HOW TO KEEP YOUNG HIKERS HAPPY: Nature Games and Other Strategies for More Fun on the Trail

About the Author

Heather Stephenson blogs about children and nature at AMC’s Great Kids, Great Outdoors. She also writes a natural history column for the Appalachian Mountain Club magazine, AMC Outdoors, and has been a contributor to every edition of the women’s health book Our Bodies, Ourselves since 2005. From 2007 to 2012, she led the AMC team that creates books, maps, videos, a print and online magazine, and blogs to encourage people to enjoy—and protect—our natural world.

Leading kids through the woods requires more than a map and compass. You also need enthusiasm and creativity to keep things fun for young hikers, whether they’re preschoolers who tire easily or older children who claim they’re bored. Try these strategies to keep kids interested when out on the trail:

Once you get your kids onto the trail, there are many ways to keep them engaged and entertained by hiking. Photograph by Herb Swanson.
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Once you get your kids onto the trail, there are many ways to keep them engaged and entertained by hiking. Photo by Herb Swanson.

Active Play

Walk This Way: Make walking itself a game by walking like different animals or characters. “We did the monster walk for a while,” says Chandreyee Lahiri, a GIS specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation who recently led her 7-year-old son and some friends on a 7-mile walk against hunger. “Then one parent said, ‘Now we’re all walking like zombies.’” Try scuttling like a crab, lumbering like an elephant, or pounding your chest like a gorilla. You can invite each child to act out a different animal, which others can guess, charades-style, or have a group of kids form one large animal together.

Geology in Motion: To set up this game, first teach the kids that a convergent fault is when two tectonic plates collide and can create large mountain ranges like the Himalayas, and that divergent faults are when two tectonic plates move apart and can create volcanic islands. Then, every time you call out “convergent fault,” the kids have to run together in groups of two. When you call out “divergent fault,” they must run apart. “It gets them moving,” says Leah Titcomb, Coos County (New Hampshire) education coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). “It helps them learn while breaking up the hike.” Another example? When she teaches kids about water cycles, she calls “runoff” and the kids have to run to the lowest point they can see within a 10-foot radius.

Camouflage: For this version of hide-and-seek, designate an area in the woods for some of the kids to camouflage themselves, then let the others find them. “This helps children think about how animals try to fit into the landscape,” says Nancy Ritger, a longtime naturalist as well as huts and Cardigan program manager for AMC. “They can crouch down low, hide behind a tree, or lie down in leaves.”

Kids can connect with the landscape by trying to hide in “Camouflage.” Photograph by Herb Swanson.
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Kids can connect with the landscape by trying to hide in camouflage. Photo by Herb Swanson.

Observation Games

Deer Ears and Owl Eyes: You can draw kids’ attention to their five senses, and the importance of using them in the wild, through this game. Start by asking kids to listen with their “deer ears,” recommends Susan Brown, the youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC: Cup your hands around your ears to listen to what’s in front of you, or cup them backward to hear what’s behind you better, imitating the way deer shift their ears to hear. Notice all the sounds that are usually covered by hikers’ chatter. Then look with “owl eyes,” forming binoculars with your hands to imitate owls’ fixed, forward-facing eyes, and turning all around.

Snake Tongue and Fox Feet: Using your “snake tongue,” try tasting the air, seeing which way the wind is blowing, and sensing the temperature. Tiptoe on your “fox feet” to approach and observe birds and other animals along the trail. And use your “dog nose” to smell bark and leaves. Brown encourages kids to wet their nostrils with a bit of water from their water bottles, to make them moist like dog noses. She claims it improves your sense of smell, but it’s also just fun.

Meet a Tree: For this game, form pairs (either two children or a child and an adult, depending on the ages in your group) and blindfold one person in each pair. The partner who can see leads the blindfolded person to a tree (within a designated area) and helps him or her get to know that tree. “They can feel around it, smell it, try to learn as much as possible about the tree and its environment,” Brown says. Then the partner leads the blindfolded person back to the trail by a slightly meandering route. Take the blindfolds off and let each person try to find “their” tree.

Camera: Ritger recommends this game, in which you form pairs, and designate one person in each pair the camera, and the other person the photographer. Have the “cameras” close their eyes (or use blindfolds), while the photographers set each up by walking with them, turning them, or asking them to crouch to face a particular view. When the photographer taps the camera on the head, the camera opens his or her eyes for three seconds to take in the view, then closes them and is brought to another location. At the end of a set time, everyone gathers and talk about the “photos” they took. What did the photographers notice and why? Did the cameras observe more keenly when they were given just three seconds to look?

Imitating the walking styles of other animals—or even zombies—can keep kids amused. Photograph by Herb Swanson.
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Imitating the walking styles of other animals—or even zombies—can keep kids amused. Photo by Herb Swanson.

Responsible Roles

Silent Cooperation: Ritger recommends having each member of your group carry one part of lunch. For example, one child can carry bread, another peanut butter, another jelly, and a fourth the knife. When you stop for lunch, challenge the team by announcing that they are responsible for making the group’s sandwiches—without talking. This activity makes nonverbal communication urgent and the payoff is sweet. Trash Collectors: Bring a bag and ask children to pick up trash while on a local walk. “It gives them something to spot—something to keep their heads and hands busy,” Lahiri says. “Plus it makes the path better for those who follow you.”

Learn More

Learn ten more games for restless little hikers. Find out how to play fall hike bingo. Puzzle over some nature riddles that keep kids engaged. Try these tips to encourage a reluctant hiker.

CLIF Kid’s Backyard Game Contest is back!

Encourage outdoor play – and enter your kid’s creative backyard game idea for a chance to win a $10,000 scholarship.

Click here for more information and to enter the contest!



Additional Reading and Resources

THE WONDER BOWL:  Ten Spring and Summer Nature Activities for Kids and Adults

HUMMINGBIRD PARENTS: Seven Actions Parents Can Take to Increase Safety and Still Get the Kids Outdoors

DON’T TEAR DOWN THAT FORT! Ten Lessons Kids Learn from Building Their Own Tree Houses and Forts

FIVE GREAT WAYS TO NURTURE YOUR INNER HUNTER & GATHERER: Wildcrafting, Wildwatching, Birding, Cloudspotting, Stargazing

NATURE IS THE ULTIMATE SENSORY EXPERIENCE:  A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy


  1. Linda McGurk

    Those are some great tips! I have a 6- and a 3-year-old and I’m always looking for ways to make things interesting for them on the trail.

  2. Wonderful ideas, Heather! Love the three-second “camera” game. If you’re collecting other ideas, I’ve always loved “silent running,” where everyone has to just be silent for a period of time — and then discuss what they’d heard & seen during that time. Another is the “I spy” game: The guide finds something in the landscape and says “I spy with my little eye…” (or my version: “I’ll bet you can’t find…”) and then have the kids see who can find it first.

  3. Great ideas that I am going to use in July during my next session of Summer Hiking Camp. I have been leading 2 sessions of Hiking Camp for children grades 2-8 for many years at school and I am always looking for new ideas to keep them engaged during our hikes. I never here any of them complain of being bored and all electronics are left at home for the daily hikes.
    Keep the ideas and suggestions coming !!!

  4. Great ideas. Thank you. We’ll put these to good use. Any advice on how to carry all the rocks my little ones want to take with them? 🙂

  5. I enjoyed reading all these suggestions, never too many good ideas! My favorite one is having the kids bring along bags to pick up litter, hands on and such an important message. Love it!

  6. Jeffrey and Janelle, thanks for the additional ideas! I’ve been writing the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog for years and I am still learning new games or being reminded of old ones– like Pooh Sticks, which I just wrote about:

    And John, my advice is to give your little one a backpack and have him or her carry the rocks. Suddenly your child may be a bit more selective!

  7. Excellent to be sharing these widely!
    We use all of these activities with our students and more, having gleaned these from some great resources that everyone should check out: Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (Young et al), Sharing Nature with Children 1 & 2 (Joseph Cornell), and Cultivating Joy & Wonder (Shelburne Farms). Keep those kids active and outside!


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