What better way to spend quality time with your family and get in touch with nature than a fresh, invigorating walk in the woods, along a river or on the beach? What’s more, family hikes make for fun learning opportunities for kids and parents alike. So, try some of these hiking activities with
A stone is a stone is a … mineral?
Go on an excursion to learn about rocks and minerals. Shorelines offer a variety of stones. Before you go, learn which rocks and minerals are abundant in the area and have each family member choose several to scout for. Take along a small plastic container with dividers, a descriptive rock and mineral guide and a magnifying glass for viewing the colors, layers and details. As you identify stones and minerals, discuss their uses and other neat facts.
Sounds of nature
Wander through a forest and listen carefully for a variety of bird and animal sounds. Before you go, visit your library for a DVD or audio CD of birds and wild animal calls. Then download an audio recorder on your phone and carry it on your hike to record some of the sounds you hear. Listen to the recording again at home and play a game of detective to determine the source of the sounds you can’t make out. Search the internet, encyclopedias and books to discover the makers of the mystery calls.
Capture nature’s splendor. Hiking trails provide plenty of photo opportunities and kids will love snapping the shots. Discuss in advance what each family member wants to photograph, such as a huge oak tree, a monarch butterfly, deer tracks or a close-up of a nibbling squirrel. When you get home, print out the best photos and create a nature scrapbook with them.
These giants of nature are not only intriguing because of their size but also because of their many variations. Borrow some library books on trees and learn about their unique features and histories. Use clues such as the shape of the leaves, texture of bark and size of the trunk to identify the kind of tree.
Which way do we go?
Roam the countryside and teach your children directional skills such as how to read a map, use a compass or determine the sun’s position to determine direction. Before setting out, choose a trail system that provides maps or make up your own. Take a trail that branches off several times, allowing for plenty of skill-building opportunities. For even more fun, turn the excursion into a treasure hunt. Hide a small prize just off the trail under a bush or pile of leaves, mark the location on your map and let the journey begin.
Animals all around
Take a quiet hike in a wooded area with grassy clearings and see how many animals you meet. Watch for snakes, turtles and geese if there’s a nearby lake or stream. Also, look for chipmunks and squirrels playing chase or gathering food, birds of prey circling overhead or grazing rabbits and deer. Discuss each animal’s unique characteristics and how those qualities help or hinder the animal. Talk about what the animals eat, their shelters and related species. Also, keep eyes peeled for animal tracks to identify and determine how recently they were made.
Creepy crawly things
Scouting for insects is an all-time favorite among kids and the variety of creepy-crawly creatures in the woods is remarkable. Carry an insect book, clear container, tweezers and a magnifying glass for close examination of insects’ fascinating features. Bring a journal and track the types of insects you find. Read about insects’ defense behaviors and characteristics such as colors that indicate danger to predators.
Plant life, old and new
Discover with your kids the fantastic diversity of plant life. Before you head out, review some books on plants to spark your children’s interest. On each hiking trip, choose a different trail or area and see what plants grow in certain types of soil, climates and in each season. As you inspect plants, look for their seeds and notice the variations. Talk about how seeds travel by blowing in the wind or catching on the fur of animals. Carefully brush away the ground cover and look for seeds that have sprouted their roots and will soon develop into a new plant or tree. Learn how individual plants have evolved to have natural defenses to protect against creatures that would otherwise devour them.
Where to find trails
You might be surprised to discover nearby trails that you never knew existed. Check with city, county and state parks and look for trails along rivers or near lakeshores and beaches. There are also national forests and parks throughout the United States with extensive trail systems. If you have access to a wooded area near you that isn’t too dense, a trail may not be necessary. When hiking off trails, use safety precautions to protect against tripping, poison ivy, getting lost or other hazards.
Before you go
Plan your activities before you leave so you’ll arrive prepared. For your comfort and convenience, carry a small daypack with extra clothing for cold air along trails, and don’t forget hiking boots. For your protection, bring along hats, sunglasses, sunblock and insect repellant. Be prepared for emergencies by carrying a small flashlight and batteries, watch, map and bandages. Don’t forget plenty of water and snacks. Finally, make the most of your nature quest by carrying binoculars, a magnifying glass and a small camera.
Trekkin’ tips for tykes
When hiking with children, keep these suggestions in mind.
- Allow small legs plenty of time for breaks and making the journey, and know your child’s limitations.
- Be familiar with potential dangers in the area in which you’ll explore and teach your children trail and animal safety.
- Before you set out, prepare your kids by informing them that there may be rules against taking their nature finds home.
Local Parks / Hiking Trails*
- Billy Goat Trail Loop, Potomac
- Cabin John Regional Park, 7400 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda
- Gambrill State Park (and Yellow Trail), Frederick
- Rock Creek Regional Park, 15700 Needwood Lake Circle, Rockville
- Seneca Creek State Park (and Lake Shore Trail)
- Sligo Creek Stream Valley Park (and Sligo Creek Trail), Silver Spring
- Wheaton Regional Park, 2000 Shorefield Road, Wheaton
- Fountainhead Regional Park, 10875 Hampton Road, Fairfax Station
- Bull Run Occoquan Trail, 10875 Hampton Road, Fairfax Station
- George Washington Memorial Parkway (Mount Vernon Trail), Alexandria
- Great Falls Park Overlook, McLean
- Huntley Meadows Park, 3701 Lockheed Boulevard, Alexandria
- Lake Accotink Park and Trails, Springfield
- Red Rock Wilderness Overlook Regional Park and Trail, Leesburg
- Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park, Ashburn
District of Columbia>
- Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Park and Trails, NW
- Hains Point Loop Trail, 1100 Ohio Drive, SW
- Rock Creek Park and Trails, 5200 Glover Road, NW
* Due to COVID-19 and phased reopenings, not all parks or hiking trails may be open. Check with the website before heading out.