Traveling with small children is challenging. You would think there is enough Pirate Booty in the world to get you to your desired destination in peace, but often bathroom breaks, meltdowns about dropped Pirate Booty, and fatigue can make it hard to find the motivation to take a trip. It is always worth it, though, and we have a few ideas about what to do in the outdoors to engage little ones.
When we first started taking trips on a more regular basis I brought a decent amount of toys. To my surprise, no one played with them. Optimus Prime was replaced with puddle jumping, stick collecting, and creature adventures. Sweet, I love minimalism. So with our new playground filled with creeks, trees, and trails, I started contemplating activities to enrich our time outdoors. Our trips now consistently involve one or all of the activities mentioned below, and new activities manifest based on our adventures so stay tuned.
I’m a huge fan of the Pocketbook Naturalist guides as well as many regionally-focussed reference books with large, colorful pictures. Anything that assists in growing our borderline non-existent knowledge of flora and fauna, geology, and the like. So here’s the activity; we have the kids pick out something they want to identify (flower, tree, slow moving beetle) and talk about all its features. They start flipping through the guide to try and match the picture with what we are studying. Once we think we’ve got a match, we read about it. Pretty simple; really fun.
It is easy to look at the opposing hillside and think the only colors around are various shades of green and tan. Look closely and you can find all sorts of colors. As we started the Nine Mile Ridge Trail one morning, I knew we had a significant climb ahead of us and wanted something to keep them motivated beyond the next snack break. At the trailhead I told the kids the challenge of the day (beyond gaining 1,500 feet in less than two miles) was to find every color of the rainbow, and up the mountain they went. They found red pine cones, orange flowers, a yellow banana slug, green everywhere, looked to the sky for blue, more flowers for purple and pink, and added brown with the discovery of a rubber boa. They hardly noticed the quad-burning climb.
A few weekends ago, we braved the forecast for thunderstorms and headed up Tiger Creek Road to camp. We thought we would make it all the way to Deduct Trailhead, but ran into snow. We landed at a dispersed camping site near the junction of Tiger Creek Road and NF-6511 (Government Mountain Road). NF-6512 branches off at that junction as well. We chose to walk down NF-6512 to check out where the North Fork of the Walla Walla Trail connects. It had just stopped raining. I packed incredibly poorly for the weather. Because I only packed sandals, they ended up jumping in every single puddle. Upon closer examination we noticed mini trails in each puddle and stick-like figures blazing those trails. They ended up being Caddisfly larvae, and we spent a good half an hour staring at a puddle. Creatures come in all shapes and sizes. Often, you typically want to meet the smaller species of the animal kingdom. Campsites, trails, or simply turning over a rock near a river can all turn into a creature adventure. So if the kids are approaching their hiking tolerance threshold, don’t worry so much about the distance covered and start your next creature adventure.
Adults might think the word fun is an overstatement, and we agree with you. Sometimes we find ourselves comparing topographic maps, maps available online, and our trusty folding collection and thinking none of it makes sense. Our living room often gets covered with maps as we plan out our next area of exploration. As part of this process, the kids seize the opportunity to enjoy the sound of crinkling paper under their precious feet. To deter, we typically ask them to find us a river or certain trail number. Think of it like Where’s Waldo using the Umatilla National Forest map. We do this camping and hiking as well, and their awareness of direction has definitely improved. Our oldest now draws lots of maps, and it’s fun to watch him take his Blues Crew experience of building and maintaining trails and apply that to making maps. So as you start to familiarize yourself with the mountains, don’t forget to include your little ones.
There are definitely times when it is too hot to go outside, or perhaps air quality due to fire makes venturing out unsafe. We get that, and dread those times. By no means are we anti screen time. We have enjoyed a handful of shows over the years that support a greater awareness of nature. Nearest and dearest to our hearts is Wild Kratts, a PBS show that features brothers and team of cohorts who support their mission of protecting animals and learning more about all their cool features. My favorite episode to date is about rattlesnakes, absolutely fascinating. Our son keeps trying to request a show about ticks, but I haven’t seen one thus far. Nature Cat is another PBS show with a similar premise of talking about the natural world, species, and environmental consciousness. A recent find, You vs Wild on Netflix features Bear Grylls traveling to all the wild destinations we are used to but adds an interactive element for kids. For example, after jumping from a helicopter into a cold alpine lake, viewers have the choice of making him run or starting a fire to get warm. The show reminded me of the choose your own adventure style books I used to read as a kid.
If you are new to recreating outdoors, one of the biggest things you might notice is how the pace of life settles quite quickly. No dinging from an incoming message on your phone; no distractions of laundry or somewhat trivial household messes to address. Steve and I often comment on how we all seem to get along better when outdoors. We are moving, talking, playing. We can all sit and watch our youngest build a house around a slug for an hour. Peace and calm. I suppose I’ll end this post with a quote from Lyndon B. Johnson, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”