(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 22, 2008. We are re-airing it to celebrate this year's Earth Day. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

Many a dad or mom has taught a youngster that bike riding can be safe and fun by running alongside the novice biker. Let's "run alongside" the novice naturalist. Earth Day is a good reason for a family hike to introduce children to nature, foster their love of the natural world and teach them how to explore it safely.

ImageGreat parks are everywhere

Maybe you have your own private natural paradise to explore. For the rest of us, there are parks and open spaces maintained by cities, counties, provinces, states and federal governments. Plan a hike by searching the internet as you sip your morning coffee. Park websites give you the lowdown on facilities (even handicapped accessible areas), trails, fees (usually minimal,) hours and special events. No doubt lovely photos will entice you as well. You'll have to consider a few variables in your choice- distance from home, the age and physical condition of the hikers, and how much time you want to spend for example. Some web pages may even have an activity to keep the youngest hikers busy while you make preparations. Click here to visit U.S. National Park Service's Find a Park page. Click here for the National Parks of Canada home page. Click here for Commonwealth Parks and Reserves of Australia.

Getting ready at home

Dress for success. For a family nature walk, light layered clothes work well. Conditions often end up being a bit warmer or cooler in the wild than outside your door. Everyday athletic shoes are fine for the trail, "water sport" sandals are great in a stream. Bug repellant is advised to keep those many-legged friends from getting too friendly. Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen may be called for too. Provide your backwoods crew with a reasonable meal before setting out, or stop to eat on the way, so everybody has lots of energy.

What to take on the trail

Your choice of items to take on the excursion can vary greatly with the season, length of the hike, weather and ages of your walkers. Consider carrying these things, but the shorter the planned walk, the less you have to take.

One or more light back packs or fanny packs can carry:Image

  • Water and snacks
  • Trail map- might be able to downlaod from website
  • Basic first-aid kit
  • Cell phone, for emergency use only, not for texting the friends!
  • Digital camera
  • Magnifying glass
  • Light binoculars
  • Small notebook and pencil
  • Grocery-store plastic bag (but not to bring home "nature's treasures"- I'll tell you later)

And if you're driving to a park you can store these in the vehicle in case you return hot, dirty, and exhausted- in other words having had a wonderful time:

  • Old towel or two
  • Rinse water for hands or muddy shoes
  • Hand soap or hand sanitizer
  • Dry clothes if you'll be near natural water
When you get to the park

Stop in at the visitor center if there is one. A friendly ranger or volunteer will be happy to show you around and has trail maps and information brochures ready. There will likely be "found" items on display to touch and talk about, and maybe even a few live local creatures in a tank or cage to greet you. Now is also the time to make sure you are aware of anything you might run across that could ruin your day, like poison ivy or decidedly unfriendly creatures. Be aware to be prepared.

Pick a trail and let's get hiking!Image

Let the exploration begin. I don't know a child who needs prompting to use his or her keen skills of observation. It's a given that they will see things they have never seen before. The first "Hey, look at that!" often occurs right next to the parking area; be prepared for many, many more. Biology, botany and geology conspire to provide a sensory feast. You might encourage the observation a bit with an impromptu scavenger hunt. Issue a challenge: spot a mushroom, find the biggest leaf, name this tree. Gardeners in the group will be on the lookout for indiginous plants that might be used in their own landscapes at home.

Take pictures, leave footprintsImage

A motto of most parks is that visitors will "take only pictures and leave only footprints." Especially in honor of Earth Day, we want to preserve these flowers, fungi, trees and rocks as we found them, so future visitors will have an equally delightful experience. Teach the kids that anything special is to be enjoyed as is and left in place. This is where the ‘grocery store plastic bag' comes in. You may wish to honor Earth Day by picking up and taking away some trash you come across. Sadly, few woods walks, around here at least, are finished before finding a few recyclable cans left by the less enlightened visitor.

"Leave no trace" of your passing through; do not carve on tree bark as someone did here years ago

Instead of making the memory last with a physical souvenir, you might pull out the notebook and pencil, or camera. Refresh your sketching skills, or take some notes, as prompts. Later, you can use a field guide, or the internet, to try and identify a dainty wildflower, or learn more about some interesting rocks. Sketching and photography can give older siblings a more challenging activity to occupy them while young ones turn rocks in search of crayfish.Image

Not just about seeing and feeling, a walk is for DOING

Foot travel in the natural world abounds with challenges big and small. Walkers may encounter rough terrain or small streams to be crossed on rocks. Without a second thought, your family exercises its problem solving skills, communication, cooperation and trust. Hills must to be climbed, and raced up if there are siblings. How many other activities can you name that keep your whole family moving and involved together? And while the bodies are moving, so are the brains. Questions flow and range from the simple "can I eat these berries?" ("No") to the complex "What would it have been like to live right here two hundred years ago?" ("Well, for one thing...")

And the best part of all...

is being together alone as a family. I am not a skilled enough writer to really describe the peace of being away from all the distractions of daily life and together with each other. The natural environment is the best anti-stress medication around*. You appreciate each other's strengths and skills, applaud your little group victories against slippery rocks, and watch out for each other as you string out along the trail. Getting away from it all gets you closer to each other.

Aren't there hazards?

Well, yes. But so far we've survived fifteen years and three kids worth of hikes with hardly more than a badly bumped knee, a few scratches, and a few more soaked tennis shoes. Of course, parents sometimes have to draw the line with their little trailblazers. We've found that our kids are actually pretty good at assessing their skills, even while we sit on the stream bank holding our breath. What a lesson for a kid in being responsible for one's own safety! Believe me, soon enough that kid will be driving a car!

Park officials do make reasonable attempts to advise families of possible hazards. Just use common sense, be aware, and if you carry a cell phone, you can call for help from almost anywhere in a true emergency.

Time to head home to reality
So you've had a fulfilling few hours. Open the vehicle, get out the snacks or fresh drinking water, rinse off or clean up a bit, maybe stop on the way home for a milkshake. I hope your Earth Day visit to a park will begin a lifetime habit of family hikes for fun. Congratulations on honoring Earth day and starting or continuing a wonderful family pastime.

* A Google search for nature relax yielded about 892,000 results.

Photographs used were taken at public parks in Maryland by the author or her children. The German phrase appeared in a "German Word-a-Day" calendar.