By Heather Gannoe
To some of us, being in the woods, on the trails, or at the summit of a mountain is the most peaceful, magical place we can dream of. As parents, we naturally want our kids to experience and be part of that same magic, as well as develop their own love for the great outdoors. Before my kids could even walk, I dreamt of the day I could take them on adventures or out running with me. In that daydream, we all smiled from ear to ear, the sun beaming down on our faces between the trees, as we all happily gallivanted through the woods.
Ten years later, my kids and I are indeed gallivanting through the woods, but it isn’t always happy and full of smiles. The truth is, teaching your kids to love the outdoors, or enjoy hiking or trails running, can be an adventure in and of itself. But with these tips you can help foster a love of the trails in your children, and hopefully elicit far more smiles than “are we there yet?” complaints.
Start small. If it’s your child’s very first trail run or hike, don’t expect them to go out and cover a 10K or technical mountain pass. Think of them as a brand new runner or hiker, and gradually increase distance and time on feet accordingly. Start with shorter, easy to bail out on, trails. If you are running, have the kids run in intervals, in order to give them plenty of walk breaks. Little kids are resilient, but they are not immune to overuse injuries, just like the rest of us.
Be Patient & Ditch Time Constraints. This should absolutely be the golden rule of hiking and trail running with little ones. Kids have little legs. They tire easy. They are also easily distracted. A short summit that may typically take you an hour, might take two or three hours if you have little ones in tow. Be understanding of the fact that physically, it’s going to take little ones longer than you to cover the same distance.
Further, remember that kids are full of wonder and curiosity. Don’t be frustrated if your little one wants to stop every 200 yards to look at a mushroom or some moss. Foster and encourage their curiosity, and remember that the great outdoors IS mother nature’s classroom.
Make Them a Part of the Adventure. Kids will feel less “dragged along for the ride” and more a part of the adventure if you give them an active role. Let them carry their own gear in a kid sized backpack or hydration pack. Further, make them feel extra important by letting them carry a vital piece of equipment, such as their own compass or a small first aid kit. Let them help plan the route, and leave them in charge of looking out for and following trail blazes. (Of course, quietly keep an eye out yourself. Because as mentioned above, kids are easily distracted).
Hydration and Nutrition Matter. We all know the importance of fueling and hydrating while hiking or running. And while kids are awesome at listening to their little bodies when it comes to thirst and hunger, the excitement of being outdoors, plus the added caloric burn of a big hike, may result in an inadvertent blood sugar crash and burn. Remind them frequently to drink and eat when needed.
The Right Gear Matters Too. I know, outdoor gear can be an expensive habit. But with kids, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to buy the same high-end labels and name brand hiking pants or running shorts that adults love to wear, but you do want to make sure your kids are comfortable. Sweat wicking, technical fabric always wins over cotton, and mini, inexpensive versions can be purchased at both sporting goods stores and big name departments stores. Or better yet, check your local second hand kids shop, as kids often grow out of clothing so fast, you can buy like-new-gear at a fraction of the cost. Dress them in the same manner you would dress yourself based upon the trail conditions, with layers if needed. Make sure your kids have on appropriate trail running sneakers or hiking boots that fit properly.
Apply Skillful Distraction Methods, if necessary. You know, the kinds of distraction methods you acquire the second you become a parent. Little legs tired? Check out that toad! Cries of “I’m boooreeed!”? Create a scavenger hunt! Sing songs, play “I spy”, make it fun, so the kids forget the monotony that sometimes accompanies walking or running for long distances.
And most importantly:
Encourage, encourage, encourage. Resist the urge to tell your fully capable ten year old that he is moving slower than a 90 year old with a walker. On a serious note, tell them how impressed you are that they are tackling such a big adventure. Positive reinforcement works far better than the alternative…especially when you have made it past the halfway point. Play along when you reach the summit and they believe they are now on top of the world, because in their little minds, they truly are.
Encourage the adventure…one day they will thank you.
Heather Gannoe, is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist who splits her time between working as a personal trainer and running coach, and writing as a blogger and author in the fitness and running industry. She’s also a mom to two young boys, and is constantly encouraging them to love the great outdoors a little more, and their video games a little less. Trail running really long distances is her true love, but she’ll never turn down an adventure. Keep up with her adventures on www.RelentlessForwardCommotion.com.