Adventure travel can be a scary and exhausting activity for young kids. That is, unless you make a concerted effort to get the littlest little ones excited about that next backcountry family trip.
My wife and 10-month-old jetted off to Denver this past weekend, leaving the 3-year-old and me on our own for three days of adventures. We hit the local farmers market. We ate (too many) French fries. We stayed up way too late.
Without question, the highlight of our time was a visit to Muir Woods National Monument, inspired by the Exit The Highway challenge from Toyota and the National Audubon Society. Knowing it’d be a long day (the park is a 75-mile drive from our home; once there, we hiked four miles), I spent the better part of the weekend planning how to get L excited. Here, in no particular order, is a rundown of some of the tactics I used to make the day memorable for both of us.
Focus on the journey
Under normal traffic conditions, it takes us about 90 minutes each way to get to Muir Woods, so I knew I’d have to make the journey part of the fun. To do this, we leveraged mile-markers to practice counting, and made up poems about the cars we passed (Big brown truck//You’re like a duck//Your engine stack//Makes sounds like quacks). It also helped that we took my wife’s Toyota Prius; the dashboard computer gave me the opportunity to explain to L how much energy we used, how much we generated and how much we had saved.
Make learning fun
Any teacher will tell you that there’s more than one way to share knowledge. The best option is to disguise learning as something else. Instead of having L repeat the scientific name for coast redwoods, I turned the name (Sequoia sempervirens) into a song. Instead of trying to explain that redwood communities are connected underground, I likened them to mommies and daddies and sisters snuggling under the covers. By the end of the day, she was pointing out burls to strangers. She had no clue she had learned so much.
With our culture of instant gratification, we grownups have been socialized to move quickly. Kids aren’t like that (at least not yet). Whenever L wanted to linger over a leaf or bridge or particularly nice view, I let her, asking her to describe what she saw and why she wanted to spend so much time appreciating it. We spent 20 minutes watching bugs on the surface of a creek. In that time, she made up four different stories—about the bugs swimming, looking for food, cleaning their bug-hair and wishing to become “mer-bugs.”
Reward hard work
All of these new adventures can get be exhausting for little ones. With this in mind, it’s always a good idea to provide incentives for adventuresome behavior. I made my offer clear at the trailhead: For every 15 minutes of hiking, L would receive one M&M. Whenever she complained about being tired, a simple reminder of the reward system made the drama disappear. At the end of the hike, when we returned to the trailhead, I ripped out a celebratory granola bar. The surprise helped her revel in her accomplishment.
Our Muir Woods adventure didn’t end when we left the park; that night, after dinner, I ripped out a trail map I grabbed from a ranger station and retraced our hiking route with L. At various points along the map, I quizzed her about what she remembered. Later, we hit the Kindle Fire and pulled up pictures of John Muir himself. Finally, during tub-time, we repeated the Sequoia Sempervirens song, just for the heck of it. She woke up the next morning asking when we could “go to see more trees.” That curiosity alone made all of my efforts worthwhile.
What are some of your techniques for getting kids to love adventure travel? I’d love to hear, so please leave a comment.