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Hitting the Trails with Kids

By Casey Smith, Naturalist

Naturalist Casey’s kids at Blues Creek Park

Our lives have changed, and many people are finding their way to the parks for the first time. Visitation to our parks has greatly increased since March because of these changes. With my 4 and 7-year-old boys my now constant companions and coworkers, I thought I’d share some tips on hitting the parks with your kids.

Be Prepared
Not just at Preservation Parks locations, but in many park districts, facilities are closed. This means restrooms, water fountains, and nature centers. Remember to use the restroom before heading out and bring a reusable bottle filled with water. If your kids are anything like mine, they will ask for a snack as soon as you get in your car to head to the park. If you decide to bring snacks, please be sure to take any trash with you and dispose of it properly. Preservation Parks has recently added portable restrooms to our parks.

Be prepared with the proper footwear

Research Trails
There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a trail and realizing it was way too long for your little ones. Most parks list trail maps on their websites. Other resources like can also help you decide which trail to choose. Reading through a few public comments can also give you information like, “trail too bumpy for a stroller”, “gets really muddy after a heavy rain”, or “my dog and I love this trail”.

Survey Your Kids
I like to ask my kids what kind of hike they are ready for before we choose a trail. Do they want a long hike or a short hike? Do they want to cross a creek today or climb on boulders? Will we need our walking sticks or should we leave them home? This gets them invested in the trip and leads to less complaining (we hope).  

Go on an adventure at Hogback Ridge Park.

Let Your Kids Take the Lead
Preservation Parks’ paper trail maps have been removed from kiosks to reduce touch points during COVID-19. Kiosks still feature a large park map that you can take a picture of with your phone. You can also find park trail maps here on our website. Simply click on an individual park name to find the map. My boys take turns being “map master” and leading us on the trails. They decide which path to take and maybe learn some navigations skills along the way. My youngest is even happy with watching our dot move through the woods on the maps app on my phone.

Review the Experience
After the hike my boys and I talk about what we like, what we saw, and if we would take that trail again. Older kids could be asked to keep a trail journal. Younger kids could draw a picture of something they found on the trail.

As adults it can be hard to let go of control. Involving kids in the adventure planning process gives them ownership of the trip, hopefully leading to more cooperation once the hike is in progress. If mine start complaining, a small reminder that this trail was their choice helps to change their attitude. And remember that time spent outside is good for the body and soul.

Cool off in the creek at Shale Hollow Park.
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