When you think about Beijing, hiking and the outdoors probably don’t spring immediately to mind. You’re far more likely to imagine a crowded, busy, sprawling metropolis, and you’ll probably throw in some pollution, too.
That’s pretty much the picture that I had when I was first thinking of moving here to work at Armada. What made matters worse was that I’d just spent 3 months living in Denver, one of the best cities in the world for nature-lovers. Moving to a huge city with limited greenspace seemed like a crazy decision. But I was inspired enough by Armada’s mission to think about sacrificing my love of hiking and the outdoors. Little did I know: I wouldn’t have to.
It turns out there are plenty of ways to get into nature even in a city like Beijing! And when the air is clear, the weather is perfect for being outside. Outdoor activities have been a regular part of the Armada team’s life and work together ever since I arrived. In my time in China, we’ve gone on over 20 different hiking trips and excursions.
Hiking and being outside are connected to one of the crucial elements of our educational philosophy – what we call Well-Being. The outdoors can satisfy some of the fundamental needs of kids and adults alike: on these trips, our team gets exercise, practices freedom and autonomy, and recharges our batteries to keep up the good work.
Being outside also allows us to connect with the environment in a deep and fulfilling way, and wakes us up to the world around us. As our learners grow into creators, we can build that connection and awareness into a confidence that will allow them to venture out into the unknown and push past their comfort zones in seeking out their goals. Ask any of our learners once we’ve reached the summit on a hike, and they’ll tell you that it was worth it for them to keep trying all the way to the top.
Helping children interact with nature can be a really powerful way to help them grow, especially as kids spend more and more time inside and lose that connection. Whether you’re interested in bringing your kids on hiking trips and outdoor excursions or you’ve been trailblazing as a family for years, here are some tips that our team has come up with in our experiences outside:
- Ease into it. If your goal is for kids to feel comfortable and excited outside, it’s a good idea to start them off slow, with a few unchallenging hikes or walks. That way, you leave them wanting more, instead of pushing them too hard at the beginning and losing their interest. City kids especially can take a little while to get acclimated to being outdoors, so be sensitive to their comfort levels and build little by little towards more difficult outings.
- Set goals. The truth is that sometimes hiking can involve a lot of difficult, monotonous walking. Unless kids have something else to focus on besides the physical challenge, they might not be as motivated to keep going. Talk with your kids about where you want to end up, and help give them a clear picture of what it’ll be like to reach that goal. “We’ll get to the top of the mountain, and we’ll be tired but we’ll be able to see all the mountains and valleys around us!” is much more motivating than “Just keep going, bud!” If necessary, set smaller goals (“Let’s make it to that rock up there and then take a break.”) to help boost their efforts.
- Take breaks, but keep the pace. Once kids get a little tired, it’s easy for them to want to stop every few minutes. You’re not going to want to deny them that, but constant stopping can mean that you’ll lose all your momentum and basically wind up nowhere. Talk with your kids about how often you’ll take a “stopping break,” a “sit-down break,” a “water break,” or a “food break” – and then try to stick with your plan even if it’s difficult. And don’t forget to set those goals!
- Model observation. It’s far too easy for kids to get focused on the hard parts of hiking, and lose sight of how cool it is to be in the outdoors or on a trail. As an adult, you can be a role model the kinds of observation and attention that will help them truly connect with nature. Use your senses: Point out cool leaves, rocks, and plants; stop and listen to the sounds around you; breathe deep and comment on what you smell; feel the bark on a gnarled old tree. Before long, your kids will be doing the same, and having a great time exploring.
- Play games! There are plenty of great games to play in nature, but here are some of our favorites to play on the trail:
o I Spy
o All the Kings Men
- Connect with what they’re learning. Another great way to keep kids moving through challenging physical territory is to talk about the things that they’ve been learning and try to connect that material with the outdoor experience. For example, Emily and I once discussed kinetic and potential energy (which she’d been reading about in her science book) in relation to hiking up and down a hill. We’ve also talked about books we’re reading, historical events, and math – calculating our speed or the number of steps up a mountain.
- IMPORTANT: Build in some down time. The tips above are all about helping kids move through an outdoor experience that has a start and a finish, but we should really say that not all excursions need to have that kind of focus. For kids to have experiences in the outdoors that are really meaningful, they need time to relax, look around, and explore on their own terms. This can happen in tandem with a more targeted hike, or on its own. Find a place that feels safe, and let your kids run around and investigate whatever they’re interested in. You’ll find that this can be one of the most important parts of their time in nature.
At Armada, we have big plans for expanding our outdoor offerings into an even more fundamental part of our programs. We’re excited to continue experimenting, and stay tuned for the results!