Go out very early in the morning before breakfast and see the early birds starting their day. Take a walk in the late evening with a flashlight and listen closely for owls, frogs and crickets.
Stand behind your child and say “I’ll follow you.”
Let them decide which fork to take. Let them choose what feels right to them. (If you’re in a city or state park, be sure to stay on marked trails so vegetation isn’t disturbed). You can quietly be alert to where you are, but to your child you can “play dumb” and act like they’re completely in charge of choosing the adventure.
Allow time to loiter.
If your child decides to spend 20 minutes counting ants, so be it. A child-led walk or hike should have no deadlines or time constraints.
Be prepared for collecting.
Most kids are willing to haul the whole forest home in their pockets, so bring a small bag to gather pine cones, leaves and rocks.
Go out in the rain or snow.
Bad weather? Great day for a walk! Rain and mud wash off, but those squishy memories will last a lifetime.
Choose your words.
Help your child foster awareness by encouraging them to problem solve. If they find themselves in a tough spot, ask thoughtful questions instead of offering solutions, such as “What can you use to help you climb down?” or “How do you plan to get back after you cross the stream?”
With time and trust, our youngsters will naturally become more resourceful, thoughtful and respectful of the world around them. And with a little luck, we might just learn a thing or two as well.