A breath of fresh air is a precious gift. With quarantine measures still in effect, there has never been a better time to take a nature walk with your family. Be sure to travel with just the members of your immediate household (now is not the time for a play date meet up!) and stay at least six feet away from others. Choose less-traveled trails and be sure to follow updated NPS guidelines.
10 Fun Family Nature Walk Games and Activities
Many children thrive on the freedom of running down wide open paths, climbing on logs, examining animal tracks, and spotting wildflowers. Depending on the day or the kid, a nature walk may not be as enjoyable for your child as it is for you – particularly if there is no playground in sight. It won’t be long before little legs tire and your four-year-old is begging to be carried. These games and activities can help distract your child to the point of fun to avoid potential meltdowns. (Note: Having water and snacks handy and allowing moments of rest help, too!)
- Five Senses Observation: Encourage your nature walker to be more in tune with the five senses like our animal friends. Ask the children to listen with their “deer ears” by cupping their hands around their ears, palms forward, to hear what’s ahead – or palms backward to hear what’s behind them. Look with your “owl eyes,” forming binoculars with your hands, to imitate the fixed-forward stare of an owl. Moisten your “dog noses” with a little water from your bottles to “smell better,” whether it’s bark, leaves, trees, or flowers. Use your “snake tongues” to taste the air, sense which way the wind is blowing, or gauge the temperature. Tiptoe on “fox feet” to observe birds or bunnies on the trail without disturbing them.
- Giddy-up: Encourage your children to pretend they are riding “horsies” down the trails. Have them locate sources of food and water for their pets, make gates out of natural materials, and use secret passwords to pass through. You can also pretend you’re on the Oregon Trail with your caravan of wagons, trying to survive the obstacles and dangers you stumble across. The Choose Your Own Adventure books can be a fun way to get kids excited for the pretend trip.
- Play Doh: Simply bringing a lump of Play Doh or soft molding clay on your walk can change the whole experience. Start off by showing the kids how acorns, rocks, branches, leaves, and bark can make different imprints. Take turns making prints and guessing what the original object was. You’ll find the game slows down even the busiest toddlers, causing them to think more deeply about the little visuals along the path, rather than simply racing to get around the next curve. Kids can also make faces using natural objects with their pieces of dough.
- GoFindIt: A pack of cards is an easy accessory for your walk. Each card has a word to inspire creative scavenger-hunting, such as “furry” “red,” “thin” or “crunch.” Smaller children can try to find one card at a time, while older kids could look for up to 10 items at a time or even compete in teams.
- Nifty Nature Belts: Nature walk veteran parents swear by bringing a backpack, pail, or jacket with deep pockets at the very least for all those treasures your kids want to collect along the way. If you like to travel light and don’t want to end up carrying all these cherished trinkets eventually, try outfitting your child in a belt made of Duct tape (sticky side out). Pebbles, flowers, sticks, fossils, moss, leaves – these can all be brought along on the nifty nature belt, much to your amateur designer’s delight.
- Ninja Nature: Not everyone is inclined to stop and smell the roses. For the most active child, the delight of a nature walk is found in physical interaction with objects and spaces. The Ninja Nature Scavenger Hunt invites your family to find: a log to balance on, a tree to climb, a puddle to jump over, a rock to throw in the creek, an incline to climb up, a path to skip down, an open area to run in, a grassy hill to roll down, a rock to jump off, and a shady tree to rest beneath. Print a copy of the list to check off the items as you go.
- Follow the Leader: Kids like to be large and in charge. Let them take turns leading your way. Encourage them to reasonably venture off-the-beaten-path around fallen logs and over rocks. Allow your child to dictate how people follow – be it skipping, clapping, humming a song, thumping your chest like a gorilla, lumbering like an elephant, flapping your arms like a bird, staggering like a zombie, moving in cheetah speed, or crawling at a turtle’s pace. Switch leaders after a set amount of time or at a particular landmark.
- Photo Walk: There are kid-friendly photo and video cameras on the market for all budgets and style preferences. If you’re the sort of person who takes a lot of family photos, no doubt your kids have picked up on that and would like to emulate your adult behavior. Empowering them with user-friendly point-and-shoot cameras can open the world of possibility, where they are the stars of their own nature program. It can be interesting to see the world through their perspective. For a fun twist, have your adventurer walk ahead on the trail and take a close-up of an object along the trail – fungi, crack in the rock, or knot in the tree, for example – and have the group try to located it. Another fun idea is to allow your child to bring a favorite model dinosaur or stuffie to photograph on various adventures along the way.
- Camera: You don’t necessarily need to bring a camera with you to create this fun game. Designate one person a “camera” and another person a “photographer.” The cameras closes their eyes and walk slowly, guided by the photographers, to a special location. The photographer can have the camera crouch down or turn to face a particular view. As soon as the proper positioning is achieved, the photographers lightly tap the cameras on their heads and the cameras take in the view for a few seconds. Cameras and photographers can then switch roles. At the end of the exercise, the group gets together to talk about the “photos” they took and what made the “pictures” unique or special.
- Geocaching: Geocaching turns your phone or GPS device into a compass directing you to real treasure hidden by others active in the sport. The prizes can be anything from a Matchbox car, to a piece of costume jewelry, to stickers, to books. Some containers are meant to be viewed and logged with your name and date into the small notebook provided in the cache. Other geocache might run by a “take one, leave one” system, so you’ll want to bring a few small items with you to leave just in case. There are multiple sites, each with its own unique twist. You’ll find the most listings at Geocaching.com, but you’ll need to become a paying member for access to all features. Opencaching.us has fewer listings, but all features are accessible for free. Terracaching.com favors scenic, but remote, locations and offers a competitive leaderboard system for avid fans. Not only is there this “secret world” to unearth, but the navigation often takes you to scenic and historic places you may not have otherwise discovered.
Why Hike? Nature Is Medicine!
Perhaps the fact that there’s nothing else to do is an excuse to break out of habit and spend more time than usual outdoors. There are many compelling reasons to make family walks part of your routine going forward, however.
- Emotional Health: Multi-study analysis has shown walking in nature reduces anxiety, depression and negativity. Time in the forest is crucial for reducing chronic stress and maintaining a stable mood, thanks to the cortisol-lowering scents of pine, fir, cedar, and cypress. “Highly sensitive” individuals especially find a sense of calm in nature, according to psychologists. There’s a reason why people living in areas with more trees have lower prescription rates for antidepressants!
- Physical and Mental Fatigue: Though it may seem counterintuitive, hiking is actually one of the best fatigue treatments, according to Dr. Mike Evans, Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto. Numerous studies have demonstrated that children perform better on attentional tasks after taking a walk in a park setting, which allowed for involuntary attention as their minds wandered to whatever stimuli beckoned from the surrounding environment. “Attention Restoration Theory” posits that nature walks in forests and wide open spaces – as opposed to urban city walks, for example –gives us the opportunity to rest, reflect, and restore ourselves.
- Heart Health: In a Japanese study of 280 participants, walking in the woods decreased cortisol concentrations by more than 15%, reduces average pulse by 4%, and decreases blood pressure by 2%.
- Weight Management: An hour of leisurely walking can burn 292 calories. Add in a few inclines, uneven terrain, obstacles, and increases in pace to burn up to 433 with a more arduous “hike.”
- Immune System Function: After spending a weekend camping in the woods, a group of Tokyo researchers measured significantly higher amounts of cancer-fighting Natural Killer cells that lasted in their immune systems for a month.
April 22nd is Earth Day, so get out there and enjoy the blessings Mother Nature has to offer.