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Image: HIKING
Courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Club
Hiking trips offer memorable experiences for kids and adults alike. Here, some explore the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 8/10/2011 6:43:07 PM ET 2011-08-10T22:43:07

The next time you're thinking about hiring a private soccer coach, more violin lessons or a new video game, take the kids for a walk in the woods instead.

Inject a little nature on your next vacation too, even if you're heading to New York City (how about a long walk through Central Park?) or Orlando (get up close and personal with the manatees, or go fishing).

You'll all be the better for it. "Most parents want their kids to get what it is like to be fully alive, using all of your senses," explains Richard Louv, author of the best-selling book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and the just released "The Nature Principle." which has just been named to Oprah's 2011 Summer Reading List.

"Everything — critical-thinking, mental health gets better outside," Louv says. "It is as important or more important than Suzuki violin. It is enrichment that gets dismissed as recreation."

Louv is the founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network, which strives to connect families with the outdoors in new ways. His work has stimulated an international conversation about the relationship between nature and children. On the website, download a how-to guide on starting a family nature club in your community. And, if you've never camped, connect with other families that have.

I met Louv on board Lindblad Expedition's National Geographic Explorer where he was the designated Global Luminary, there to inspire discussion among guests, many of them grandparents.

Passing along memories
Too many young parents, Louv lamented, don't have the experience outdoors that baby boomer grandparents had — growing up building tree houses, running free in the woods. "Young parents don't know where to start," he said. "The baby boomer generation may be the last chance for those memories to be passed on," he says. "We need to realize that ... this may be our last and most redemptive cause."

This effort might entail taking a grandchild fishing, hiking, tide pooling in a marine sanctuary, national park or a far-flung destination. I've met multigenerational groups everywhere from Vermont's hiking trails to Mesa Verde National Park's cliff dwellings in Colorado to the Galapagos Islands.

No worries if you haven't been outdoors in years. "It is a little like riding a bike," Louv says. "It's still in there. It doesn't have to be difficult or complex."

In fact, many companies that specialize in outdoor adventures and expeditions now offer family departures to make it easy and affordable. All you need to do is show up, whether you want to explore western national parks (www.austinlehman.com), Costa Rica's rainforests (www.familyadventures.com), Africa's wildlife (www.abercrombiekent.com) or the Appalachian Trail (www.outdoors.org). Many Elderhostel trips (www.roadscholar.org) are designed for grandparents and grandchildren to explore some aspect of nature together, whether learning about whales in Quebec or dinosaurs in Utah.

These days, of course, we are all looking for activities that can help a family bond and Louv is convinced that wherever you are, "a walk in the woods can go a long way."

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Life lessons await
Don't think of getting the kids outdoors as one more chore either, he urges, but rather as a way to de-stress your family life. Studies have shown that to be the case. There are also life lessons to be learned about self-sufficiency and being part of a team.

You'll save money too. A single backpacking trip costs far less than a night in a motel and may stay with your child for years to come, suggests Sara DeLucia, the adventure programs manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which offers family adventure camps with planned activities, meals and skills building in the White Mountains and Maine. Check out their Kids Guide, which includes how-to advice and a link to trip ideas and lower rates for kids.

But what if kids — especially teens — don't want to go? "They don't want to go to school or clean their rooms either," Richard Louv observes wryly. "Don't underestimate what kids take away from experiences that they don't tell you." Parents often tell him their college kids recount fond memories of long-past camping trips that they'd complained bitterly throughout.

The Appalachian Mountain Club experts suggest that as you plan, try to think like a kid. That mountain vista at the end of the hike isn't nearly as exciting as the dead cricket on the trail. Having a repertoire of glow sticks, songs, fire-making tricks, ghost stories, knock-knock jokes, card games, harmonicas and a Frisbee can help.

So can inviting another family with kids the same ages. Especially with young kids, plan much shorter outings and have a Plan B (or C) in case of bad weather, foul moods or tired legs. We once decamped for a B&B in New Hampshire when it was pouring.

Get gear, get involved
Borrow or rent what you need from a company like REI. Have a trial run in your back yard to make sure all of your gear is working and you know how to use it.

Always ask the kids where they want to go. The more they're involved — whether planning a day hike, a weekend camping trip or a longer adventure — the more excited they'll be.

Of course, not every experience will be a winner. It never is when you're taking the kids. It might rain. Someone might fall into some cactus (yes, that happened to us). Someone may get poison ivy. But even misadventures make for good memories.

"You don't know when that transcendent moment is going to happen in a child's life," Louv suggests. "If you put them in the right place, it is more likely to happen."

Let's hope so.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2011 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Video: Backyard camping: Outdoor fun for kids

  1. Closed captioning of: Backyard camping: Outdoor fun for kids

    >>> this morning on "today's" home we're talking about camping out in your own backyard. on average, kids these days spend about eight hours a day indoors. a lot of those hours probably in front of the television set . well, the great american backyard campout aims to get kids outdoors to enjoy themselves. david is with the national wildlife federation . david , good to see you.

    >> good to see you.

    >> this is a challenge. i have a 10-year-old, 7-year-old, and 4-year-old. they love the video game , computer, and television set . that's what prompted this idea?

    >> yeah, exactly. things are really out of balance. kids are spending eight hours a day indoors in front of electronic media . it's way out of balance. they're not going outside anymore. we're seeing at the same time child ohood obesiobesity.

    >> a way of life that's being threatened, you're trying to open kids' eyes by opening the door.

    >> that's why national wildlife federation has this campout and other programs designed to get kids and families back outside.

    >> you want families at some point or another during this summer to get out and do a backyard or camping trip . and immediately people are going to think is this going to cost me a lot of money because camping equipment can be expensive.

    >> that's the whole idea behind this. while we would love it if everybody went out into the wilderness you don't have to do that. nature is right you side your door. you can do this outside your backyard.

    >> if i take my kids camping whether it's at my local camp grounds ten miles away or in my backyard, what are the fundamentals? what do i need?

    >> basic stuff. tent is a great idea. you can sleep under the stars but a tent is good to protect you from the mosquitos or if it rains. depending on how it is out, you might want to get a heavy duty sleeping bag . this will do the job.

    >> in cost, how much can you get an adequate tent for?

    >> this is a family size tent, $260. here's the great thing. rei is the national sponsor. they provided all this stuff and they rent camping equipment. if you're not ready to make that financial equipment.

    >> sleeping bags , use some kind of chair.

    >> you want to have your camp chair, cup holder to enjoy yourself .

    >> there is a little more elaborate with a table but you're showing us the equipment.

    >> campos,lantern. you want to have a first aid kit handy. but the other thing is, bring fun games. it's all about getting kids moving. outdoor time is a playtime that is so important for their health. this is a light-up bocce ball set you can play in the dark. it doesn't have to be about nature. it's about fun.

    >> you're going to have kids who may be on cold turkey from the video games they are used to playing so make sure you keep them active.

    >> a lot of parents say my kids are going to gripe and moan. it's our job to parent. it's good for their health. it's good for the family. minimize some of that screen time to get the kids back outside.

    >> great food ideas, marshmallows and hot dogs . even though we talked about hot dogs being a little bit of an issue. there is no specific date.

    >> right. it happens all summer long. the whole idea is to get people back outside. it's fun. it's good for the family. and why not.

    >> how do people find out more about how they can participate?

    >> if you go to the national wildlife federation website, they can find out how to sign up. get camping tips. information on how to get the great products, on rei, our sponsor.

    >> and don't forget you can get more information on our website as well. david , thank you so much. really appreciate it.

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