Getting Kids Excited About the National Parks

When it comes to the National Parks, I’m a true believer. Spectacular hikes, solitude, and wilderness–count me sold! The kids, however, sometimes require a little more coaxing to see the light. Parents, take heart; it is possible to engender a love for the natural world in our kids. It just takes a little time…and a little know-how.

  1. Monkey see, monkey do
    • Kids mimic their parents. If you’re excited about nature, kids can’t help but be excited, too. Two years ago, my then-6-year-old son was less than enthusiastic about hiking the Grand Canyon. Who could blame him, especially when the rest of his classmates had Disney summer getaways planned? Every night, we talked up California condors and Cenozoic rock; every day, he talked about California Screamin’ and Tomorrowland. It seemed we were at an impasse. And yet, that same little boy who would’ve traded Splash Mountain for Grand Canyon in a heartbeat surprised all of us when, upon his first glimpse of the canyon at Mather Point, declared with all the reverence and solemnity a six-year-old can muster, “This canyon isn’t boring at all, Mom!”IMG_20140610_073655Which brings us to point number two…
  2. You don’t need to sell the parks for your kids to buy them
    • The parks are majestic, wondrous places. Kids can feel that, too. Give them the chance to experience the magic by setting basic ground rules. It may seem counterintuitive, but rules set the foundation for every adventure to come. One rule we always adopt? No electronics upon entering park. On the hours-long drive to the park? The kids can Nintendo DS and iPad to their heart’s content. But once we’re in the park? Don’t even think about it. No one grumbles because they know the rules from the start. And without electronics in-hand, kids naturally tune into their surroundings…and each other.
  3. Give them a goal to work toward
    • Our kids love earning junior ranger badges. I can’t extol the virtues of the junior ranger program enough! Each activity booklet is chock full of learning experiences that engage all the senses. Even the most reluctant learner can’t help but enjoy themselves–and come away with a wealth of knowledge to boot. Many junior ranger programs also require attending a junior ranger talk. Not to fear: park rangers go out of their way to make their talks engaging and fun. At Dinosaur National Monument, our park ranger had the kids blow up balloons and encouraged them to release air in…shall we say…as flatulent a manner as possible in order to simulate dinosaur gaseous emissions. It was a blast.IMG_20150626_105247
  4. Stamp away
    • A National Parks passport book is a fun and affordable way to commemorate your national park visits. You can buy them online and in most Visitor Information Centers. Stamp centers are free and located inside most Visitor Information Center. The kids love collecting stamps for each region of the nation. Here’s a relatively unknown tip (or maybe it was just unknown to me): parks with multiple visitor centers sometimes have different stamps, so be sure to visit and collect them all!
  5. Journal away
    • ¬†Reading and writing probably sound like the exact opposite of fun, but no one was more surprised than me by how much our kids love travel journaling. With a fancy notebook and paint set in tow, they can be as creative as they like in documenting their time in the parks. The kids stash ephemera in the pockets, and their words and pictures offer irreplaceable windows into their thoughts and feelings. This, from my 6-year-old’s travel journal after hiking to Delicate Arch:¬†“Today we hiked to Delicate Arch. It was awesome! And I did not die!” Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.IMG_20140614_090606
    • Be sure to stamp your journal at the Visitor Information Center, too! Stamps make for a unique and memorable header in any travel journal.
  6. Be still
    • It can be tempting to race around doing all the things ever. But racing around leaves precious little time to absorb the magic of a place. That’s not to say that visits should be left unplanned; on the contrary, coming from Hawaii, careful planning affords us the opportunity to maximize our time. But within our itinerary, I now try to schedule downtime, knowing that many of our best experiences have often occurred unplanned. Be still. Connect. It’s a mantra I’m learning to embrace with my family.
      Hiking to Double Arch is great. Snoozing under Double Arch? Incomparable.

      7. Be flexible

      • Even the best laid plans can be improved. True story: our Narrows hike in Zion National Park was completely unplanned, entirely impromptu and hands down one of the best hikes we’ve done, ever. When you leave room for the unplanned, you leave room for adventure and excitement. And every kid or parent can tell you–that’s the best kind of recipe for family fun!IMG_20140620_120950