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"Let us have endless patience with his slow progress, and show enthusiasm and gladness at his successes. If we could say: ' We are respectful and courteous in our dealings with children, we treat them as we should like to be treated ourselves,' we should have mastered a great educational principle..."
—Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook

A nature hike is nothing like a field trip!

The child-driven nature hike is not just slower, it gives children the opportunity to "dig deep." A field trip approach to nature merely skims the surface, providing many random facts for assimilation. Children scurry from attraction to attraction, without much context for their experience.

A nature hike detours to the top of a giant stump, pauses without hesitation for polliwogs, or dawdles alongside streams endlessly.

Dr. Montessori wrote that " teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationship between things is to bring knowledge.""

The child watching ants is trying to understand how ants fit into what he knows about the world. For older children, this may mean understanding how this ant relates to other ants (Is it as big as a carpenter ant?). For younger children, it may mean considering the relationship between ants and people (Why are ants okay outdoors but not in the house?).

Fortunately, there's no need for parents to guess what their children are thinking! When we provide enough time and space for children to observe nature firsthand, the children will articulate their questions and be inspired to seek their own answers independently.

A nature hike is not like television, either.

Nature observation programs provide an unparalleled look at creatures children would never otherwise see. The producers also cut weeks and months of footage into the most exciting half-hour possible. Let young children know that animals in nature do not behave like animals on television and in movies. You know that your half-hour on the local hiking trail is not likely to yield a rhino sighting. Your child may not.

Learn together which animals you have a realistic chance of sighting. Read the posters that show which animals to expect, found at most State, and Federal (and many County) park trail-heads. Remind children that many animals are sleeping and that most will hide when they hear humans approach. The most abundant wildlife you are likely to see will be insects and birds.

How to take a hike with Montessori in mind.

Explore the trail with all your senses. Color, smell, sound, touch, and taste... In the Montessori classroom, the Sensorial activities get children acquainted with all their senses. When your family takes a stroll through any natural area, children can apply their classroom experiences (and the vocabulary they have learned) to the world around them.

Take turns finding sensorial experiences to share as you walk, and talk about them together. An autumn hike through fallen leaves satisfies sight with color, sound with crunch, smell with earthiness, and touch with brittle (and leathery, and sticky, too!).

In fact, the changing face of trees and leaves offer children a continual point of interest and inquiry all year. Consider hiking the same trail in all the seasons. You might also take a different walk for each of the senses. A listening or a sniffing walk is great fun for the young child!

Nurture their nature connection with frequent short walks at your local botanical garden, zoo, or city park. Children who walk a little all year are better prepared for a nature hike once in a while!

Respect the young child's slower pace. It can be easy for adults to forget to slow down, yet young children need to go slowly in order to absorb new sights, sounds, and scents, and to make sense of them. Let the children set the pace. Some will charge forward and others will meander. Allow enough time for plenty of both!

While adult eyes scan ahead for a spectacular waterfall to come, our children are watching ants crawl across the trail, right here, right now. Children are much closer to the ground than adults; their eyes will be focused at knee level or lower. Expect them to become engaged with what they can see at their eye level! For that child, in that moment, the ant trail he can see is far more important and real than the waterfall ahead.

Step onto the trail completely open to the experience - just as your children are! Cast aside firm ideas about how far to go and how quickly. Observe how your child is handling the walk and pick up or drop the pace accordingly. If you push a child past the point of enjoyment, you'll be carrying back an unhappy camper!

Micro-Hiking: Visit another world! Instead of covering distance, make discovering unknown worlds your objective. Children can find such worlds in fallen tree trunks, beneath stones, in the mossy gravel along a stream, and in the miniature caves made by rivulets along the trail. Viewed through a magnifying glass, these miniature habitats are like different planets for the young child.

You will be amazed by the distance children can cover in short walks between interesting stops! Micro-hiking moves along until an interesting site is spotted. The short walks and lengthy down-time are perfect for children.

Bring a magnifier for each person, so everyone can enjoy the tiny habitats and talk about them together. You and the children might take photos, measure, compare what you see to places you know, tell a story, or jot down notes and drawings.

Caring for children on the trail.

Safety. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back! Imagine twisting your own ankle while on a hike with your four-year-old - hardly life-threatening but certainly a cause for concern. Making sure someone will start looking for you if you aren't home on time could save a lot of trouble.

Along with your cell phone, bring sunscreen and plan to carry the bulk of the snacks and drinking water yourself.

Gear. Every young hiker should have good, sturdy shoes with ridged soles for traction on the trail and a sun hat with a brim. High-energy trail snacks (nuts, dried fruit) and drinking water, in a bottle the child can manage independently, are a must.

Smart extras include a bandanna (dip in water to cool down), small package of baby wipes (to clean fingers before snacking), and a just-in-case zip-top sandwich bag with emergency gear: a squeeze light, whistle, and card with parent contact and child's medical info.

Weight. Pack supplies in a small backpack the child can carry. Make sure essentials are packed first, then help children narrow the array of bring-along items logically - by weight. The absolute most a young child should carry is 10%-20% of body weight. Have your child try on the backpack between items to check the weight; remind children the bag will feel heavier on a long hike. A great excuse for children to use the scale!

Feed your young hiker! The importance of frequent breaks for drinking water and eating snack can't be overstated. Food and drink from home fill more than a nutritional need; familiar foods can help children feel "at home" in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. Likewise, familiar tasks remind children of their ability to be successful.

A cloth napkin is worth the weight; unfolding and laying out the napkin for snack is familiar "work" for children in Montessori schools. Of course, a napkin also gives children a clean(er) place to put the food down between bites. Fold it clean-side-in between snacks.

Stop when you notice children nibbling from their trail snack. Carry lightweight, nutritious foods with easy, on-the-spot preparation. At a trail stop, children can: peel a hard boiled egg, spread peanut butter on quartered bread, slice an apple with a slicer, unwrap sandwiches, serve pickles with tongs, set out napkins, and clean up.

5 Top Online Resources for Hiking with Children
  1. Absolutely the best, most thorough discussion of serious hiking with children, including realistic suggestions for food, itinerary, and gear modifications by age group.
  2. Find a perfect place to hike with the snazzy search tool on the National Park Service website. Choose an activity, location or topic, then enter your zip code to return a list of parks with distance, brief description, and link to more info.
  3. If your hike will take you further away than a county park, take a few minutes to read these hiking safety tips from the National Park Service.
  4. Everything parents need to know to choose trail foods and pack them safely can be found in the hiking, general rules, and drinking water sections of this USDA outdoor food safety fact sheet.
  5. How can parents give their children firsthand experience with wild plants and animals while respecting the plants and animals themselves? Read this thoughtful discussion of wilderness ethics.

—by Joyce Beydler for Montessori Services; Ms. Beydler is a nationally published writer, parent, and former day care owner/operator. Her articles have appeared in regional parenting lifestyle publications and online.

—Originally Published 2010