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Toddlers in the Outdoors

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Dear Abbie,

My husband and I are just moving to Tahoe with our 2-year-old son. We are excited to raise him in the mountains and teach him about nature. We are looking for advice. We want to teach him how to hike, but we want to make sure we have a good time. Sometimes our family outings don’t turn out the way we planned with a toddler, and now that we’re in the mountains, we want to be set up for success. What tips do you have for us? What is it like to hike with a young child here?

Thank you,
New Tahoe Mom

Hi New Tahoe Mom,

Welcome to the best place to raise a toddler! It is important to many of us here to allow our children to connect with nature. My advice is for those times when the hiking is child-centered and the learning is driven by the toddler. So this isn’t about those times when you throw your son in the carrier and hike as if you were alone. It’s about what’s happening at the ground level. We all know how much toddlers like to run the show! For this type of hiking, allow the autonomy to flow; within limits, of course.


The high altitude coupled with California sun is strong, so prepare for it. When you are asking for your child’s cooperation, think about how you phrase your requests. Instead of being indirect and using the royal “we” as in “we need sunscreen” or “we don’t run away from mommy,” be direct about what you want to happen. Say, “I want to put sunscreen on your skin now. Do you want to help, or do you want me to do it?” With clothes, give a toddler two options that you approve of if they need that choice. And with sun hats, explain that when it’s sunny, “I want you to wear a hat to protect you. I am going to make sure you have it on most of the time.” And be consistent each time you hike.


The time you think you will devote to a hike should be doubled. We ourselves are animals, and we feel good in nature. Also, the first half of the time you are out is like a warm-up, so once your child is really ready to learn and explore, make sure you have plenty of snacks and more time.


Sometimes it takes building-up of stamina to go on a long hike deep into the mountains. And there’s a chance you might not move far from the trailhead. Either way, accept the different pace by noticing the world your child is seeing. If you can find a short loop, your 2-year-old won’t feel like the hike is over once you turn around from an out-and-back. Incorporating field guides can enrich the connection to nature, as well as stories about forest animals or hiking that you can read at home. I highly recommend We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. Some toys that might help with trail exploration are butterfly nets, spray bottles of water, and of course pockets for collecting treasures along the way. If you forget about the play part of the adventure, your toddler will remind you by insisting on stopping to play. Don’t forget lots of easy-to-reach snacks, water, and extra sunscreen. And one more thing — don’t forget the backup stroller or carrier, just in case.


Wandering off the trail a bit or trying out rock climbing is par for the course, but often toddlers need limit setting. When your child pushes limits, my advice again is to be direct. This allows a young child whose brain is growing to three times the size it started out at at birth to understand what you are asking in a moment of impulsivity and arousal. Being calm and clear in your directions also shows your child that you have faith that he can learn how to regulate his emotions and reactions to limit-setting, especially with consistency in direct communication.


Toddlers thrive on consistency, and constant change can add more work for their developing brains. So when they aren’t home for eating, naps, and diapering/using the bathroom, it can throw off their understanding of normal if things are different every day. Ruth Anne Hammond says, “Novelty is important, but novelty that is constant is chaos.” Observing your child to see when enough is enough will allow you to make good choices for when or when not to add new and exciting activities.

We already know what hiking is like as an adult. You’re interested in teaching your child how to experience nature, but it might be that he is the one who teaches you. Enjoy!

Your parenting partner,
Abbie Saturno

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February 14, 2019