Nature is not closed
by Kristina Ortez and Jim O’Donnell, Taos Land Trust
We Taoseños are lucky.
Our little town is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of public land. We are rich in nature. Trails abound, empty spaces await, physical distancing is easy in our neck of the woods.
And yet there you are, in your house, being good and following the governor’s orders. And your kids are climbing the wall. Or maybe not yet, but you’re worried they will be soon … or you will be.
Luckily, all that wide-open space surrounding us is, well, wide-open, and just waiting for you. It’s time to get those kids outside.
We are both parents. Kristina has two and Jim has three. Over the years we’ve become pretty skillful in raising kids who love (sometimes!) to be outdoors. But where to begin?
When asked what she likes about the outdoors, Vida, Kristina’s daughter, says, “Everything – I mean, just like when it’s really healthy out!”
It is healthy to be outdoors. But for little kids who have never hiked in the wilds before, your backyard or your neighborhood is a good place to start. Check out our downloadable booklet of fun, educational walking routes right in town, at taoslandtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/TLT-RX-Trail-Booklet-sm-2018.pdf.
You can come up with a simple scavenger hunt to acclimate your kiddos to the outdoors in a gentle way. Can you spot a robin? What about a northern flicker? What about a worm? Find me a worm. (No, wait. Don’t eat the worm!) What animal footprints do you see? Who do you think made them and why?
Outdoor scavenger hunts get kids engaged with the good old out-of-doors. We really like this hunt that REI put together, at rei.com/blog/hike/outdoor-scavenger-hunt.
There are a wide range of online guides to help with things like bird and footprint identification. Our friends at the Cornell Ornithology Lab have some suggestions on free apps for birding with youngsters, at birds.cornell.edu/k12/best-apps-for-birding-with-kids.
Kristina’s kids really like to explore the arroyo by their house.
“I love the hills,” says Gilly. They like to slide down those hills on their butts. They can get really dusty and not a little bit dirty. We’ve turned this walk into our daily PE. We just make sure to dump out all the sand from our shoes before we come back in the house (or stamp off the snow on a wintry day before going through the door).
We know that sometimes it can be hard for parents to play. But that’s really the best way for our kids to engage in the outdoors.
Jim’s kids are a bit older: Isabella, 16, Ilan, 12, and Sky, 12. Accomplished peak-baggers by the age of 10, they also enjoy bringing a camera or tablet to take pictures on hikes. Jim’s daughter loves to sit and paint watercolors.
And these types of things even keep them busy once you get home. There is editing the pictures into a slideshow or putting filters on them, printing and creating a collage or turning paintings into illustrations for a story.
One thing Jim’s kids loved to do when they were smaller was to create a map during or after their hikes, trying to draw a route and labeling the landscape or things such as trees, lakes, rocks, creeks – things they saw along the way.
Take it easy
If you’re just starting out with hiking, keep your expectations realistic. You don’t need to climb Wheeler Peak. A half-mile or a mile is enough; and snacks, plenty of yummy snacks – a yummy treat every half-mile is a good motivator.
“The power that good snacks have over the human psyche is astounding,” says Jim’s daughter, Isabella. “When I was little I’d go anywhere as long as there was good food involved.”
We know how hard it is to find time to be in nature when everything seems so uncertain. That’s why it’s so important to keep things light and loose.
Lower your expectations for a trip outdoors and just have fun. Let yourself get a little dirty (or a lot!).
“The best thing about going for a hike is getting wet and muddy,” says Jim’s boy Ilan. “The best thing about being a kid is getting dirty.”
Don’t forget the water and to find the joy in the little things growing in your backyard or around the corner.
Nature’s not closed, but staying closer to home is the best choice.
(Used with permission, Taos Land Trust, originally published online April 2020, see taoslandtrust.org/2020/04/20.)