“Young children don’t appreciate scenery,” my wise stepfather informed me. My children beg to differ. This year we took our first family holiday in the Lake District. As we entered the Lakes, the scenery was so breathtaking I couldn’t speak. The children, on the other hand, couldn’t stop! They did all the ooh-ing and ahh-ing for me, as if they were watching a fireworks display. Then we knew we had made the right holiday choice.
Our children, aged 4 and 8, are big walkers. We first started doing published walks with them a few years back, albeit a bit shorter and centred round a castle or somewhere good to lunch. Last Boxing Day we ended up doing a five and-a-half-mile walk along the river to a pub and having a lovely chip butty and a pint, but had not considered how we would get home. So we walked and played and chatted all the way back again and all enjoyed it, despite its eleven-mile total distance! While a friend ironically joked it was child abuse, we realised that this year we could try a mountain based walking holiday in the Lakes.
The children were particularly excited by the idea of walking up mountains. We looked at pictures on the internet and in books and they couldn’t believe that we were really going to do it. Our son was fascinated by the idea of being able to walk in the clouds. We bought them some walking boots, which they wore with a great sense of pride and loved to show off at any opportunity. Their new boots were so much better than wellies and made them feel like proper walkers! They spent two months before our holiday proudly telling people that they were going to climb the mountain Catbells, expecting everyone to have heard of it and be really impressed. Luckily, many were!
Our youngest had set himself a target of climbing a mountain for every year of his life, despite never having attempted a mountain before! At four years of age this showed great ambition, and he achieved it. Both children got such a buzz from their first day’s walking and mountain hike that they were desperate to conquer the highest peak in the area, Skiddaw, the next day. However, on the day the weather conditions were miserable. We could only see ten feet in front of us and it was a testing time for all. But, with the help of a big bag of chocolate raisins and thirty minutes of thinking we were just five minutes away from the summit, we managed it. The children were immensely satisfied to learn later on that they had climbed the third-highest peak in England. Now they plan to do it again next year, “On a sunny day!”
A week of walking in the rather wet Lake District did nothing to curb the children’s enthusiasm. Our daughter has recently requested that we have Saturdays as our ‘Jobs Day’ so that we can keep our Sundays free for long walks, and we try to honour this when we can. Walking has become a central and treasured part of our family life and there are plenty of reasons why the children love it. Most children love the outdoors. The value of fresh air, sunlight and exercise goes undisputed and our whole family undoubtedly benefits from these. Being outdoors, particularly in the countryside, brings out the adventurer in the children. The more our walks resemble expeditions, with hidden walkways, stream jumping and clambering, the better. It’s the part of the Famous Five stories they love, only they have the grown-ups lurking somewhere too!
It’s great for their imaginative development. Having the time to stop in the woods and make bow and arrows, or find “horns” to blow (essential attire for our “Amazonian warrior princess” daughter!), the children are able to get lost in another world. Indeed, during the more demanding parts of our mountain walks, my son invented a baking game where he would list the cakes he was going to bake, collect all the necessary ingredients and add them to his imaginary bowl, and make them. Once they were baked, we’d all get to try them and dream of what each might taste like before he started his next one. During games like this, his face is alive with pleasure, despite the effort involved in the steep ascent he is making.
The countryside is also a sensory haven, with a wealth of sights, sounds, smells and textures to enjoy. During our walks we take the time to pause and really smell the flowers, enjoy the colours, the shapes of the clouds, the prints in the mud. It is a wonderful sensory and educational resource through which the children’s appreciation of the natural world and aesthetic values have been deeply enriched.
Another important attraction for us all as a family is that walking affords us a whole day of ‘quality time’ together.
The children receive our full and undivided attention. There are no jobs to be done, no time pressures, no agenda other than being together for the day. It is an ideal escape from the pressures of school, work and other scheduled activities common to so many of us during the week. It is how our children best ‘chill out’ and their frustrations resolve. But it is also the best chance my husband and I have of catching up with each other. We all come home feeling thoroughly refreshed, relaxed and happy.
It comes as no surprise that the children now think that all our holidays will be walking ones and are keen to plan where we are going next. So while they are busy planning our next walking holiday and searching for our next mountain quest, we shall carry on with our fantastic free family days out, making the most of our pressure-free time together.
Top tips on planning a walking trip with children and encouraging unwilling participants
- Start small with easily achievable walks, even if this means walking into town or to the library when you would usually take the car. Let walking become the norm and give heaps of praise for their efforts. This will build their confidence.
- A good route, designed and tested by someone else, is a must! There are plenty of published guides, with maps stating the distance, approximate time for completion, and facilities available en route. The children love to follow the map and have a good go at interpreting the instructions.
- Terminology may affect enthusiasm! Refer to the trip as an ‘expedition’ rather than a ‘walk’, and it might be met with much more interest.
- Something of interest along the route is very useful. Anything they can look out for and look forward to such as a castle, woodlands, a beach, a park or even a pub or café for refreshments.
- Equipment: comfortable and appropriate attire is essential, including footwear and clothing for all weathers if walking in the British Isles! Waterproof trousers are great and light to carry in a backpack, and we’d never be without the camera and our antibacterial spray.
- Fuel supplies, including drinks and snacks, are essential. I cannot overestimate the power of chocolate raisins and the like for that quick energy fix! The treats we take also function as much-needed distractions and motivation at times.
- Distraction is virtually always necessary, so have plenty of ideas at hand. Organise distractions around your children’s interests, from ‘the first one to find something’-type games and telling stories, to spotting things beginning with a particular letter of the alphabet.
- Timing is crucial to enjoyment so give yourselves plenty of time to complete the walk in a relaxed and unhurried fashion, ensuring you have quality time to enjoy each other and everything you see.
Nikki Jones lives in Cardiff with her husband and two children. Previously an academic, she is now pursuing her ambition of writing for children, while enjoying looking after her own.
First published in Issue 20 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.