Really want to appreciate nature? Hike with a toddler or preschooler!

by Auntie Shelley

I have always considered myself a nature lover.  I grew up in northern Ontario and most of my childhood was spent in the outdoors.  I wanted the same thing for my children, so it's not a surprise that when Anna was a baby one of our first purchases was the MEC Happytrails Child Carrier.  We lived in Vancouver at the time and she spent hours in that carrier while I hiked through forests, over mountains, and along rivers.  The scenery was spectacular and I loved being out in nature.  It was great and as a new mom I felt like I had this "outdoor adventure mom thing" down.  

Then she learned how to walk.  All of a sudden our hikes changed.  She wanted to explore and was less content to spend hours in the carrier.  Of course I wanted to encourage her to be active and enjoy nature, so I let her out of her carrier.  I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I quickly learned that there's "hiking" and then there's "toddler hiking."

If you've been out with a toddler or preschooler you can probably relate to what "hiking" with a toddler or preschooler is like.  Less than 100 metres on the trail and she's already stopped 37 times, picked up 12 rocks (all of which Mom has to hold because they are "special"), stomped in a puddle, then backtracked to stomp in the one she missed, picked up a snail, picked up stick, picked up another stick, passed the first stick off to Mom because she's found a third stick, backtracked to check out a leaf, picked up a very large slimy slug and held it right up to Mom's nose so Mom can get a closer look, oh wait! what's that tiny spec over there on that log??  You get the idea.

If I'm perfectly honest, initially I really did not enjoy these "hikes" with my toddler.  I found them insanely boring because most of the time I ended up standing around while Anna explored and got really muddy (seriously, that girl could find mud in a desert).  For me, enjoying nature had become synonymous with physical exertion.  Hiking, paddling, climbing, etc.  Standing around looking at slugs wasn't really top on my list of outdoor adventures.

However, I wanted to foster a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural environment in my child, so I let her explore.  Actually she didn't really give me a choice.  It was that or spend hours walking through the forest with a child in a carrier screaming "Me down!! I walk! I walk!" while simultaneously pulling on my pony tail.  What I didn't anticipate was that by allowing my child to explore at her own pace and in her own way, she would in turn foster my own sense of wonder and curiosity about nature.  

Exploring nature with my toddler gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to actually observe nature.  She noticed things that I never had.  Have you ever taken the time to examine  mushrooms, lichen, or moss up close?  I hadn't.  Turns out they're beautiful.

And tree bark?  It's amazing!

What about rocks?  

Or bugs for that matter? How can such delicate wings keep a dragon fly airborne?

Not only did she notice little things that I would have missed, she asked questions about everything she found.  What was that?  Why are that plant's roots "hairy"? Why does that have spots?  How do leaves rot?  Why is this slug so slimy?  Why is there foam on that water? Why is that water a different colour?  What's that bug's name?  What bird just made that sound?  Did that snail just poop?  I was surprised by how little I really knew about the natural world and soon found myself signing out every field guide at the library.  I found myself asking more questions about nature.  I found myself slowing down, stepping off the trail, and checking out what was living under logs.  Exploring nature with my toddler restored a sense of awe and wonder about creation that I didn't even realize had been lost.  

So if you really want to appreciate nature, throw some field guides in your pack and head out for a hike with your toddler or preschooler.  Let him or her lead the way and embrace the slower pace.  It still counts as an adventure!

Oh, and if you don't have a little one of your own don't worry,  you can always borrow one from a friend.  Parents of toddlers and preschoolers always appreciate an afternoon off.

P.S.  If you're interested in learning more about nature with your kids, check out our reading list for some suggestions.  My all time favourite is Anna Botsford Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study.  You can check it out online here.   This book was written years ago as a guide for teachers who had little knowledge about the natural environment.  It's almost 900 pages long and I routinely bring it with me on day hikes because it's just that great.