Playful Hiking

Hiking turns into fun for kids if they see nature as a playground. The association Österreichs Wanderdörfer has developed an initiative that offers ideas and games to help introduce children to the magic of the natural world.

When I was eight years old, a pelican escaped from our city zoo. Of course, we kids didn’t know anything about it. And even if we had, what do kids care about the news? We had better things to do. Climbing trees, for example, or playing outside, and fighting our way through the waist-high undergrowth and brambles to an abandoned house. Needless to say, we weren’t allowed to go near this magical house with its decayed green wooden door, an attic where one could see an old metal bed frame, and air that stank of dust and cat urine.

nature is the best playground for kids, young boy in a field holding small flowers
Photo by Tim Ertl

“Were you there again?” asked my mother and inspected my clothes, which were covered from top to bottom with burrs. There were the big burrs, which were easy to pick out, and then there were the small, stubbornly clinging burrs from the woodruff and hemp-nettle plants. If you have ever taken a close look at these burrs, you will be amazed at the ingenious methods for plant propagation found in nature.

That no man’s land with its abandoned house provided me with so much more than scratched skin and a billion mosquito bites, it was my wild oasis in the middle of the city. In the unkempt garden of the abandoned house, I observed the change of the seasons. And when I think back to my childhood, it was characterized by one quality in particular – a lack of haste.

the sun is shining and rising above a field and some tress
Photo by Julian Castro

I had time to observe the way that only children can do. It is precisely this feeling that I would like to pass on to our daughter.

Today, the childhood of our children is entirely different. It is thoroughly scheduled by parents. Playdates and activities are organized. There is hardly any room left for spontaneity. City kids can count themselves lucky if they find a worm in the park.

My view is that a love of nature and all living things is a fundamental feeling. It entails an awareness that every unimposing plant and tiny insect has a place in our intricate biosphere and must be respected.

I think that it is best to give our children what we love and value. In my case, it is the ability to see the small details that make up the bigger picture.

Now, I have become a mother myself. As things have turned out, we live in the middle of a city with a never-ending construction site in front of our window. We are surrounded by lots of cement and very little green space.

summer time, a girl is standing barefoot beside a stream of water, kids enjoy discovering nature, while parents bond with them
Photo by Tim Ertl

Every chance we get, we head out to the countryside with our daughter. Even an excursion in the late autumn drizzle can be a source of great joy, as the forest is then a place covered in fog and mushrooms. And both are fantastic.

I am one of those annoying people who say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong type of clothing.

How is it possible to motivate someone to get out if they are unfamiliar with this magic? Or for someone who finds nature and the great outdoors uncomfortable or even boring?

The best means of motivation is play. And I have discovered something truly awesome. The association Österreichs Wanderdörfer (Austria’s hiking villages) has developed an initiative called Playful Hiking. Their e-book offers ideas and games to help introduce children to the magic of the natural world. On their website, you can also find an ever-growing collection of outdoor games, thematic paths, nature play, and travel recommendations.

Spielend Wandern is the title of a German book with hiking tipps
Photo by Tina Vega Wilson

My daughter and I both love to play, so we decided to try something new outside in the woods.

“Nimbly jump like a squirrel over the roots, do like the ants and collect provisions, knock on a tree trunk and listen for an answer. Behind every tree lurks an adventure, and under every leaf, you’ll find a new game. Awaken your inner explorer and get started.” (excerpt from the e-book)

I was surprised at how many animals my daughter already knew. These even included a chameleon, a contemporary not native to our local climate but who gave us the most laughs when it came to animal imitations.

This next creative game was also great. “Collect and combine materials such as leaves, stones, flowers, and branches. Individual players or teams can bring their own unique fantasy animal to life.”

We made a mandala instead of an animal and thereby spent a wonderful afternoon in a forest clearing.

In addition to games, the book also includes some short DIY instructions. It inspired us to construct a wind chime, and we busily set about collecting our building materials from nature.

The booklet encourages a spirit of exploration and stimulates creativity. It provides new input even for those who know what to do outside by themselves and with children.

nature provides lasting memories for children, here we see a forest bathing in sun light
Photo by Tim Ertl

The story about the pelican who escaped from the zoo is now over thirty years old and is one of the most colorful anecdotes of my childhood. The pelican landed on the roof of the abandoned house, made itself comfortable, and, despite the presence of an astonished onlooker, namely myself, leisurely began to clean its feathers. Surprised and confounded, I ran back home through the underbrush and the bramble jungle to tell my mother of the monster I had just observed. I thought that I had discovered a new type of animal and was completely beside myself.

When we returned to check, the pelican was long gone. But a present lay in the high grass – a white feather, which I have kept forever among my greatest treasures from childhood.