It is important now more than ever to be getting outside – we need the exercise, fresh air, horizons, and the sights and sounds of nature – to not only keep us going, but to invigorate and inspire our souls! With the schools closed, it is inevitable that many of us parents are finding it a struggle to have time to ourselves to exercise our minds and bodies, and to just enjoy the outdoors in a mindful way.
When we realised we would be having children, it was important for us to maintain our active lifestyle and love of the outdoors. From birth, our children have been very much a part of our adventures, starting in a sling and then walking alongside us as soon as they could. It’s not that easy though – we have had our fair share of tantrums, arduous struggles up the last hill, full frontal muddy puddle falls, and dropped sandwiches. But we have learnt a lot, and are able to enjoy many pleasurable walks with our two little wildlings, exploring the wonderful coastline and countryside where we live. I hope that by sharing these tips that we have learnt (and are still learning) along the way, we can encourage more families to enjoy some outdoor time together, and inspire a passion for adventure and exploration in our little people.
1. Plan your route!
This can be a fun activity to include the kids in, depending on their age – E. enjoys looking at the map key and looking for the symbols that she can recognise. We spot the difference between different roads, find footpaths, churches and carparks. We then look for footpaths and ways we can go round in a circle, or involve a particular place that we want to visit. Here I try and make a note of any areas that may be of interest – rivers, historical buildings, villages, hills, forests etc. – more on this later!
It is great to work out how long the walk will be by using a piece of string to follow your planned route, and then measure the length against the scale indicator on the map and calculate how many miles it is going to be. You can look at the contour lines and see how steep hills are, identify rivers, forests and potential picnic spots. To get into orienteering even further you can use grid references to pinpoint locations, note likely landmarks to keep an eye out for, and introduce compass skills! Navigating is such a useful skill, and adds all the more excitement to an adventure if they can find their own way. I personally love the challenge of relearning these skills, and am grateful for the opportunity to keep on learning and practising myself.
For the grownups, I have found it important to plan where and when (ish) we will have our picnic, where to park, how long the route will be and how many hills we will have to climb. Do you need change for the carpark? (Post lock down) are there any key places for a hot chocolate or an ice cream? )More importantly, if Grandad is coming, is there a pub half way round?!
Finally; don’t keep the planning just to the route you are going to take – what is the weather forecast? The tide times? What time does the sun go down?
We have found that damp or drizzly weather is best suited to woodland walks where you barely notice the rain at all! Sunshine and no wind to coastal cliffs, or manageable peaks. If it is really hot then either the sea or a river is a must for a quick dip at lunchtime. To keep walks enjoyable you only want to take what you will need, and not burden yourself with unnecessary weight or cumbersome clothing. It goes with out saying a warm and dry child is a lot happier than a cold soggy one! (This works for mummy’s too). Layers are key, spare socks – these work well for wet feet or cold hands, spare clothes (if you have accident prone toddlers like me) and the right outer wear for the weather. Knowing tide times can avoid lengthy diversions if walking coastal areas, and whilst racing the sun set home can motivate lagging feet, you don’t want to end up walking in the dark!
2. The Picnic
Possibly the most important part of a walk. It certainly is for E. A good picnic fuels you for the rest of the way round, and entices little feet at the start. I recommend packing more than you would usually have for lunch – fresh air and exercise increases the appetite, and having lots of little snack options means that you can bribe flagging spirits with pit stops on the way round. Involving little hands at this stage is also a good idea, although we have found the element of surprise acts as more of a motivator, and stops the “can I have my apple yet?” brand of pestering as soon as you set off.
There’s nothing like stopping and dolling out individual parcels and packages to the right recipients and eagerly uncovering what’s inside. I still treasure memories of picnics as a child where we would have squished cheese rolls (that always tasted better than a cheese sandwich at home) boiled eggs, and a penguin – all of which we only ever had on picnics and never at home where we were more or less banned from eating sugar. At the moment we favour homemade sausage rolls, pickles, nuts and fruit – all easily handled by A. and quickly gobbled up. I am lucky that N. enjoys making exciting sarnies, but I love to branch out with salads and add foraged goodies we can look for on the way during the spring and summer.
A couple of times we have failed to plan where to stop for our lunch, and have ended up tired, hangry and miserable by the time we have found somewhere suitable to sit and eat. Now I try to factor in a place to stop, eat, and play half way round and it makes all the difference for everyone taking part! Forests, streams and beaches all give a space for little ones to play, whilst you can sit back and soak up the surroundings (and eat secret chocolate). It is important for us to make sure there is no impending danger (i.e. cliff edges, deep water etc.) so A. can enjoy some hands free exploring, on top of the usual requirements for shelter and sunshine.
3. Points of interest
Identified when planning your route, it may worth doing a bit of research of the area you are walking through – we have discovered the ruins of old mines, bronze age carvings, and old flour mills right on our doorstep, but the workings of locks on canals, old industrial wharfs, and ancient gravestones are just as interesting. You don’t have to turn walks into school time, but having history and nature right there in front of you to touch and climb on is an irresistible opportunity to learn, and we like being able to expand on the natural inquisitiveness and questions that arise. We never have all of the answers, but it is always fun to have something to research when we get home.
I have found great delight learning about different trees and birds, and have even discovered a love for foraging through our adventures. We now have a small library of reference books, and having plants and sea life to forage for dinner just adds to the excitement of a walk. We take swatch books or small pocket guides to help us identify what we find, and I have a small sketch book which I make notes and quick sketches in. By researching more when we get home we get to learn together, and I’m building a lovely nature journal along the way that I hope stays in our family for generations. Looking around as you go, there is always a myriad of things to discover in the great outdoors, which all help to maintain focus and interest on a long slog.
4. Games and Songs (Cheerleading support)
Little legs get tired, and there will be times where a little cheer leading is needed to raise spirits and keep everyone moving. We use games such as ‘I spy’, ‘I went the moon (shops)…’ ‘the path is lava’ and treasure hunts. Or we play pretend games like pretending to ride horses, or being Bear Grylls (N. gives an extra dimension with his impressions). Not to sound too much like Julie Andrews, but a good sing song always cheers flagging spirits! We take it in turns to sing songs, or sing counting songs together (like ones they would learn at school or nursery). You may get strange looks from people you pass, but I have found that bolstering enthusiasm like this is much more effective than cajoling or chivvying along. You could also prepare treasure hunts or bingo cards for things that they are likely to find or spot along the route. By letting E. take her camera along, we are able to keep her going looking for new shots, and also get an amazing array of photos at the end.
5. Keep it short
The key idea here is to keep the walk enjoyable for everyone – by keeping the walks short you allow time for natural play and exploration, for splashes in rivers, rope swings and rock climbing. I love to see the kids engaged in poking mud with a nice stick, or rolling down a grassy hill, and hate to be that nagging voice that is always trying to keep them moving on. There has to be some element of this, especially when doing hill climbs, but I want them to experience the freedom for exploring and adventure ‘free range’. It is good to let A. down from the sling on suitable ground – it gives him a chance to use his little legs, but also gets him used to walking distances – and it helps to wear him out!
By keeping the walks short there is no time pressure, and negates the need to finish by a certain time. There is nothing enjoyable about cheering on a 4 year old through mud and rain, knowing that the sun is setting and you have still got a couple of miles to the car! We have found that 3.5-5 miles is the ideal length for us at the moment. If we are planning on doing 5 miles, we plan to be up and out the house early in order for it to be successful.
We tend to use OS maps and a few random walking books that we have picked up from charity shops when working out our routes – you can also find lots of resources online. Our swatch books were bought from the woodland trust, and we have sought out reference books from second hand book sites. I hope you are inspired to get outside with your wee ones, do you have any tips to add to this list?