I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to how my children spend their time, there are four areas that I try to focus on, and one of them is time outside. This week we received a delightful gift: a warm, balmy day in the middle of November, so “time outside” quickly moved to the top of our list of things to do. And instead of a standard walk to the neighborhood park, we, for whatever reason, decided to attempt a hike at nearby Castlewood State Park.
My kids are 4, 3 and 18 months, and I’m guessing that a rocky, hilly hike isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think “preschool activity.” But I’m quickly learning that my kids are often capable of a whole that more than I would think at first and I’m willing to let them try just about anything (within safety limits, obviously). So if you’re wondering if your average preschooler can handle a 2+ mile hike over hilly terrain — including going both down and back up a 206-step staircase on the side of a hill — the answer is a resounding “yes”. Not only can they handle it, they might just absolutely love it (and so might you)!
Here are a few tips for taking to the trails with your young ones.
Tap into your inner boy scout and be prepared. Pack a small snack (trail mix on an actual trail? they’ll love it) and drinks, and a couple bandaids probably aren’t a bad idea either. If you happen to have a pair of binoculars or a magnifying glass lying around, toss those in as well. And if you’re bringing a really young one, don’t forget a wrap or backpack or front carrier for when they need to ride. I broke out my Moby that has been packed away for a while, and I was surprised at how happy my little man was to be snuggled up in it again! (ok, he’s not showing it here, but he was delighted, I promise.)
Let them lead. Don’t even set a distance goal for the hike. Choose a trail (or let your kids choose) and let them take the lead! If they want to stop and examine the moss, and the bugs, and the acorns, and the lichon on the side of a tree, and the sticks, and the bolts holding the stairs together, and the chickadee, and the leaves, and the little trails in the dirt made by the water, and every single spot in the dirt trail that might possibly be an animal print, then sit back and let them. We tend to think a hike has to have a goal, but with your kids, the hike is the goal.
Let them be amazing. Several times during our hike the little mom voice in my brain brought up the concern that it was time to head back because we had been walking a while and I didn’t want the little darlings to tire out. But when I watched my little darlings and honestly considered how they were acting, they were totally fine, and eager to keep exploring. My 3- and 4-year-olds went further and faster and on more difficult trails than I expected, and even my toddler, whom I expected to carry pretty much the whole way, walked on his own two feet at least half the time we were out, which included scaling a giant set of more than 200 stairs. If we give our kids a little breathing room, and even expect them to do a little more, well, they just might.
Recruit an extra pair of hands. The trail we were on would not have been a good choice if the kids’ very able grandma was not along with us because there were several spots that skirted a high bluff and required that all kids be holding an adult hand. But even if you’re simply trapsing through a forest, the more adults, the merrier.
Take them seriously. Yes, they can most likely do a lot more than we expect, but they also have to take twice as many steps as us to cover the same distance. So when your 3-year-old — even the one prone to whining and overreacting — says she needs to take a break, it’s probably best to find a rock and have a seat and a drink of water (unless a mid-trail meltdown is what you were looking for).
Enjoy yourself! If your kids see you having fun, letting go a little, and exploring, they will do the same. If you’re drudging along talking about how steep the hills are or how hot or windy it is, don’t be surprised if their attitudes follow yours.
And, most importantly, just resign yourself at the beginning to the liklihood of a behind-the-bush potty stop. That way, when it happens, you can take it all in stride.
Being a short drive from Saint Louis, Castlewood was a great choice for us as there are a bunch of different trails of varying length and difficulty, so there’s lots to explore and you can choose a difficulty level that suits your family. We planned our hike for the morning and packed a lunch that we left in the car, so when we got back we broke out the sandwiches at a nearby picnic table, which also happened to be by a little playground. How do I know my preschoolers can absolutely handle a 2+ mile hike on hilly terrain? Because five minutes after we got done and they had scarfed down half a sandwich, they sprinted over to the playground and proceeded to run, jump, swing and slide for nearly an hour. Clearly, our hike failed to exhaust them sufficiently, although they were all three asleep in the car long before we had finished the short drive home.