What follows is a guest essay by Jamie Savage, professor of forest technology at the SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry Ranger School at Wanakena, part of our series of essays from the Adirondack Forest Preserve Education Partnership (AFPEP).
Kids just want to have fun. They have fun when they feel safe and comfortable, when they’re well rested and well fed, and when they’re with family and friends in a stimulating environment. The key to getting kids involved with outdoor activities—and keeping them involved—is remembering and providing for these fun-damentals.
The following tips for successful adventures are based on my own experiences as a father, Outing Club advisor, and former summer camp counselor and those of several of my friends who regularly spend time outdoors with their kids.
Fun-damental #1: Kid-Centered Activities
My friends Caren and Brian allow their three children to take turns choosing their activities. They also encourage their kids to help plan each outing, offering maps, guidebooks, etc. as assistance. My friend Bill warns that what we adults consider a “good day’s outing” may not be appropriate for small children. Instead of hiking the Great Range in a day, consider something less ambitious—OK, a lot less ambitious—like a hike to the top of Roaring Brook Falls or up Mt. Jo. Start easy, he suggests, and let them grow into it; “They’ll soon grow up and you’ll be trying to keep up with them!”
My friend Celia, who regularly hikes, skis, camps, and paddles with her two children, adds, “Be willing to turn around—remember that these days are not about you.” Kathy, also a mother of two kids, could not agree more: “Take your time, and if your children are tired, take a break or cut short your day. Remember, this is not a race to a destination; it is all about what happens on the way.” Allow ample time for exploring and enjoying a waterfall, glacial erratic, or, if paddling, a clear, shallow bay where underwater flora and fauna can be observed.
Fun-damental #2: Safety and First Aid
As a parent, you want to keep your children safe and free from harm, but also give them some freedom to experience, explore, and learn from their surroundings. Accordingly, pick locations that are accessible and secure. Choose a trail that will allow you to let the kids run ahead a bit without fear of a cliff or dangerous stream crossing. Choose campsites that don’t present obvious dangers nearby, so that you feel comfortable letting your kids explore. The more kids feel free to do what they want, the more fun they will have.
My friends Bill and Sue do a lot of camping with their three children. Bill says that successful outings require some negotiation, particularly with his nine-year-old son. “If you want him to learn how to build a fire,” Bill says, “then you have to let him use the small hatchet. Yes, I know this is dangerous, but if you say ‘no’ to everything, you may as well not take him.”
Minor cuts and bruises are inevitable, especially on the knees and palms of our “four-wheel drive” kids, so I always bring a small first aid kit. I agree with my friend Kathy on some essentials: moleskin for blisters, small and large adhesive band-aids (including some big enough for knees and palms!), anti-bacterial cream like Neosporin, and sunblock. It’s also nice to have some wipes and/or a clean bottle of water in reserve for wound cleaning.
Fun-damental #3: Comfort
The more comfortable your kids are while they recreate, the more fun they are going to have, and the more positive their memories. Footwear is a critical piece of gear when it comes to staying comfortable in the outdoors. For many outdoor activities, I think it comes down to two kinds of shoes:
• Each year, Claire and I outfit our sons with a decent pair of hiking boots. They need to fit well, come up over the ankle, and be of decent quality. They will be outgrown before they wear out, so investing in the top of the line is not necessary.
• I also like our kids to have some type of water shoe, like a reef-walker type of pull-on. Flip-flops and open-toed sandals need not apply! I look for something that will protect toes and the bottoms of our kids’ feet. Water shoes are great for paddling, swimming in rivers and lakes, and just wearing around a grassy or sandy campsite. In general, try to choose footwear that is easy to put on and take off, and that dries out fairly quickly. And always bring extra socks! Once the kids’ feet are wet, it isn’t long before they start complaining that their feet are cold and/or sore.
Pesky insects can ruin anyone’s day, and they may even cause rashes, swelling, or other allergic reactions in younger children. If you’re out during the buggy season, or buggy time of day, encourage your kids to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats. I try to use as little bug spray as possible. If it’s really necessary, I use repellents with low amounts of DEET (25% or less), and apply it sparingly to hats, necks, and other places where the kids can’t reach to fend off attackers. Bug nets fitted over wide-brimmed hats also work quite well, if your child will tolerate such headgear. If using accessories like child carriers, jog strollers, or bike trailers (I recommend combination stroller/bike trailer rigs), invest in models that have good bug netting. Don’t let a few bugs keep you and your kids inside!
Fun-damental #4: Plenty of Good Food
Caren and Brian say that a BIG part of their family’s outdoor adventures is the planning of the food. They plan food together, assigning fun names to their infamous dishes (like the “outhouse wrap”). They even have traditional “camp meals” that they incorporate into every trip, like a special breakfast oatmeal.
Gorp (a.k.a. trail mix) is popular with many kids. Kathy and Bill’s crew get to make up their own the night before a hike, ski, or paddle. It gets the kids excited about the next day, and ensures that certain ingredients aren’t left uneaten at the bottom of the bag. Some of their favorite contents include Cheerios, raisins, dried cranberries, peanuts, cashews, chocolate chips, and M & Ms (of course!). One of my tricks is to bring along a bag of Starbursts, or something similar. I “award” them at the completion of a certain section of trail, and/or at the top of the mountain. It’s a great motivator. I do a similar thing with my college students by offering “S.M.A.F.C.R.s” (smafkers): Sweet Morsels Awarded For Correct Responses!
Fun-damental #5: Stimulating Environment
The fifth and final tip is to give kids fun things to do and fun people to do them with. Try brewing up some hot chocolate along the ski trail, give the kids ‘walkie talkies’ to play with, bring binoculars, write/sing songs about your adventures, conduct scavenger hunts, or hold plant identification contests. Don’t just take your kids to the outdoors—engage them in it.
My kids seem to have an even better time on our adventures if they are with some of their friends, or even just with other kids. They tease, challenge, and teach each other…and they smile and laugh a lot. No friends available? Try a puppy! Caren says that their dog Lily “gets them out and she is a blast to hike with.”
Bottom line: the more time you spend outdoors, the more comfortable your kids will become, and the more fun they will have.
This guest essay was contributed by the Adirondack Forest Preserve Education Partnership, a coalition of Adirondack organizations building on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Their goal is to provide public education about the Forest Preserve and Conservation Easements with an emphasis on how to safely enjoy, share, and protect these unique lands. To learn more about AFPEP visit www.adirondackoutdoors.org.