“HOW ON EARTH DO YOU GET YOUR children to walk?” This is a question friends often ask me when we return to our normal life after a weekend walking in the Brecon Beacons or a family holiday to the Lake District. One would think that for able-bodied bipedal primates such as us, walking is as easy and natural as it comes. But many parents struggle to share a cheerful day’s walk in the countryside with their children. Whining, unhappy children and grumpy, careworn parents do not make for joyful family time. Many families have been put off taking walks altogether, and this is a great shame because the British countryside has so much to offer. Plus, once you have some basic gear, it’s a free, fun activity. There are some great family walks out there and plenty of ideas for helping children and adults to enjoy them together… without the whining.
Walking in the countryside, through woods scented with wild garlic and over hills covered with blooming heather, has been my most treasured pastime. Before children, my husband and I would don our stiff walking boots, cracked with age and mud, and head out into the wilderness for a day, taking little with us but a few sandwiches and a flask of tea. Much of this changed when I became pregnant and found in the later weeks that breathlessness and sore hips slowed me down and limited what I could do. Later we found that walking with our children wasn’t so straightforward. One of the many changes that came with having children was that our love of walking had to be adjusted quite a lot to accommodate the needs of little ones.
So what can a parent do to help children relish a chance to walk in the countryside? First of all, you don’t need any experience to go for a walk: perhaps this will be a new activity for the entire family. Starting early introduces walking to children as a normal part of family life. Walking to school, to the local shops and to visit friends are our children’s first forays into understanding a walk as not just getting from point A to point B, but also a joy in itself.
dress for the weather!
If you want to try taking your children out into the countryside for walks, there are lots of things you can do to make it easier for them and for you. Firstly, choose your clothing carefully. You don’t need to look like a professional, but it does help to have some waterproof jackets and overtrousers (these can be balled up quite small and kept in the bottom of a rucksack if not needed). Not only do these help in the rain, but also in windy weather. You don’t have to have specialist walking boots, but they certainly help. Wellies are good to start with, but you’d be amazed what a difference a pair of walking boots can do to help your child go that little bit further. Depending on the weather, you may want a sun hat, suncream and midge spray or possibly a winter hat, gloves and scarf. Remember what you learned in Scouts: dress in lightweight layers because British weather can change very quickly. Be prepared!
using a sling
If you have a baby or a child under the age of three or four, you may want to consider a sling or baby carrier. While your toddler may walk for part of the journey, she will probably want to be carried as well. A good sling or carrier can help you all to enjoy your walk. When babies are small they’re happiest on their parents’ fronts, perhaps in a cloth wrap or mei tai sling under a partially-zipped up coat. As they grow older, a soft carrier like an Ergo carrier or Kinderpak may be appropriate. Little Life (littlelife.co.uk) also make a selection of baby and child carriers that are specially suited for hiking. These may include a sun shade, waterproof cover and space to carry a picnic and other essentials. If you prefer to use a buggy, check out the resources section for a superb website listing buggy-friendly walks.
games and treasure hunts
For adults, a walk in the countryside can be interesting for the peace and tranquility it brings. Children may expect just a little bit more from a walk, especially at first. Try walking with another family with similaraged children or invite one of your child’s friends to join you. Choose a route that has something of special interest to aim for: a hilltop with a trig point, a stream with stepping stones, a mountain tarn or loch for skipping stones, wild foods to forage, shells to find, or perhaps a sculpture trail to follow—all of these can keep a child’s interest going. When our children were really young, my husband would run ahead with a few chocolate coins in his pocket and after hiding them behind a tree stump we’d have a game of searching for the hidden treasure! Sometimes having a little distraction can help children keep walking when they start to feel the grumbles coming on. Consider putting together a bingo card before a walk, asking your child to place a tick or a sticker on each item she spots: a pine cone, a robin, a cloud shaped like a tortoise. The ideas are only limited by your imagination! Usborne books produces some great Spotters Guides, complete with stickers, and a membership to the RSPB’s Wildlife Explorers can help families to learn more about wildlife.
making it an adventure
Geocaching is a great way to get gadgetminded kids into walking: using a handheld GPS device, families can search for treasures hidden by fellow geo-cachers in the countryside. Follow the coordinates and instructions on the device to find a small hidden box; bring a toy or a pen to put inside, sign a little book to say you’ve ‘been there’ and take away a little something for yourself. Letting children take turns holding the GPS and following the arrows is a great way to keep the excitement high. Older children might like to bring a camera to document their walk and make a scrapbook later at home. Finally, some good old-fashioned games, songs and rhymes are brilliant for giving little legs renewed strength. Some of our favourites include I-spy, coffee pot and the rhyme “We’re going on a bear hunt”. For ideas, check out Parlour Games for Modern Families.
Even though my husband and I took many long walks together as a couple, we have now had to adjust our expectations and do what suits the whole family. We know what sorts of walks our children can do. Consider your own child’s experience and take it easy to start with. If your children are older, you might enjoy choosing a walk together. You could get a map and plan where you are going to go, working out what terrain and level of difficulty to expect. The Forestry Commission has some great short, well-signposted walks through their woodlands and they produce leaflets for these, which you can obtain through local tourist information centres. Furthermore, there are many books available for various popular places like Devon, the Lake District and Snowdonia. You may like a 1 mile buggy-friendly walk to begin with, or perhaps a satisfying three mile circular is better for your family. A pub, shop or café partway through the walk is a brilliant point to aim for and it means that everyone will get a chance to recharge their batteries (do check first that it will be open!). The Ramblers Association produces some useful books called Walks with a Point, which sets out routes of varying length, all of which include a pub or historical landmark that you can visit on the way.
food to fuel the family
Whether you plan to have a pub lunch or you’re bringing a picnic to eat en route, be prepared to bring enough high-energy snacks to sink a battleship, and perhaps a few treats to keep the enthusiasm going. Good-quality cereal bars, popcorn, cheese and biscuits, bananas, and nuts and seeds with mixed dried fruit and chocolate chips are all great energysustaining snacks. And for those moments when nothing else will suffice, a few squares from a big bar of chocolate are guaranteed to bring smiles back to my children’s faces when I’ve said “We’re nearly there” for the hundredth time.
through a child’s eyes
Since having children, my walks in the countryside are not the same as they used to be. But they have taken on a different complexion. Observing the flight and soul-lifting song of a rising skylark; laughing at each others’ purple hands and chins as we pick wild blueberries together; weaving daisy chains while we eat a picnic in front of a breathtaking view: all of these are fantastic experiences that I treasure with my family. By being prepared and, most importantly, giving my children plenty of encouragement, my husband and I have been able to give our children a truly precious gift: a love of walking.
want to know more?
Geocaching sites geocaching.com
Forestry Commission walking website: forestry.gov.uk/walking
The Ramblers Association walking with children: getwalking.org/ walking-for-children-and-families
Walks with Buggies (includes a searchable database): walkswithbuggies.com
RSPB Wildlife Explorers: rspb.org.uk/youth
what to read
Parlour Games for Modern Families by Myfanwy Jones tinyurl.com/parlourgame
1001 Great Family Walks tinyurl. com/aafamilywalks
London Adventure Walks for Families tinyurl.com/adventureforfamilies
Usborne Spotters Guides tinyurl. com/uspottersguides
Yoga teacher Lisa Hassan Scott relishes being outdoors with her husband and three young children, especially if a picnic is involved, and blogs at lisahassanscott.co.uk