Before she started walking, I LOVED going to the woods with my daughter. She was content to just sit in her carrier while I walked for miles. And if I had to set her down while I drank some water, she would just stay in one place and chew on a stick. (Don’t judge me! How much dirt has your kid ingested?)
But now that she is mobile, hiking has taken on a whole new life. Toddlers don’t sit in one place. They don’t stay on the trail. With her newfound mobility, my daughter can pull up flowers, strip leaves off of trees & bushes, find a much larger array of sticks and rocks to put in her mouth, and generally break every tenant of Leave No Trace ethics.
In our homes, we parents constantly struggle with the balance between setting limits and providing freedom for our kids. When we’re in the woods, we have to take into account her safety but also the safety of the environment around her. Toddlers are often destructive and we don’t want to destroy the forest, right? Where is the balance between giving children the freedom to explore the woods and maintaining our Leave No Trace principles?
This is an even more important question for me because I run an outdoors guide service and am a guidebook author who publicly speaks about hiking and care for nature. Leave No Trace skills are a big part of what I teach. We don’t pick flowers, we don’t carry beautiful rocks home with us, and we stay on the trail. But as I’ve grown into being a parent, I’ve been surprised to find that I am not appalled to see my daughter pick a flower, flip over a rock or a log, and toddle off the trail into the tall grasses. In fact, I kind of revel in her fearlessness and hands-on connection with nature. What a hypocrite I’ve become!
Of course, in my perfect world, my daughter would grow to love nature through observation with her eyes. But in my experience, toddlers use all their senses to observe. They need to touch, smell and taste their surroundings. If I kept her on the beaten path, would she still fall in love with nature? Or does she need to experience the environment with her feet and hands (and even mouth)?
These questions lead us to an even bigger debate: Should we protect nature from destruction by keeping human hands (and feet and mouths) out? I believe we can be even better stewards of wilderness by providing access and teaching people to love nature. When people have access to a forest, when they walk its trails, breath its air, and touch its tree trunks, they fall in love with it. And from love comes respect, comes environmentalism. Just a hike in the woods can foster the love and respect for nature that are the prerequisites for any Leave No Trace training.
Though my hikes are shorter and less linear these days, my experience in nature is more fulfilling with my daughter along. She may not understand Leave No Trace, but when I let her touch leaves and flowers and bugs, she falls in love with nature. When it’s time for me to teach her the Leave No Trace principles: (1) plan ahead & prepare, (2) travel & camp on durable surfaces, (3) dispose of waste properly, (4) leave what you find, (5) minimize campfire impacts, (6) respect wildlife, and (7) be considerate of other visitors, I hope she’ll say, “Dad! Why would I break any of those rules? I LOVE the woods!”
Jonah McDonald is the author of Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out, owner of Sure Foot Adventures, co-founder of Peacebuilders Camp at Koinonia Farm, and member of the Atlanta Branch of Hike It Baby.