When kids have seen, felt, and interacted with nature firsthand, they’re much more likely to relate to the natural world and strive to protect it as they get older. As the NWKids columnist for OutdoorsNW, I have ample opportunity to expose my kids to wilderness in our region, but the great thing about the outdoors is how accessible it is. Teaching kids to appreciate nature while traveling is… well, natural!
Earth Day for kids should be every day: families can enhance nearly any type of travel experience with nature activities for kids ranging from extreme wilderness tours to simple nature walks. The following are our favorite ways to experience nature while traveling with kids:
1. Sleep in nature.
Even if you’re not on a camping trip, you can still sleep outdoors… or close to it. While on a road trip or traveling between major cities, do your hotel budget a favor and look for a camping alternative. For example, many state parks and private campgrounds offer nightly stays in yurts, cabins, or even teepees.
No need for full camping gear: leave the tent and sleeping bags at home, and move into one of these fun shelters for the night. They’ll include beds (and sometimes bedding), plus bathrooms (private or shared), and plenty of outdoor space. You can still eat in restaurants if you prefer, but even if you’re back on the road the next morning, your kids will have benefited from outdoor space and recreation for the night.
2. Kayak or river raft.
Kayaking and rafting are great ways to see your destination in a way not available from the road. On a recent trip to Central Oregon, a location we felt we knew well, we discovered a whole new (to us) set of lakes accessible only by kayak. Families can start on still lakes and rivers, and most locations include a guide who can help you get started.
Look for a tour company that offers half-day excursions if you have beginners in your group, and pick ‘family floats’ with kids under age five. Kids dig kayaking and river rafting because it’s more exciting than hiking, with the same explorative benefits. Our top favorite kayaking and river rafting adventures have included a family float along the Deerfield River in Massachusetts with Zoar Outdoor and kayaking Vancouver Island Canada’s Ucluelet harbor with Majestic Ocean Kayaking.
3. Seek out botanical gardens and nature preserves.
A botanical garden can serve as a family’s oasis in the middle of a busy city. When young children tire of city touring, head to a local botanical garden (or Japanese Tea Garden) to learn about local flora and fauna, listen to the peace and quiet, and relax in the grass. I guarantee your kids will immediately appreciate nature.
Botanical gardens usually offer a family entrance rate to save you money, and some allow outside food for picnics. If your destination lacks a botanical garden, find a nature preserve. (Hint: look for the big green spaces on Google Maps!) Nature preserves will often teach your kids about local wildlife, as well as community conservation efforts. Usually free, these locations will benefit from a small donation upon your departure. A few of our favorites: the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the International Rose Test Garden of Portland.
4. Horseback ride.
Many outdoor resorts, including ski resorts and off-the-beaten-path ranches, now offer horseback riding. For roughly the cost of a round of golf or a spa treatment, you can introduce your kids to the cowboy (or girl) lifestyle — for a few hours. We love horseback riding while on vacation because it accomplishes two important goals: fun family time in a memorable way, and the chance to see more of the outdoors up-close.
As a bonus, tour wranglers are often experts on their destination, giving you the scoop on everything from local wildlife to the best burger in town. Our favorite horseback riding operations have included those at Brasada Ranch in Oregon and Blue Sky Ranch in Utah.
5. Mountain bike.
Mountain biking is an expensive way to enjoy the outdoors if you buy your own bikes and equipment, but surprisingly affordable to rent for the day at most local bike shops (whether you’re on vacation or at home). Because you can’t always mountain bike on pedestrian trails (but sometimes can), it’s important to pick up a cycling trail map where you rent your bikes. If you want to go extreme, try gravity-based mountain biking at a ski resort in summer. It’s one of the activities my kids (and I) have enjoyed most in the past few years!
No matter where you travel, it’s likely that at least one of the above activities will be available to you, helping you introduce your kids not only to the joy of traveling, but the joy of caring for the earth.
What outdoor activities do you encourage in your kids, whether at home or while traveling? What has been your most memorable outdoor experience?