Children of The Great Trails State

By Sean Higgins, Education Manager, North Carolina State Parks

“Not hiking, that’s boring. I want to play”.
Hit the brakes! Blow the whistle! Cut scene!

Those words, articulated by a 3-year-old, fundamentally changed my philosophy of hiking. In 2013, I had been serving as the Education Manager for North Carolina State Parks for six years. By title, I was the state’s designated expert in engaging children in nature through our 40+ state parks. Yet based on my 3-year-old son’s review of “boring,” I was NOT meeting work expectations. It was time for me to make hiking fun again.

Making trails fun is…fun!

What did the quarterback say to the scout troop? Hike

What exactly is a hike? What image comes to your mind? Are people dressed in designer outdoor clothes with a big-brimmed hat, khaki vest, and a stick? Or maybe someone in tight Lycra clothing, running shoes, and a hip bag with water bottles. Are the hikers snapping scenic selfies, quietly identifying trees with a guidebook or chatting with each other about their families? In state parks we offer bird hikes, even though my bird-watching friends tend to walk about the same pace as a garden slug. We offer canoe hikes and photography hikes too. As an outdoor recreation professional, I’ve dissected the term hike with colleagues to exhaustion. For me, a hike is simply enjoying time on a trail, experiencing our shared natural wonders.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the
companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and myste
ry of the world we live in.

Rachel Carson

Let the children lead the way! That’s my number one piece of advice to caregivers taking their young ones on the trail. That advice is simple, but not always easy. Children need to stay within the communication range of adults for safety. Children new to the trail may be uncomfortable and even afraid at first. Still, letting them take the initiative builds confidence. Children may tire easily, not always letting us reach our intended destination, but that’s okay. When the children are engaged in setting the pace and making decisions, they become adventurers rather than unwilling dragged-alongs.

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.

John Muir

Celebrate the rewards! The destination doesn’t have to be a 40-foot waterfall or a big mountain overlook. (Side note: Most kids really don’t care about the view from the overlook.) Find other simple rewards along the trail. For example, take time to dip your toes in a creek, look for crayfish, taste some wild blackberries, or peek inside a hollow tree. You can always supplement the natural rewards along the trail with healthy snacks or even candy. I’ve found that two Swedish Fish will fuel a grumpy 6-year-old for about a mile of hiking. Adding the reward of ice cream or a popsicle after the hike works too.

“What was something unexpected we found along the trail today?”

North Carolina is among the top in the nation for the diversity of natural plant communities, from evergreen mountain forests to palm tree-dotted maritime forests. There are boundless opportunities to explore unique places. We are also lucky to have some award-winning programs to foster children’s appreciation of science and nature, including Kids In Parks ( and EcoExplore ( Through these programs, scientists and outdoor professionals support caregivers in answering some of the great questions that kids ask. Questions, especially those without easy answers, are paramount to new discoveries. Keep the experience going by asking each other questions on the way home, like “What was something unexpected we found along the trail today?”

Author Sean Higgins and his family ready to hit the trail.

Sean’s Tips to Make Hikes Fun for Young Children:

1) Let the Children Lead. By setting the pace and spotting interesting sites first, they become adventurers rather than dragged-alongs.
2) Play Games. Eye Spy and 20 Questions are classics. We play tag along the trail where the trees are base and you have to switch trees when the tagger calls “Squirrel Scramble.” We have gotten a 4-year-old to go many extra miles by Squirrel Scrambling.
3) Sing songs. If you happen to hear, “Hi ho the merry o, a hiking we will go,” then you may be sharing the trail with the Higgins family. We also love singing Katy Perry and Queen.
4) It’s Okay to Bring Along A Toy. For younger kids, a matchbox car, a plastic lizard, or a little pony can add some fun along the trail. I suggest keeping it in a backpack until it’s time for a break. I always keep a mini deck of cards or UNO in my daypack.
5) Bring an Extra Set of Clothes. If there is a safe way to get muddy and wet, then you have to give in and let the kids get muddy and wet.

Sean’s Tips to Stay Comfortable and Safe Outdoors on Hikes This Summer:

1) Bring Plenty of Snacks and Water. Classic hiking snacks are grapes and granola bars. Everything tastes better when you’re tired and hungry. So the kids may even eat the raisins.
2) Stay on Trails and Avoid Sitting on Logs. You can avoid most of the nasty bugs like ticks and chiggers by staying on the trail
3) Take Advantage of Good Weather. Summer can be sweltering, so hit the trail in the morning. Don’t be too deterred by the rainy cloud icon on your phone, as we often get a nice drop in temperature after a rain.
4) Bring a Map. It’s easy to forget the paper map. So take a picture of the trailhead map with your phone, or grab a screenshot of the map online. Even near urban areas, many state parks don’t have good cell phone reception.

Great Resources for Young Scientists and Outdoor Adventurers:

1) Kids In Parks. ( Kids in Parks is a network of
family-friendly outdoor adventures called TRACK Trails, with more than 100 in North Carolina. Fun self-guided activity brochures and signs turn your visit into an outdoors learning experience. Kids can earn prizes for
registering their adventures online! 
2) EcoExplore. ( EcoExplore a program that encourages children to interact with scientists to identify plants and animals outdoors. Children take photos outside in their own backyard or on trails and share those with professional scientists through a safe and secure website. In addition to contributing to science, children earn prizes for participating.
3) Junior Ranger Program. Each North Carolina State Park offers a unique patch for children who complete a handful of activities. Activities are intended for the outdoors and involve using our senses. In addition to 42 State Parks, North Carolina’s 10 National Park sites also offer a Junior Ranger program.
4) The NC Science Trail. ( North Carolina is home to some of the most awe-inspiring and accessible science and nature venues in the country. The NC Science Trail is your place to find them.