Leave no trace activities for kids gives suggestions for hiking activities and crafts that don’t require any collecting, foraging, or picking for minimal environmental impact while exploring the outdoors with young children!
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think kids can and should entertain themselves with free play outdoors. “I’m bored” doesn’t have to be a call to action, let them be bored and get creative with their imaginations! However, if you’re outside often, sometimes it is fun to mix it up and organize an activity. I’ve noticed over the years that some of the most recommended games, crafts, and activities involved collecting, picking, or altering natural materials. I think trying to respect all of the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and raising kids to love nature is a tricky balance and looks different for everyone, but I wanted to come up with a list to share of things to do outside at a park or on a hike that don’t require you to pick flowers, take home sticks, or disrupt rocks.
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Talking about LNT and kids gets some people really riled up, and I get it. I grew up with a backyard of woods, merrily collecting, disrupting, breaking, building to my heart’s content – and here is an article coming from that perspective. At the same time, my kids are now growing up in western North Carolina where tourism is king and tens if not hundreds of thousands of people popular trails. We usually hike several times a week; if I let them collect things on those trails, how many kids would miss out on the delight that comes with stumbling on a bright purple mushroom, a bluejay feather, a sparkly mica rock?
So, what is LNT? It’s a set of goals and guidelines to minimize the impact humans’ activities have on the wilderness and goes way past simply saying “take out your trash and don’t collect flowers”. You can read more on the official organization website, but I’ll summarize briefly below with what I think is most relevant to parents. There is a whole separate list of 10 essentials to bring with you, focused on keeping you safe instead of the earth, but that will be a separate post sometime!
- 1. Plan ahead and prepare– Research where you’re going so you know if you need to bring toilet paper (and a bag to take it with you!), how busy it is so you can arrive early enough to get a parking spot, and what the route looks like so you are aware of any re-routing or if bridges are out.
- 2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces– The letter of the law is to stay on the main trail; with my kids, we evaluate that based on how busy the area is, and of course if there are signs warning of specific fragile vegetation or animal habitats. Trails are designed to minimize impact to the surrounding plants; and switchbacks (those zig-zag curves up and down a hill) are implemented to prevent trails from washing away, so don’t let kids run down “shortcuts” instead of following the curves.
- 3. Dispose of waste properly- In a nutshell, pee away from water sources, bring a shovel and dig a hole for kids to poop in, pack out your TP, and of course take all trash with you (and other peoples’ trash too, if you find it!). This includes any food waste! Until a few years ago, I always thought it was better to toss an apple core off the trail but no! Ideally take it home and compost it or just trash it; leaving food near where humans are can bring wildlife closer by and endanger them.
- 4. Leave what you find– This is the hard one. Nature collections are huge in outdoorsy parenting/homeschooling circles. But the experts in charge of taking care of our natural spaces are clear – taking seashells, collecting leaves, pocketing rocks can have a real negative impact on the original environment (it is also illegal in many places). So what is a parent to do? I’m not declaring that I have easy answers and I readily acknowledge that my family is privileged in that we live on a property surrounded by woods where I let my kids do whatever they want, making it easier to have strict guidelines in public spaces. When we’re in public, my kids can carry sticks, rocks, etc. but have to drop them off before we leave; I do my best to limit any plucking of live leaves and definitely flowers. I can’t tell you what is right or wrong (past following each park/area’s specific rules) but I’d love for anyone reading to be more thoughtful and open up these conversations with your kids, while considering how busy the space is where you’re exploring. Digital collecting is easy, too, my kids love dictating what I should take a photo of with my camera to ‘save for later’ or use an instax camera to do it themselves.
- 5. Minimize campfire impacts- Use a fire ring if one exists, don’t light a fire unless you have to, put out fires safely, and consider using a backpacking stove and/or solar light if you’re regularly going out and creating fire!
- 6. Respect wildlife- When in doubt, leave it alone! Research the wildlife in your area or the area you’re visiting and best practices; including not feeding anything, keeping a safe distance, and handling thoughtfully. If my kids scoop up a snake or a bug, I have them stay low to the ground in case they drop it in surprise and we leave salamanders/frogs/toads alone since their skin is so thin and can absorb chemicals. A net can work well to observe critters gently too! This can also mean refraining from using a drone (or using it responsibly) and definitely not stacking rocks.
- 7. Be considerate of other visitors- This can also be tricky with kids. When they’re hollering inside, we say go outside, but then on the trail tell them to hush? Again, some of this will come down to how busy the trail is. If we’re at a national park, I’m definitely asking my kids to keep their shenanigans to a minimum. When we’re out on a quiet trail without anyone else in sight, I’m much less likely to rein them in. Basic hiking etiquette is that bikers and horseback riders have right of way, and folks going uphill have right of way. Not throwing rocks off a cliff is not only considerate but safety related – you could injure or kill hikers/climbers below.
I can’t tell you what to do! I don’t want to! I do want to encourage you to think about the bigger picture and the impacts your outdoor explorations may have. With that being said, you can find loads of “collect and craft” or “collect and display” type activities, now I’m sharing a list that (more or less) leaves no trace. Let me know if I missed any of your favorites!
Pin this list of leave no trace activities for kids with this link or collage image:
Leave no trace activities for kids
This is a long list of things we've done over the years to keep busy on the trail! By no means do I recommend buying all this 'gear' - check to see if your local library loans any of it out, research local state parks and nature centers to see if they have "explorer backpacks' you can borrow while you visit, check in with local friends to pool resources, or several of these can be DIY-ed instead of bought.
The official Leave No Trace organization has some downloadable activities and workbooks, too, if you have any interest check them out here.
A kite requires cooperative weather and a location with wide open spaces (from both people & trees), but these "wind ribbons" from a local consignment shop would work anywhere. Both of these could easily be DIY-ed and they encourage burning lots of energy!
This pocket microscope came highly recommended in our homeschool groups and it is pretty nifty to really blow-up fine details while out and about. Takes some finesse to adjust the focus so not ideal for little kids.
This might be the cheapest, easiest activity but it has been one of our favorites for years. Just take a paintbrush and a cup, or find a stream, and paint the rocks! Of course, watch for critters, but your message will evaporate shortly.
This is such a fun concept and can be used for different shapes too - have your kiddo draw themselves and cut out their "hair", draw their favorite animal, or have them brainstorm options!
A classic for a reason, everything looks different with a magnifying glass! I especially love using these on the bottoms of mushrooms to see their gills or pores.
Another classic nature tool; choose a trail or area carefully to get kids excited about being able to see something interesting in the distance. We've found little songbirds to be too small and quick for much luck, but water birds are great fun!
Of course every region has definitive, comprehensive guidebooks full of glossy photos and information, but for everyday hikes we love this series of folding, laminated guides. There are some regional and some state-specific and we've used ours for years.
I had never thought about doing this before I researched our Yellowstone trip, but before we left, we stuck our fingers in water and wrote out what different temperatures felt like then tested the hot springs at the park! This would work just as well for creeks and streams, you just aim it from afar; could also use it to test differences in rock warmth in sun vs. shade.
Try a night scavenger hunt
Day scavenger hunts are easy to find, why not try a nighttime one with this fun printable!
One of my kids loves taking photos; we use an Instax instant camera from time to time but she really enjoys this digital camera too.
My kids love pretend play and enjoy sometimes bringing small figurines with us on the trail, creating little stories as we go. Just make sure you keep track of them!
Go outside and make art! Finding inspiring landscapes to recreate is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Our favorite travel art medium is watercolor pencils.
This set of cards has bright colors on the front with a viewing window and information about the color on the back, building vocabulary as a fun way to interact with nature around us. You could DIY these with paint chip cards, too.
Instead of going outside to draw en plein air, just take a normal project with you outside! Here is my daughter working on her cut & paste craft that she didn't want to leave at home, just make sure to pick up all the scraps.
Geocaching is not exclusively LNT; there are several caches off official paths that require bushwhacking, but you can use your discretion and read the description to get a sense for that! This is a digital 'treasure hunt' to find hidden containers that are sometimes filled with toys, a big hit in our house.
This stuff is magic; you lay things on top and let the sun set the image, creating beautiful deep blue art. You can gather fallen materials if you're doing this in a public space.
Do a scavenger hunt
Popular with good cause, scavenger hunts are an easy way for kids to feel like they have a focus while hiking.
Easy Cork Boats - Pirate Ships
Make little boats and float them on the creek! You could use a fallen leaf for the sail or craft at home before you bring them out and test them on the open seas.
Simple but effective, if you have the right light my kids LOVE pretending to squash and step on everyone's shadow as they walk.
I recommend trying this on a trail you're already familiar with; pack a head lamp and head out to listen for bats, look up at the stars, and enjoy the woods at night!
Looking for Fall Color Leaves with a Viewer
This is a fun way to 'frame' what you're seeing, great for younger kids.
Pick up trash
The 10 essentials are for safe hiking, but I love the idea of an 11th; a plastic bag to pick up trash as you go! We've always picked up as we hike or play and the kids know to point out trash to me. I try to have an extra doggy bag for broken glass, etc. so it doesn't rip through.
-Sing camp songs
-Have kids use fallen sticks and leaves to make art (and then let them enjoy destroying it before they leave) like a dinosaur skeleton, mandala, or their name
-Play Twenty Questions
-Make up stories as you go, having each kid saying one sentence each turn
-Use a nature identifying app (I use Seek) to see if you can figure out nearby mushrooms, plants, and bugs
-Take a favorite board game (with minimal pieces!) and play it at a clearing or picnic table along the way
-Bring along a picture book or read aloud to enjoy together; bonus points if it relates to where you're hiking, like reading about Grandma Gatewood while hiking on the Appalachian Trail
-Blow bubbles as you go
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