Nature teems with critters, noises and little things that capture kids' fancy. Parents can channel some of that curiosity – and give the trek some fun focus – by sleuthing for outdoor surprises. Here are eight ways to engage your children and make the most of a family hike.
1. Rocks and minerals.
The state's plentiful shorelines are a trove for stone searches. Before you go, learn which are abundant in the area, and have each family seek out a few. Bring a small plastic container with dividers, descriptive guide and a magnifying glass for viewing the colors and layers.
2. Sounds of nature.
Tune in to bird and animal sounds. Visit your library first for a DVD or CD of birds and wild animal calls. Carry a recorder on your hike and capture some of the sounds you hear. Listen at home and, with the help of the Internet and books, try to puzzle out "whodunit."
3. Photo fun.
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Capture nature's splendor! Hiking trails provide plenty of photo ops, and kids love snapping the shots. Discuss in advance what each family member wants to catch, such as a huge oak tree, monarch butterfly, deer tracks or a nibbling squirrel. Later, put them into a nature scrapbook.
4. Tree tales.
These giants of nature have equally compelling stories. Browse the web or borrow some books to learn about trees' life cycles and histories. On the trail, use clues such as the shape of the tree's leaves, the texture of its bark and even its size to ID a tree.
5. Which way?
While roaming, teach kids how to read a map and use a compass or the sun as a directional gauge. Choose a trail system that provides maps – and take one that branches a bit, to build those skills. If possible, create a treasure hunt: Hide a small prize just off the trail under a bush or pile of leaves. Mark the spot on your map and let the journey begin.
6. Animals abound.
In wooded areas, eye the grassy clearings. Watch for snakes, turtles and geese, if there's a nearby lake or stream. Also, look for chipmunks and squirrels playing chase or gathering food, birds of prey circling overhead, or grazing rabbits and deer. Talk about what they eat, where they live, and what species they're related to. Spot animal tracks, too.
7. Creepy crawlies.
Scouting for insects is an all-time kid favorite. Carry an insect book, clear container, tweezers and a magnifying glass for a close peek. Track the types of insects you find in a journal. Read up on their defense methods, such as changing colors to hide themselves from predators.
8. Plant life.
See what varieties grow in certain types of soil, climates and seasons. Look for their seeds, and discover the variations. Talk about how seeds travel by blowing in the wind or catching on the fur of animals. Learn how certain plants have evolved natural defenses to ward off creatures that would otherwise eat them.