Children need to get out the door and on the trail; and it’s the job of caring adults to make that happen. In our obsession with intellectual achievement and academic testing, we forget about teaching the self-reliance that can be gained with repeated experience in the great classroom of the great outdoors.
When we take children hiking, we instill in them an experiential love of the earth that is very different from any lesson in school. For all our good intentions of educating children about The Environment, Saving the Planet and Going Green, far too many children know more about nature in the abstract than from first-hand experience. They study the tropical rainforest in Brazil, the plight of the polar bear and the fate of the whales, but what do they know about native plants, peaks, and creeks?
We teach them about recycling, the evils of pesticides and plastic, and the urgency of climate change. They’ve watched hours and hours of video of massive oil spills, wildfires, hurricanes and floods. But what do we teach them of the natural world nearby?
In their worlds with too much time spent multitasking, sitting in traffic, eating fast food and worrying about homework, good grades and test results—not to mention the usual concerns about popularity, fitting in and figuring it all out, our kids need nature more than ever before.
They need to get their feet on the ground, their minds clear and their vision extended all the way to the wide horizon. They need to breathe deep and inhale the heady fragrance of Mother Nature in all her glory.
Inclusivity on the Trail
When we discuss the best ways to connect kids to nature, it’s important to clarify that by kids we mean all kids, without regard to their color, culture, where they live or the economic circumstances of their families.
I have been pleased to note a shift on the part of park agencies and by hikers themselves toward a more inclusive vision. Many hiking and conservation organizations fully embrace the concept of equity, that is to say the idea that everyone, no matter where they live or how much money they make should have access to the natural world and the opportunity to take a hike. It’s obvious to veteran hikers, there’s a greater diversity of trail users now than ever before.
Historically, though, a sizeable majority of hikers have come from a white and upper- and middle-class demographic. Experts agree that we have a long way to go along the trail to equity in the great outdoors, and much increased efforts are necessary to welcome everyone into parks and onto pathways.
Accessibility is a major challenge. About 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas and typically those who live in lower income, disadvantaged communities are located the farthest from parks and trails, and are less likely to have transportation— private cars or public transit—to the start of a hike. So let’s hike with kids, all kids. There’s no better way of growing the hiker population so that it better reflects the changing face of the population at large.