What better way to spend quality time with your grandkids and get in touch with nature than a fresh, invigorating walk in the woods, along a river, or the beach? What’s more, family hikes make for fun learning opportunities for grandkids and grandparents alike. So try some of these hiking activities with your youngsters.
A Stone is a Stone is a…Mineral?
Go on an excursion to learn about rocks and minerals. Shorelines offer a variety of stones. Before you go, learn which rocks and minerals are abundant in the area, and have everyone choose several to scout for. Take along a small plastic container with dividers, a descriptive rock and mineral guide, and a magnifying glass for viewing the colors, layers, and details. As you identify stones and minerals, discuss their uses and other neat facts.
Sounds of Nature
Wander through a forest and listen carefully for a variety of bird and animal sounds. Before you go, visit your library for a DVD or audio CD of birds and wild animal calls. Then download an audio recorder on your phone and carry it on your hike to record some of the sounds you hear. Listen to the recording again at home and play a game of detective to determine the source of the sounds you can’t make out. Search the Internet, encyclopedias, and books to discover the makers of the mystery calls.
Capture nature’s splendor. Hiking trails provide plenty of photo opportunities, and kids will love snapping the shots. Discuss in advance what each person wants to photograph, such as a huge oak tree, a monarch butterfly, deer tracks, or a close-up of a nibbling squirrel. When you get home, print out the best photos, and create a nature scrapbook with them.
These giants of nature are not only intriguing because of their size but also because of their many variations. Borrow some books on trees from your library that describe the unique features of trees and their history. Use clues such as the shape of the leaves, texture of bark, and size of the trunk to identify the kind of tree.
Which Way do we Go?
Roam the countryside and teach your grandchildren directional skills such as how to read a map and use a compass or the sun to determine direction. Before setting out, choose a trail system that provides maps, or make up your own. Take a trail that branches off several times, allowing for plenty of skill-building opportunities. For even more fun, turn the excursion into a treasure hunt. Hide a small prize just off the trail under a bush or pile of leaves, mark the location on your map, and let the journey begin.
Animals all Around
Take a quiet hike in a wooded area with grassy clearings, and see how many animals you meet. Watch for snakes, turtles, and geese if there’s a nearby lake or stream. Also, look for chipmunks and squirrels playing chase or gathering food; birds of prey circling overhead; or grazing rabbits and deer. Discuss the animal’s unique characteristics and how those qualities help or hinder the animal. Talk about what the animals eat, their shelters, and species they are related to. Also, keep eyes peeled for animal tracks to identify and determine how recently they were made.
Creepy Crawly Things
Scouting for insects is an all-time favorite among kids, and the variety of creepy-crawly creatures in the woods is remarkable. Carry an insect book, clear container, tweezers, and a magnifying glass for close examination of insects’ fascinating features. Bring a journal and track the types of insects you find. Read about insects’ defense behaviors and characteristics such as colors that indicate danger to predators.
Plant Life, Old and New
Discover with your grandkids the fantastic diversity of plant life. Before you head out, review some books on plants to spark your grandchildren’s interest. On each hiking trip, choose a different trail or area and see what plants grow in certain types of soil, climates, and in each season. As you inspect plants, look for their seeds, and notice the variations. Talk about how seeds travel by blowing in the wind or catching on the fur of animals. Carefully brush away the ground cover and look for seeds that have sprouted their roots that will soon develop into a new plant or tree. Learn how individual plants have evolved to have natural defenses to protect against creatures that would otherwise devour them.
Where to Find Trails
You might be surprised to discover nearby trails that you never knew existed. Check with city, county, and state parks and for trails along rivers or near lakeshores and beaches. There are also national forests and parks throughout the United States with extensive trail systems. If you have access to a wooded area near you that isn’t too dense, a trail may not be necessary. When hiking off trails, use safety precautions to protect against tripping, poison ivy, getting lost, or other hazards.
Before you go
Plan your activities before you leave so you’ll arrive prepared. For your comfort and convenience, carry a small daypack, extra clothing for cold air along trails, and don’t forget hiking boots. For your protection, bring along hats, sunglasses, sunblock, and insect repellant. Be prepared for emergencies by carrying a small flashlight and batteries, watch, map, bandages, and don’t forget plenty of water and snacks. Finally, make the most of your nature quest by carrying binoculars, a magnifying glass, and a small camera.
Where to go locally!
It’s easy to forget that many of the wildlife preserves, historic sites, and beautiful parks found throughout the state – run by the National Park Service or Louisiana State Parks – are located within two hours of New Orleans. Too, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries administer beautiful preserves across the state that also are nearby.
Almost unbelievably, this 26,000-acre national wildlife refuge is just a 15-minute drive from downtown New Orleans, northeast on I-10 to Lacombe. The one-half-mile Ridge Trail is a boardwalk loop, and there are an additional five miles of nature trails. 61389 Hwy 434, Lacombe, LA, 985.882.2000.
Located along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, on a 2,800-acre tract that was a sugar cane plantation until 1852, this park features nature trails, bike path, and shoreline beach for sunning and splashing. 62883 Hwy. 1089 Mandeville, LA, 985.624.4443.
Grand Isle – Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island – features a 150-acre state park with sandy beaches and 900-foot pier, perfect for fishing and crabbing. Complete with nearly three miles of hiking trails, the marshes here afford excellent bird watching. Admiral Craik Drive, Grand Isle, LA, 985.787.2559.
Elmer’s Island is a 230-acre wildlife refuge just off Highway 1 on the way to Grand Isle from Port Fourchon. Accessible by winding dirt and shell road, the island is directly across the Caminada Pass from Grand Isle. See the Wildlife & Fisheries website, or call their office (800.256.2747) for more information.