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!
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-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