Take a Hike—With a Child

Nature // February 15, 2017

Would it surprise you to hear the following conversation?

Parent: “Kids, play outside.”

Children: “We don’t have that app.”

According to Richard Louv, advocate for connecting children and their families to nature and author of Last Child in the Woods (2008), “Today, average eight-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community.” Louv has done extensive research on how children’s mental, physical, and spiritual health are directly linked to our relationship with nature (Louv, 2008).

Just as children need sufficient sleep every night, they also require significant exposure to nature. According to a study by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory (formerly the Human-

Environment Research Laboratory) at the University of Illinois, green space supports healthy child development (Taylor & Kuo, 2009). However, many children lack exposure to green space. Children between the ages of eight and eighteen spend an average of 53 hours a week plugged into electronics, according to a national survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010. Consequently, many children and teens spend more time “plugged in” instead of going outside.

As a parent, you worry. Our sedentary lifestyle contributes to childhood obesity, which has doubled in the past twenty years. In addition, studies show an increase in the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Yet outdoor time can counteract ADHD symptoms and, through outdoor exercise, help keep children active. According to a study in Environment & Behavior, “Children regularly exposed to the outdoors are thought to experience a reduction of ADHD symptoms” (Hi-Tec Sports, 2016). Even spending ten to fifteen minutes a day outside has positive mental benefits by reducing stress.

So how do we get children to go outside? Whether this is your first or fiftieth time in the woods, here are some tips to enjoy a walk with children and entice them to join you:

  • What’s under a rock or log? Turn over a decomposing log or large rock and see what is living underneath. You may find bright and shiny beetles, burrowing pill bugs, iridescent salamander eggs, or mysterious fungi. Gently return the log or rock to its original place when you are done exploring to preserve the habitat for these fun and vulnerable creatures.
  • Walk silently for a few minutes. Stand still and count the number of different sounds you hear. Notice what is buzzing, chirping, and flying around.
  • Bring a journal. Write down your thoughts and observations. Sketch what you see or craft a poem. Nature creates a vast array of topics to write about.
  • Become a detective. Look for signs of an animal or insect: a half-eaten leaf, squiggly lines from beetles on a decomposing log, or tiny evidence of animal tracks. Help children hypothesize about who was there and what might have happened. Add a dose of fantasy and frivolity by also looking for trolls, fairies, and giants.
  • Create nature art! Gather natural materials to make something on the spot. It will challenge you and your child to think on your feet, see art come alive in three dimensions, and appreciate nature’s beauty.
  • Bring a local field guidebook. What type of tree or bird is that? Bring a field guide and look it up. Books from the Golden Guides Series (St. Martin’s Press) are some of our favorites to use with children. We also recommend Discover Nature Close to Home: Things to Know and Things to Do by Elizabeth P. Lawlor. It is fun to discover exactly what plant or animal (or animal track) you discovered! Bring observation tools. Magnifying glasses and binoculars make it possible to discover small and large forms of life. Even a plastic container filled with stream or pond water holds many surprisingly tiny critters.
  • Carry a snack or drink. Nothing beats a good snack during a long walk for a little tyke.
  • Stay warm and end early. Dress in layers so you can adjust to changes in temperature. It doesn’t matter if you spend fifteen minutes or three hours outside. The important thing is to keep it fun. End early so your child will want to go again.

Playing in nature offers many benefits, including fostering empathy. The Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture notes that children who play in nature are more likely to develop positive feelings about others and their surroundings (White, 2004).

Playing in nature also stimulates imagination and creativity. Research shows that “the outdoor environment led to more symbolic play in both boys and girls as compared to the indoor environment” (Frost, et al. 2001). Unlike video games or apps, nature requires children to use imagination and creativity in their play. It’s easy for children to pretend to be animals while playing where animals live.

During outdoor exploration and observation, adults can foster a child’s vocabulary by asking questions: What did you discover? What sounds do you hear? What color are these rocks? Why are the leaves changing color? Where do animals go when the weather changes?

With supervision the outdoors can be a safe and fun place for children to develop gross-motor skills, as well as risk assessment capacities. Hiking on uneven terrain, climbing on trees and rocks, and balancing on fallen logs are just a few ways to exercise outside.

These types of physical activities also lead to better health. A study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found children living in “green neighborhoods” (those that rely primarily on active and public transportation) had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) on average (Bell, 2008). The researchers attributed this result to increased physical activity or time spent outdoors, and concluded that “greenness” offers an environmental approach to preventing childhood obesity.

Obesity isn’t the only health issue that nature has the potential to address. Another study from the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reports that children living in areas with more trees have lower rates of asthma (Lovasi, 2008). If your neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of trees, perhaps you can find a park nearby, like Wissahickon Valley Park. With 1,800 acres of parkland and over 50 miles of trails, the Wissahickon offers the perfect  “nature Rx.” Whether you are eight or eighty, the Wissahickon woods offers something for everyone. Enjoy!

Mary Ann Boyer is a parent and former science teacher. She now helps schools and businesses become more “green” through Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants. Grace Yi is a nature preschool teacher at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and an intern at Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants (boyersudduth.com).


Bell, Janice F., Jeffrey S. Wilson, and Gilbert C. Liu. 2008. “Neighborhood Greenness and 2-Year Changes in Body Mass Index of Children and Youth.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(08)00734-4/fulltext.

Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. 2001. Play and Child Development. Pearson.

“Health Benefits of Hiking in the Outdoors.” 2016. Hi-Tec Sports. http://us.hi-tec.com/resources/health-benefits-of-hiking.

Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.” Jan 20, 2010. http://kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/.

Louv, Richard. 2008. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Lovasi, Gina Schellenbaum, James W Quinn, Kathryn M Neckerman, Matthew S Perzanowski, and Andrew Rundle. 2008. “Children living in areas with more street trees have lower asthma prevalence.” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.  ttp://jech.bmj.com/content/early/2008/05/01/jech.2007.071894.abstract.

Taylor, Faber A. & F. E. Kuo. 2009. “Children with Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park.” Journal of Attention Disorders, 12, 402-409. Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, http://lhhl.illinois.edu/research.htm.

White, Randy. 2004. “Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future.” Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture. https://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/childrennature.shtml.