Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
It’s sweater weather! Autumn is the perfect season for a family nature walk. Orange pumpkins, crimson apples and golden hay bales are the colors and scents of fall. Get outdoors before autumn’s warmth becomes winter’s wind chill. Here are three benefits of a nature walk that will make your family want to hit the nearest nature trail…
1.) Ideal Family Entertainment
A nature walk is the ideal solution for entertaining energetic little ones. Why? Because hiking outdoors is a budget-friendly activity that kids and adults will equally enjoy.
Nature hikes can help spirited children burn energy in a healthy way — while also helping parents increase contentment and reduce stress. Research from Cornell University found that spending just 10 minutes in nature is enough to reduce both mental and physical stress – and increase feelings of happiness.
Cornell’s researchers also found that health benefits generally plateau after 50 minutes in nature. Said differently, we don’t even need to spend a full hour outside to feel nature’s benefits! Whenever we can spare 10 minutes, nature is there to heal and uplift.
Nature doesn’t charge an entry fee. With inflation at historic highs, the price is right to venture outdoors. If you live in a walkable neighborhood, that’s always an option. Most communities have plentiful trails within biking or driving distance that are completely free.
For a nominal fee, consider purchasing a state or national park pass to expand your options. Grandparents: consider taking advantage of the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass. A Lifetime Senior Pass is currently $80 and the annual pass is $20. If you’re not a senior, the rate is still reasonable: a regular annual pass is available for $80. Prices are subject to change, so check the National Park Service for current pricing.
Make about three visits to a National Park in a year’s time, and the annual pass pays for itself and saves you money over the day rate. This year, my husband and I used our annual pass to visit Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Badlands National Park. (I’ll share more on these trips soon!)
There is also a special program for fourth-graders, including homeschoolers, helping them explore America’s National Parks free of charge for a full year! Find participation rules at Every Kid Outdoors.
Tip: A park pass makes a great birthday or holiday gift. Learn more here, as some exceptions apply. Nature is a gift of entertainment that keeps giving!
2.) Effortless Education
Nature hikes are ideal for teaching kids about a myriad of topics without inciting complaints of boredom. Parents and grandparents will find that they, too, enjoy learning more about nature’s wonders.
Focus each hike around one or two of the topics below. Or, invent your own!
- Identify birds and bird calls using a field guide book and binoculars
- Identify the names of trees, flowers or seeds
- Identify different types of clouds
- Discover the nature trail’s history
In nature’s hands-on environment, kids learn quickly and enthusiastically – especially if your family does some preemptive research together before hitting the trail.
3.) Nature Walks into Your Home…
One of the benefits of a nature walk as a family ritual is the positive impact on your family culture. Over time, nature will “walk” into your home and linger, long after the hike is over.
Here are a few ways to foster a culture of outdoor play:
- Hunt for a large pinecone in your own yard or a friend’s yard (with permission). Then, have kids add peanut butter to the pinecone and roll it in birdseed. Tie a piece of yarn to the top of the pinecone and – voila! – you’ve made a mini feeder to hang outside and attract birds.
- Take a nature scavenger hunt! Give kids a piece of paper with a list of items (e.g., a cloud, a bird, a squirrel, a sunflower and a pumpkin). Assign each item points depending on the degree of difficulty to spot the item. For example, an owl might be worth 10 points and a yellow leaf worth two points. Back home, encourage kids to earn “bonus points” by researching any unusual flora or fauna they spotted that wasn’t on the list. This game encourages kids to develop keen observation skills!
- Encourage kids to collect colorful fall leaves in your yard. Help them differentiate between common deciduous trees like maples, oaks, and cottonwoods. Then, preserve the leaves by pressing them. Simply place the leaves between pieces of paper and cover with a weighted object for several days (see image below). As a kid, I enjoyed mailing colorful fall leaves to elderly relatives living in warmer climates.
Note: When hiking in a state or national park (I’ve written in detail about Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore), let kids know that they may not remove anything from the park. Help kids find ways to bring memories home without getting on the wrong side of a park ranger. For example, kids ages five to 13 may enjoy participating in the Junior Ranger program sponsored by the National Park Service.
Long-Term Benefits of a Nature Walk
Spending time with your children or grandchildren outdoors is a gift that they will treasure for a lifetime. As they grow older, they will want to spend more time outdoors on their own. And when life throws them challenges, they will always have a healthy outlet for relieving stress.
While your child may not remember every detail of a specific family outing, you never know how a single moment – such as spotting a wild animal, enjoying a spectacular sunset or discovering a unique geological feature – creates a lasting memory that they will carry in their heart forever. A memory that calls them back to the great outdoors again and again.