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Franklin Falls winter route. Photo by Devanee Chapman.

How to Raise Kids Who Care for Trails

4 tips to help your kids have fun hiking — and share a feeling of stewardship. By Devanee Chapman.

“Remember, don’t throw rocks when someone is standing in front of you,” I told my kids and their buddies while standing on the shores of Wynoochee Lake this summer. We were camping at the Coho Campground with friends who had never heard this rule before. My father said it countless times to my brother and me, and he was pretty passionate about this warning. You see, when my dad was younger, he was hit in the back of the head with a rock and required stitches, and he didn’t want it to happen to us. While I never personally experienced this injury, I realize my dad was passing on information to keep us kids from getting hurt or hurting others. And all these years later, I was telling other people about my dad’s rock rule. This transfer of information is natural when considering the safety and care of a loved one, but is it just as natural to pass on information to our kids that will lead them to take care of the outdoors? 

Raising kids who care for the outdoors is an important goal for parents, grandparents, friends and caretakers to work toward. Everyone, including children, can play a critical role in keeping the outdoors beautifully usable right now and for the future. Here’s how to pass that responsibility along.

A family of hikers smile from a scenic overlook.
Getting outside with your kids is a beautiful way to connect. While you’re out there, you’re also helping build the next generation of stewards. Burroughs Loop Trail at Mount Rainier. Photo by Devanee Chapman.

Time outside (opportunity)

In order for kids to care about the outdoors, they need to be immersed in it. As adults, we know the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of spending a few hours on a hike, searching for glorious wildflowers or taking time off to go camping with some of your favorite people. Children also greatly benefit while they explore in outdoor spaces and take time away from screens, enjoy unstructured play and use decision-making skills in nature. 

We saw this just the other day as my husband and I prepared for a hike at Chinook Pass. We told our kids we’d be doing something “fall-ish” for the afternoon, which they assumed would be a pumpkin patch. Much to their dismay, we were headed out to Crystal Lakes to look for fall foliage while we hiked.  

They were cranky in the vehicle, but after a bit of hiking, the woeful whining turned into “whoas.” They had to navigate downed trees, talus fields, hornets’ nests and dusty trails. They gawked at red, yellow and orange leaves and admired the views of the layered peaks and mountain goats in the distance. They had to persevere and share water bottles and encourage each other. 

One of our kids, who was the most disappointed originally, even asked if we could visit the mountains daily!  This is just one example of the many times we’ve seen big changes in our own children’s attitudes as they were surrounded by nature. When we give children the opportunity to be outdoors and connect with nature, they will be more likely care for such a place.

A string of children hike along the rugged coastline in jackets.
Rialto Beach on the way to Hole-in-the-Wall. Photo by Devanee Chapman.

Knowledge about the outdoors (know-how)

Much like my dad taught me about not throwing rocks or how to fish or spot wildlife, we have an opportunity to impart knowledge of the outdoors to kids. There is a vast amount of info to be learned while outside — from how to use a compass or read a map, to how to build a fire or identify birds. 

Something as simple as repeating the Leave No Trace principles can make an impact far beyond your own family. Same goes for teaching children about trail etiquette or trail care. While spitting gum on the ground, feeding wildlife or cutting switchbacks may not seem like a big deal to a child, we teach them that these habits can cause bigger problems for the future. We want them to leave the trail better than they found it. 

As adults, if we take the time to model appropriate behavior, then kids will learn what makes a better outdoor space for all. So we get to teach them. We can read signs at the trailhead that explain permits or warnings about bears. We can read signs on the trail, such as “Closed for Restoration,” explaining the meaning of big words and pointing out the loss of vegetation from foot traffic. We can remind everyone to stay on the path, yield to uphill traffic or not touch wildlife, no matter how tempting it is. Those cute chipmunks and ground squirrels begging during a snack break shouldn’t be feed by humans, even though they’re hard to resist. We teach kids to be respectful of other hikers on trail and remind them the trail is for everyone. 

Most of these concepts need to be taught because people naturally want to do the opposite. (It’s understandable that kids want to feed chipmunks!) Teaching kids about the outdoors and how to conduct themselves is more significant than we may think.

A family in winter apparel smiles in front of a frozen waterfall.
Franklin Falls. Photo by Devanee Chapman.

Fun outdoors (keep them coming back) 

People care for what they love, and we want kids to love the outdoors. As a teacher, I know a key is fun. Kids want fun. Thankfully, we don’t have to try too hard to make outdoor spaces pleasing and attractive to kids. 

We recently went to Mount St. Helens and our kids found the lava tubes exciting. Before entering the tubes, everyone was asked to brush off their shoes to protect the bats. Instead of being irritated at this, our kids were curious and did it willingly, because who doesn’t want to make a game out of who can brush their feet the fastest on big bushy brushes? The Ape Caves were fascinating with the cool breezes and darkness requiring headlamps, but our kids really loved the tiny lava tube they named “The Crawl.” They said it was the most fun “hike” ever.

We want kids to think about time outdoors fondly. So how do you make it fun? Here are a few simple ideas: Let them help with the firepit. Have traditions like making s’mores while camping. Play games while hiking (for example, guess the animal in 20 questions or less) or sing songs in the car on road trips. Making memories and having fun is important. More ideas include plant or animal identification, knot tying, camp cooking or the like. Ask your kids what’s “fun” to them when outside; they will definitely give you some super ideas. The more fun they have, the more likely they are to want to care for those spaces.

Four children hike down a sunny trail in single file.
Finding larches on the Ingalls Lake Trail. Photo by Devanee Chapman.

Ownership outdoors (take action)

Every kid can be an outdoor enthusiast, and they can also be an outdoor advocate. When my family of six hikes, we attract a lot of attention and get all sorts of positive comments from fellow hikers. 

“Wow, looks like you have the whole crew out today, great job!” and “This is a hard hike, good-on-ya for being out here today!” 

Those kind words help our kids keep going and also feel like they belong there. I’ve noticed once kids feel connected with the outdoors, they care more about it. They have more gratitude when seeing fish in the lakes and or herds of elk crossing the road. They see problems at trails and ask questions. All too often while hiking with our kids, we see trash along the trails. We talk about these issues with our kids and pack out our own trash, but to go one step further and take ownership, bring a trash bag, gloves and help clean up other trash. 

Help your kids feel empowered to take care and take action. If your child sees a problem and wonders about a solution, take a moment to brainstorm together.

Ask, “What are ways to make it better?” You might want to encourage and empower your kids to use their voice and contact government officials. Whether they notice shortcomings in the care and upkeep of public lands or want more to be done for our wild spaces or wildlife, let them know they can contact federal, state and local officials by letter, email or phone call. For more details on elected officials, go to www.usa.gov/elected-officials to learn their names and how to communicate with them. 

No matter how young your children are, they can make a huge impact on our world as they work together for the greater good.

A family of hikers smile next to an alpine lake at golden hour.
Upper Crystal Lake at Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by Devanee Chapman.

We know raising kids who care for the outdoors is important for today and tomorrow! Once kids are in the outdoors, gaining knowledge and having fun, they will take ownership of the outdoors. If we teach our kids how to care for the outdoors now, they will grow up to be leaders and advocates for the outdoors, sharing what they’ve learned with other adventure seekers in the future. 

Devanee is an elementary PE teacher. Hiking is her outdoor activity of choice and she hopes to inspire families to get outside. Find her on Instagram at @nextfamilyadventures.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.