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Susan Ballinger | Make it an adventure, don’t mention the hike

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Provided photo Karen Pleas with daughter Julia, in a backpack, and son Gabe, walking behind on the Horse Lake Preserve trails.

If you ask local parents who routinely take their children out on the trails of our region, they will likely advise you not to ask kids if they want to go on a hike — as most will reply with a resounding “no.” Instead, be a clever parent and describe an adventure destination that includes a picnic and downplay the fact that everyone will have to hike to get there!

Consider making 2014 the year you introduce a child in your life to a local trail on an adventure.

What do I remember about my annual summer family hikes as a young kid? Balancing on a crisscrossed log jam at a lake outlet, carving my initials onto a downed log using my very own pocket knife, snapping a photo with my birthday Brownie camera and getting to decide when and how to eat an entire Hersey’s chocolate bar. What I don’t recall is significant: it was always on a hot July day filled with buzzy mosquitoes and biting horse flies and we did a steep 2-hour uphill hike on a rutted muddy trail to get there.

Outdoor-loving parents deploy a quiver of tactics to keep children happy on the trails. Here are a few successful strategies that might work for the children in your life:

  • Select an exciting destination like a waterfall, a lake, a mountain-top, or a fire lookout.
  • Invite other children along, as your own kids won’t whine and complain when other kids are within earshot.
  • Prepare to spin an exciting out-loud story as you hike, making sure your tale has elements of magic and includes your kids as main characters. On the trail, tell sections of the story as you climb steep sections, or when children start to get hot and tired. They’ll keep moving at your pace in order to hear the story!
  • Stop at a store en route and let everyone select their own personal stash of “energy — i.e. candy” for their pockets. At the first mention of being tired, suggest eating some “energy.”
  • En route, be sure to stop to allow rock-scrambling, log-walking or berry picking along the trail. If you walk across a bridge, remember to stop and drop sticks into the upstream side and then watch how fast the water carries them downstream.
  • Play word games as you hike along, like “My Grandmother’s truck,” or “20-questions.”
  • Take time to play together at your destination. Wade in an icy alpine lake, build a stacked rock tower on the shore, or use charcoal from an old campfire to draw pictures on big rocks.
  • In the fall, berry-picking is a kid-pleaser, especially if they get to eat what they pick out in the field. Going fishing in a mountain lake is another great designation activity.
  • Build in a short local hike as part of your family’s holiday celebration on Easter or Thanksgiving.
  • Begin a tradition where a child goes on a hike with one special adult, to celebrate their birthday each year.

North Central Washington offers an array of lovely “first hikes” for children. Top on my list are Silver Falls along the Entiat River, Lake Valhalla at Stevens Pass, Hidden Lake at Lake Wenatchee, Eightmile Lake near Leavenworth and the iconic Saddle Rock in the Wenatchee foothills.

To find kid-friendly hikes, stop in at a local U.S. Forest Service office in Leavenworth, Wenatchee or Chelan to get maps, trailhead parking passes and suggested destinations. Check out Wenatchee Outdoors’ Family Fun Guidebook that describes 88 outings at justgetout.net/wenatchee/.

How to make the outdoors fun for kids

In “Childhood and Nature — Design Principles for Educators” (2008), David Sobel identifies seven principles that lead children to interact with nature — all through play. Design an outdoor adventure for children using one or more of these principles and you are guaranteed success:

1. Adventure: Take kids on an “adventure”… hikes or walks are for adults. Children are designed to stalk, balance, jump and sneak around. Try a blind-folded walk or grab a flashlight to explore in the dark. Leave notes for one another or use walkie-talkies to chat en route.

2. Fantasy and imagination. Capitalize on a child’s world of imagination through story-telling. Create your own fantasy characters and weave a story connected to your outing with a child.

3. Animal allies. Encourage a child’s innate curiosity and desire to connect with animals. Select destinations where you’ll be able to watch animals. Explore your yard and garden to find insects, worms, and ants.

4. Maps and paths. Nurture a child’s interests in finding paths and making maps, and then make the connection to the real topography you explore. Use Google Earth to plot a route and take along a paper map to help track your location.

5. Special places. Facilitate a child to find their own “special” place — often a hidden retreat they can frequent all by themselves.

6. Small worlds. Create miniature worlds together using natural materials — a fairy village, a tiny log cabin, a hiding place for a mouse.

7. Hunting and gathering. Create treasure hunts to access our hunter-gathering instincts. Gather pine cones, heart-shaped rocks or fallen fall leaves to take home and press. Go fishing, berry picking or collect rocks to take home and place in your garden.

— Susan Ballinger

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