Welcome to a new series on my blog: Feature Friday!
On Friday’s, I’ll be sharing content from fellow creators, both on Instagram and here on my blog.
Today, I am so excited to share an article from my dear friend, April Russell. She is a homeschooling mother to three, outdoors enthusiast, and by the way, a brilliant writer. In this post she is going to share about getting outside with your children, even when it’s hard.
The final stretch.
We were on the last stretch of trail, winding our way through a wooded valley as darkness seeped into the trees. We did not plan to be on the trail after dark, but I was thankful for an excuse to inspire urgency in our three young children. We were closing in on five miles, and I was out of ammunition. The last gummy bear was eaten half an hour ago, and even my youngest ones were sick of my singing. Between us and the parking lot was half a mile of trail, a chilly river crossing, and three tired children who might quit on us at any moment. “Just a little farther, you guys! You’re doing great,” I chanted in my most cheerful, unperturbed mom voice. Silently, I prayed no one would sit down in the middle of the trail. Again.
Our 4-year-old son shuffled along in front of me, his zeal as leader dwindling with every step. Behind me, my husband hauled our tired toddler in the backpack carrier as our 7-year-old daughter spun stories about forest fairies waiting for us to go away so they could begin their nighttime frolics. We were so close to the end, but energy and enthusiasm were waning fast.
And that’s when we heard them.
Not the fairies, of course, but something just as magical. From some secretive part of the forest arose a jubilant howling. We stopped in our tracks, not daring to breathe. Behind me, the stories were replaced with silence. My son huddled against my legs in an instant, breathless as his small hand slipped into mine.
“What is that?” he whispered, eyes wide.
“Coyotes,” I breathed into his ear. “They’re looking for dinner.”
He turned to me with eyes full of dread.
“Don’t worry,” I smiled. “They much prefer rabbits to little boys.”
We stood for a minute or two, listening to the chorus wash through the silent forest, before finishing our hike with renewed vigor. It was a magical moment for us all, but I am so often tempted to forget what it took to get there. That hike was our longest since adding our third baby a year and a half before, and it was our first time on that particular trail as a family.
Not always as planned.
We left town two hours later than planned, which put us on the trail later and set us against the clock as we raced the fading daylight towards the end. I left our utensils behind and we ate our camp meals with smooth sticks instead. If you want to know what its like for a toddler to eat freeze-dried chili mac with a stick, just imagine what it would be like to give him a bath in spaghetti sauce. My daughter complained along the way about sore feet and ended up with blisters from her wet sandal straps. There were persistent fights about who would be ‘The Leader,’ who found the better stick or rock or oak leaf, and who was stronger, braver, faster, hotter, thirstier, etc. There were protests, grumbles and tears all along the trail that day, which is not surprising to anyone who has ever hiked with children. Even so, it was a beautiful day. In fact, there was just the right amount of unpleasantness to make the beautiful moments seem like a gift. Besides the coyotes, there were wildflowers. My daughter and I stopped at each and every delicate flower to admire and photograph and identify: hepatica, toothwort and one stunning bird’s foot violet. There were stops along the river to play, and my sons threw rock after rock after rock for the sole purpose of enjoying the satisfying plunk each one made as it splashed into the clear water. There were pleased smiles as fallen logs and imposing boulders were conquered by little legs. There was delight and laughter and triumph, against which the less desirable moments do not stand within our memories.
Hiking with children, even when it’s hard.
To say that hiking and adventuring with small children is easy or painless or always fun would be misleading, at the least. Chances are you won’t pack enough snacks, you won’t leave the house on time, and at some point along the way – perhaps while you’re scanning for ticks as you change a diaper on a hillside while simultaneously digging in your pack for the last of the granola bars to appease your other children – you’ll question your own sanity. Hiking with children requires planning, patience, and a considerable decrease in expectations. It is hard. But to say it is difficult is not the same as saying it is not worth doing.
By now, the benefits of time in nature for our minds and bodies are well-documented. A 2019 study by environmental psychologists in England found that just 2 hours of outdoor time per week triggered notable improvements in the physical and mental health. Yes, just two hours per week, or less than fifteen minutes per day, spent in nature promotes better health and well-being.
It makes you wonder what an entire day outdoors can do, doesn’t it?
An earlier study from 2015 made a positive connection between access to green spaces and improved cognitive development in children. But none of this, or any of the dozens of similar findings, come as a surprise to anyone who spends ample time outdoors. You don’t have to be a scientist to know time in nature is good for the soul. You just…know. As I watch my rowdy son bound along the trail or listen to my daughter identify edible plants and native wildflowers with satisfaction in her voice, I am assured that here in the forest, at least, they feel free. When we are in the woods, our children seem to open up like flowers turning toward the sun, and their imaginations flourish.
Getting there requires effort.
A quick Internet search will provide you with all you need to know about packing and prepping for a hike with your kids. You’ll find plenty of advice to get you started:
- lists reminding you of all the essentials to throw in the backpack (snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, water, extra clothes, more snacks);
- advice for keeping your children motivated when they grow tired (my best trick: silly songs with endless variations, such as “Little Bird, Little Bird” or “The Green Grass Grew All Around”
- gear reviews
- trail recommendations.
You will need all of this. But you will also need purpose and resolve.
When you find yourself standing in front of a child who refuses to move another inch, with just one bar of incentive-chocolate left and a baby reminding you through tears that his nap time was two hours ago, you might wonder what it’s all for anyway.
Wouldn’t it be easier to stay home? Why not just wait until they’re older? Is it worth it to go through all this effort?
To be fair, sometimes it is easier to not go; sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it to go. While we do our best to go exploring whenever possible, there are also many days when we choose instead to stay home and avoid the challenge. There have been seasons – the newborn weeks or periods of major emotional growth, for instance – when it felt best for our family to opt for more relaxed activities.
These adventures require honesty.
Hiking with our children requires a great deal of honesty about what we’re up against, and it won’t do any of us any good to enter into an adventure without joy in our hearts. When we feel overwhelmed by the thought of diffusing emotional outbursts on the trail, it’s a good sign we ought to stay home instead. Where we find the magic is in the balance between passion and perseverance.
When we hit the trail with gladness alongside a reasonable expectation of struggle, we set ourselves up to seize the enchantment when it comes our way.
In his much-acclaimed book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv points out what ought to be obvious to us all: “If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy.” Your heart must be in it so that when your children – or you – grow weary or discouraged, you’ll remember what brought you out in the first place.
The grand finale.
At the crossing, we heard them again. As icy water swirled around my legs, I stopped to peer into the thickening darkness, hoping for a glimpse of the coyotes. Though we never saw them, the sound of their music surging through the trees has never left us. When my children retell their adventure to family and friends – as they have done now dozens of times – it is always the coyotes that they remember first. With delighted voices, they describe the fear and excitement they felt as we all stood together in the woods, listening in on some secretive wilderness rendezvous.
In a few years, my children will be old enough to carry their own snacks and choose appropriate footwear without being told. Five miles will seem like nothing. They will have the experience of countless hard hikes, a foundation that will instill confidence as they take on harder and more daring adventures. They will have worked through formidable climbs and precarious emotions with their family by their side. They may or may not remember the bickering or the blisters, but I know without a doubt they’ll remember the coyotes.
About the author.
You can find her barefoot in her weedy garden or hiding in the bathtub with a good book. She writes a a variety of fiction and non-fiction.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow April on Instagram to hear about her newest blog posts and adventures. If you’d like to participate in Feature Friday, please send me a message on Instagram or send an email. ~Nichole