Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nature Games and Other Strategies to Keep Young Hikers Happy

Leading kids through the woods requires more than a map and compass. You also need enthusiasm and creativity to keep things fun for young hikers, whether they’re preschoolers who tire easily or older children who claim they’re bored.

Try these strategies to keep kids interested when out on the trail. 

Active Play

Walk This Way: Make walking itself a game by walking like different animals or characters. “We did the monster walk for a while,” says Chandreyee Lahiri, a GIS specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation who recently led her 7-year-old son and some friends on a 7-mile walk against hunger. “Then one parent said, ‘Now we’re all walking like zombies.’” Try scuttling like a crab, lumbering like an elephant, or pounding your chest like a gorilla. You can invite each child to act out a different animal, which others can guess, charades-style, or have a group of kids form one large animal together.

Geology in Motion: To set up this game, first teach the kids that a convergent fault is when two tectonic plates collide and can create large mountain ranges like the Himalayas, and that divergent faults are when two tectonic plates move apart and can create volcanic islands. Then, every time you call out “convergent fault,” the kids have to run together in groups of two. When you call out “divergent fault,” they must run apart. “It gets them moving,” says Leah Titcomb, Coos County (New Hampshire) education coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). “It helps them learn while breaking up the hike.” Another example? When she teaches kids about water cycles, she calls “runoff” and the kids have to run to the lowest point they can see within a 10-foot radius.

Camouflage: For this version of hide-and-seek, designate an area in the woods for some of the kids to camouflage themselves, then let the others find them. “This helps children think about how animals try to fit into the landscape,” says Nancy Ritger, a longtime naturalist as well as huts and Cardigan program manager for AMC. “They can crouch down low, hide behind a tree, or lie down in leaves.”

Observation Games

Deer Ears: You can draw kids’ attention to their five senses, and the importance of using them in the wild, through this game. Start by asking kids to listen with their “deer ears,” recommends Susan Brown, the youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC: Cup your hands around your ears to listen to what’s in front of you, or cup them backward to hear what’s behind you better, imitating the way deer shift their ears to hear. Notice all the sounds that are usually covered by hikers’ chatter. Then look with “owl eyes,” forming binoculars with your hands to imitate owls’ fixed, forward-facing eyes, and turning all around. Using your “snake tongue,” try tasting the air, seeing which way the wind is blowing, and sensing the temperature. Tiptoe on your “fox feet” to approach and observe birds and other animals along the trail. And use your “dog nose” to smell bark and leaves. Brown encourages kids to wet their nostrils with a bit of water from their water bottles, to make them moist like dog noses. She claims it improves your sense of smell, but it’s also just fun.

Meet a Tree: For this game, form pairs (either two children or a child and an adult, depending on the ages in your group) and blindfold one person in each pair. The partner who can see leads the blindfolded person to a tree (within a designated area) and helps him or her get to know that tree. “They can feel around it, smell it, try to learn as much as possible about the tree and its environment,” Brown says. Then the partner leads the blindfolded person back to the trail by a slightly meandering route. Take the blindfolds off and let each person try to find “their” tree.

Camera: Ritger recommends this game, in which you form pairs, and designate one person in each pair the camera, and the other person the photographer. Have the “cameras” close their eyes (or use blindfolds), while the photographers set each up by walking with them, turning them, or asking them to crouch to face a particular view. When the photographer taps the camera on the head, the camera opens his or her eyes for three seconds to take in the view, then closes them and is brought to another location. At the end of a set time, everyone gathers and talk about the “photos” they took. What did the photographers notice and why? Did the cameras observe more keenly when they were given just three seconds to look?

Responsible Roles

Silent Cooperation: Ritger recommends having each member of your group carry one part of lunch. For example, one child can carry bread, another peanut butter, another jelly, and a fourth the knife. When you stop for lunch, challenge the team by announcing that they are responsible for making the group’s sandwiches—without talking. This activity makes nonverbal communication urgent and the payoff is sweet.

Trash Collectors
: Bring a bag and ask children to pick up trash while on a local walk. “It gives them something to spot—something to keep their heads and hands busy,” Lahiri says. “Plus it makes the path better for those who follow you.”

Learn More

Photo by Herb Swanson

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Julia & Charlotte’s Big Adventure

Two first-aid kits are spread on the hood of my friend’s car and we’re trying to decide what we should pull from each for our three-day hike along the Appalachian Trail from Connecticut into Massachusetts. Julia, my friend’s 7-year-old daughter, and I are looking at a rolled-up ACE bandage.

“Do you think we’ll need that?” I ask.

“I don’t know how crazy this [trip] is—I’ve never done this before!” she says, slightly exasperated by my question.

I’ve never done this either—if “this” means backpacking with kids. Julia and her sister Charlotte, who is about to turn 6, have car-camped before, and they did a one-night backpack a year ago. But three days, two nights, and 15 miles on the AT will be a challenge.

The girls are slow to warm up to the hike, frequently asking when our next break will be. I'm not sure we'll ever cover 5 miles—let alone repeat that each day. But then they start to find a rhythm and tune into their surroundings. “It’s a mushroom!” Charlotte says, pointing to something growing on a tree trunk. “FUNGUS!” her sister affirms. We approach a downed birch tree and Charlotte says she thought it was a zebra.

We snap smart-phone photos of wildflowers and salamanders, and that night at camp the girls try to sketch them. On our first night, Julia and Charlotte want to write a story about the trip, which began a day earlier, shortly after their mom left town on a business trip. “How should we start it?” one of them asks.

“The moment Mom’s car left, we got so excited!” Julia says. “We sprang into action!”

“Mom’s not going to like this!” my friend says.

I ask them if they have any advice for other hiking families, and they quickly rattle off a mixture of textbook hiking tips and wonderfully youthful observations. Here’s a list of their advice, compiled on the trail and in a conversation following the trip:

Julia & Charlotte’s Hiking Tips 

  1. Take some breaks on the trail. 
  2. You should probably make some trail mix. 
  3. Be patient with your kids. 
  4. Definitely have a first-aid kit. 
  5. Bring avocados—but make sure they’re not too hard. 
  6. You might need two adults for two kids. 
  7. You should probably start a conversation to keep your kids entertained. Like if you see something cool, tell them. 
  8. If the kids want, use hiking poles, because it’s very broomy. 
  9. However: Hiking poles aren’t the best thing for the underground world. 
  10. Bring something to do in camp—like writing a story. 
  11. If you write a story, ask the kids to draw the pictures. 
  12. Take pictures of what you want to draw. 
  13. Look closely at things so you can see baby things—like baby salamanders. 
  14. Bring camp shoes. 
  15. Bring survival stuff. 
  16. Probably let your kids stay up later than they usually do. 
  17. Bring extra food in case you get stuck out there, or your stove breaks. 
  18. Have s’mores (“Put that last,” they insist.) 

I’m amazed by how much they’ve picked up from their dad—or simply figured out on their own. He'd told them about Leave No Trace, generally, and here Julia was already extrapolating that into the impact of her hiking poles.

Over the three days both girls have moments of fatigue and conviction that they have to stop—but within minutes they are usually on the move again. Those incidents are easily outnumbered by their mature observations. And as we spend more time in the woods, it’s interesting to see which experiences they most often bring up. They're the seemingly small ones, seeing the salamanders, or spotting a new variety of wildflower. These tiny moments seem to captivate their imaginations even more than summit views and waterfalls.

On the final day, along the last stretch of trail, we talk about kid stuff. Their favorite cartoons, which I’ve never heard of; my favorite cartoons, which they’ve never seen. Candy. Toys. Movies. Finally the parking lot comes into view through the trees. We’re all eager for a real meal and our own beds. Julia sums things up perfectly: “That was fun and hard at the same time,” she says.

This post was written by Marc Chalufour, senior editor of AMC Outdoors.

Photos by Marc Chalufour.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Backyard Games for Kids: Contest Encourages Creating Your Own

Do you and your kids like to dream up new backyard games? Or are you stuck in a rut and need some
fresh ideas?

In either case, the CLIF Backyard Game of the Year contest has something for you.

If you’re a kid who has invented a game, you can submit it by July 3 for the chance to win a $10,000 scholarship.

On the contest’s website, you can find all this year’s entries, plus finalists from previous years. In other words: lots of new games to play. If your favorite makes it to the top three, you can vote for it through a related Facebook page.

All the games are meant to be played outside by two or more kids ages 6 to 12 and do not require fancy equipment. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite:

Nature Rainbow Hunters: In this spin on I-Spy, submitted by a 7-year-old, kids race to find natural objects in the colors of the rainbow (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet, although the young inventor leaves out indigo for reasons unexplained). You can play this game as a group or individual kids can compete to see who’s fastest.

Treasure Map: This game, submitted by a 6-year-old, requires paper, crayons or other drawing materials, a small shovel (I’d say this is optional), and a small treasure for each player to hide. As you might guess, each child has a chance to hide his or her treasure (while others are distracted) and draw a treasure map to it, along with providing a clue. The kids swap treasure maps and search for each other’s treasures.

Nature to Nature: In this matching game, submitted by a 10-year-old, one child first selects a natural object from the area (for example, a fallen leaf, a shell on the seashore, or a twig in the woods). He or she then shows it to everyone else for 10 seconds. The other players then have to the count of 100 to find something else that matches the first object. Whoever finds the closest match gets to choose the next object.

(Photograph by Stephanie Platt.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Pooh Sticks: Or, How to Investigate a Stream with Kids

When I get to a bridge while hiking, I like to stop and gaze at the water. My daughter, not so much. At 4, she is more interested in action.

That’s why I was delighted to be reminded of the game “Pooh sticks” when talking with Susan Brown, the youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC. We were discussing other trail games and I didn’t ask much about Pooh sticks. I thought I remembered it perfectly from reading the A.A. Milne books to my daughter.

The rules, I thought:
Like Winnie the Pooh, you drop a stick from the upstream side of a bridge, then walk to the other side to see it moving downstream with the current. Right? Easy! (Just remember not to break sticks off of living trees. Gather fallen ones off the ground.)

The wrinkle I found
I tried this game the next time I was hiking with my daughter. And the next time. In both cases, although it was spring, the low bridges we crossed passed over such tiny creeks that my daughter’s stick got stuck on rocks and never made it to the other side. But it didn’t really matter. Just having a reason to go hunting for a stick and dropping it down, talking about the current and which way it was headed, gave us a pretext for staying near the water longer and observing how it gurgled and flowed. Perfect.

The real rules:
When I got home, I investigated more and realized that Pooh sticks is actually a more competitive sport than my version. Two or more players are meant to drop their sticks, and see which one comes out the other side first. The person whose stick is faster wins.

The even more competitive version
I also discovered that the World Pooh Sticks Championships have been held annually in Great Britain since the 1980s. With individuals and teams competing, the championship draws a quirky crowd and raises money for charity. With all the hubbub, you might not get so much time for nature study, but it still sounds fun.

However you play, I recommend giving Pooh sticks a try. After that, if sticks are plentiful, you may want to build a house like Eeyore’s.

Photo by Heather Stephenson

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Great American Backyard Campout: Get Your Family Camping for a Night

Shake out your tents: It’s time for the 10th annual Great American Backyard Campout. On June 28, thousands of people will be pitching tents in yards and parks across the country as part of this nationwide adventure.

Whether you camp with a community group, head to your backyard, or hike to a remote backcountry site, the night is sure to reconnect you and your kids to nature. Eat a picnic dinner, listen for frogs (or squirrels), watch the sunset, stargaze, and give your kids an experience that is, unfortunately, all too rare for their generation.

The event is organized by the National Wildlife Federation and has been held on the fourth Saturday of every June since 2005. This year, the group’s goal is to get more than 200,000 people to camp out.

Here are some tips for planning a memorable outing:

1. Find a campout near you. If one doesn’t exist, consider organizing a local public event yourself.

2. Or plan an adventure beyond your neighborhood with AMC’s recommendations:
3. Borrow, rent, or buy the right gear:
  •  the perfect family tent, with features like thicker aluminum poles and a rainfly that extends to the ground
4. Check out the official site’s camping tips, recipes, campfire song lyrics, and activities.

Photograph by Katherine Stanfield

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Balance Bike Believer: Why I’m Glad We Skipped the Training Wheels

This spring, my 4-year-old learned to ride a pedal bicycle in two days. The first day, she asked my husband or me to run alongside, perhaps holding the handlebars or steadying her back. The next day, she was riding on her own.

Why was she so quick to learn? And how did she skip the fear of falling?

I think it’s because she rode balance bikes (also known as push bikes or scoot bikes) for more than a year before switching to a regular bike with pedals. The balance bicycle is essentially two wheels plus a seat and handlebars. It has no pedals, no chains, and no training wheels. This setup lets kids push with their feet on the ground and get a feel for coasting, balancing, and steering. When they want to stop, they simply put their feet down. No falling over. No big fears.
At first, my daughter pretty much walked along with the balance bike between her legs. But as she got more confident, she sought out hills to glide down with her feet in the air. She never went down anything very steep, though, and was always able to stop with the simple “foot brakes” of putting her sneakers on the pavement.

I knew she was ready for a regular bike when she started gliding downhill and pretending to pedal in the air. Still I was surprised that the transition went so quickly. As I remember it, learning to ride a two-wheeler after getting used to training wheels was much more difficult.

I count myself lucky to have missed the back-breaking chase after a wobbly cyclist who wants mom to hold on. I did it only twice. So while I don’t know of any research that proves kids learn to ride faster if they start on a balance bicycle, it sure seems easier.

My daughter first rode a balance bicycle that was designed for the purpose. When that seemed too small, she rode a homemade balance bike: a regular kid’s bicycle with the pedals taken off (see photo). Either works. If you have a child ready to start riding, I recommend you give one or the other a try. Your back may thank you.

Learn More

Photo by Heather Stephenson

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

6 Great Family Backpacking Trips in New England and the Mid-Atlantic

Combine the joy of day hiking with the adventure of a night in a tent and you’ll see why backpacking is a terrific family adventure. These six overnight outings in New England and the Mid-Atlantic are recommended for young hikers by AMC authors.

To learn more about these backpacking destinations, check out AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, 2nd edition, which describes 37 trips from Maine to Connecticut, and AMC's Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic, which covers 30 trips from New York south to Virginia.

New England

Exeter, Rhode Island
In the southwestern corner of Rhode Island, Arcadia Management Area offers the only backpacking option in the state, and more than 30 miles of hiking trails. The designated camping area is just a quarter mile from the trailhead, making it accessible to families with young hikers, but it “feels pretty remote,” says Matt Heid, author of AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England and the father of two preschoolers. The camping area has a “giant red barn-like backpacker shelter” that is open to the air, as well as space for tents. “It’s a nice introduction,” Heid says. “It’s not that far from the car, it’s got access to water [from the Falls River], and you’ve got the shelter if you need it because of weather.” Reservations are required and can be made by calling 401-539-2356; pick up your permit at the park office before heading out. The site is free and open year-round.
More information: The Division of Forest Environment, Arcadia Headquarters, 401-539-2356. AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England, 2nd ed. (AMC Books).

Pachaug State Forest
Voluntown, Connecticut
The hike to the Dry Reservoir Backpack Area in the Pachaug State Forest is less than half a mile but provides a glimpse of Connecticut’s great hiking and backpacking resources. Keep alert when you get close to your destination, Heid says, because the shelter is well hidden: “It’s not signed. You would never know it was there.” Besides the shelter, the site includes space for tents. Before heading to the campsite, you may want to do the short steep hike from the trailhead to the top of nearby Mount Misery. “For little kids, it’s enough to feel like they did something,” Heid says, and there’s a view of the region’s iconic forested landscape. Although camping is free, the process to reserve a space in advance is somewhat elaborate and requires at least two weeks’ notice; Heid explains it in his book.
More information: Pachaug State Forest, 860-376-4075. Reservations, 860-295-9523. AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England, 2nd ed. (AMC Books).

13 Falls, Pemigewasset Wilderness
White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
For older kids, a trip from the Lincoln Woods trailhead described in AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England as a loop hike can be shortened to an out-and-back overnight journey to the attractive 13 Falls AMC backcountry tentsite, which is about 8 miles from the trailhead. The hike gives families a taste of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, which protects the watershed of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River and is New England’s largest Wilderness Area. The trail largely follows an old railroad bed, so it is relatively wide and easy to hike. “It’s that rare trail in New England that’s flat and smooth rather than rock-strewn,” Heid says. Because the campsite is not directly on the nearby Appalachian Trail, it doesn’t get as much traffic as other sites in the region, although it still gets busy in July and August. “13 Falls is a great swimming hole,” Heid says. “The tent sites are like rocky nests built out of the hillside. It’s a neat place.”
More information: The Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, 603-630-5190. AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England, 2nd ed. (AMC Books).


Keene Valley, New York
New York’s Adirondack Mountains are among the crown jewels of hiking and backpacking in AMC’s region, but they are also notoriously rugged and forbidding. “For a relaxing introduction to this beautiful place that is ideal for young backpackers, park at the Garden Trailhead, shoulder your pack, and enjoy the short and easy hike into the Johns Brook Lodge,” says Michael Martin, author of AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic. After the 3.5-mile hike, you have many options for staying overnight, ranging from the lodge itself, with its coed bunkrooms and prepared meals in July and August, to more backcountry choices including camps and lean-tos. Learn about fees and reservations through the Adirondack Mountain Club. As for the hiking, the Great Range with its 46ers beckons, but there are also many lovely hikes to enjoy in the valley. When you’ve had enough of the woods, nearby Lake Placid will have something to please everyone.
More information: Adirondack Mountain Club. AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic (AMC Books).

Berlin, Maryland
“A backpacking trip on the beach is a rare treat, and few destinations could be more family-friendly than Assateague,” Martin says of this island and national seashore beside Maryland and Virginia. From the Barrier Island Visitor Center on the Maryland side, you’ll have easy access to car camping. Even better, the first two backcountry sites (Tingles and Little Levels) are 2.3 miles and 4 miles away. “Children will enjoy the wild ponies and bountiful beachcombing, and their parents will relish the solitude of these pristine beaches,” Martin says. Walking on the beach does present unique challenges, and you should definitely time your visit to avoid excessive heat and insects (early spring is a great time to go). For a different adventure, consider renting canoes and paddling to the bayside camping spots. Backcountry camping requires permits for campers and vehicles, which you can pick up for a modest fee on the day you plan to camp. Advance reservations are not accepted.
More information: Assateague Island National Seashore, 410-641-1441. AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic (AMC Books).

Wolf Gap Recreation Area 
Wardensville, West Virginia
“For a family looking to get out and enjoy nature, it’s tough to beat the Wolf Gap Recreation Area,” Martin says. “Not only is it conveniently located between two of the best vistas in the area (Tibbet Knob to the south, Big Schloss to the north), but Wolf Gap itself offers a developed camping ground for children (and parents) looking to ease into backpacking.” When you’re ready to load up and hit the trail, the hike to Tibbet Knob is only about 1.5 miles, and to Big Schloss, just 2 miles. Both feature primitive campsites with astounding views, but both are dry, so you’ll need to bring plenty of water. There is no fee.
More information: Wolf Gap Recreation Area. AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic (AMC Books).


Read about more advanced backpacking trips in the Mid-Atlantic in Michael Martin’s “Hills, Hollows, and Beyond."

For more family-oriented advice, try these other articles:

Photo by iStock

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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