Start 'em Young: Getting Your Kids Outside and Loving It

5 Tips to Make Learning and Exploring National Parks More Fun
Renée HurleyTravel Ideas
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens - NPS Photo / Rachel Hendrix

America’s beloved national parks are the ultimate kid-friendly destinations, and it’s easy to understand why. The vast beauty and history of our parks have a way of leaving a lasting impression, creating memories for families to cherish for years to come. It’s no secret that spending time outside together as a family sparks curiosity, establishes a connection with nature, and leaves kids feeling amazed and inspired.

Whether on a family vacation or an adventure close to home, visiting national parks with children is a fun way to spend active time together. With just a little bit of extra planning and these five tips, you’ll be able to get the kids out of the house, exploring, and loving it!

TIP 1: START ‘EM YOUNG

View downstream of the Skagit River from the pedestrian suspension bridge on the Trail of Cedars in Glacier National Park

Trail of the Cedars, Glacier National Park

Joe Mabel / Wikimedia

Start introducing kids to parks at an early age – it’s one of the best ways to get your kids hooked on the outdoors. You may be surprised to learn that many national parks are more accessible than you may think. In fact, most Americans live within 100 miles of a national park. For little hikers, start with a short nature walk, and then gradually work your way up to longer hikes as they grow.

There are many shorter loop hikes for little legs and stroller-friendly hikes such as Shark Valley Trails at Everglades National Park, the Trail of the Cedars and Running Eagle Falls at Glacier National Park, and the Point at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

TIP 2: EXCITE THROUGH STORYTELLING

Stegosaurus statue under a starry sky

Stegosaurus statue at Dinosaur National Monument

NPS Photo / Jake Holgerson

Experiencing history where it happened is a profound learning experience for people of all ages. Leading up to the visit, talk to your kids about the amazing history preserved at national parks. Sharing the stories of the places you’re visiting will spark their imaginations and get them excited for the day ahead. It’s a great way to show them where history unfolded!

Dinosaur National Monument, on the Utah and Colorado border, tells the story of dinosaurs who roamed the land before us. Kids can check out cool fossils still interspersed throughout the rocks, take a hike, and learn about the park's paleontology, geology, wildlife, and environment.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina tells a fascinating story about Blackbeard, possibly the most notorious 18th-century pirate. Whether you are absorbing the local history, enjoying the beach, kayaking the sound, or climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, there is something for everyone to explore.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey is a step back in time to when one of America’s most famous inventors revolutionized the world with his work. Interactive elements throughout the park put kids to the test to see if they can invent like Edison.

TIP 3: DASH FOR TRASH

Visitors to Gateway National Recreation Center exploring the horseshoe crabs in the shallow waters

Jamaica Bay at Gateway National Recreation Center

NPS Photo / Camilla Cerea

Joining volunteer events or beach clean-up days can teach kids conservation principles and how to “leave no trace.” Plan a visit to a park and give each kid a trash bag and offer the reward of a treat (to be shared!) to the youngster who collects the most garbage. Not only will kids become future environmental stewards, they will also be proud of the work they’ve done!

Many national parks offer organized, group volunteer opportunities, such as Gulf Islands National Seashore’s monthly beach clean-ups and Gateway National Recreation Area’s volunteer-in-parks programs.

TIP 4: BRING TOYS, LOTS OF THEM

Two kids looking across the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument, National Mall & Memorial Parks

Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument

NPS Photo / Victoria Stauffenberg

Plan for outdoor activities that keep kids engaged. Bring toys that are relevant to the park you’re visiting or pack a little explorer kit with items like a compass, map, first aid kit, magnifying glass, and binoculars. Working together with your kids to plan out what they think they would need for the trip can help them feel invested in the experience – and kids can continue to play with these toys at home, reliving the trip in their imagination.

Parks like Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco provide endless opportunities for recreation. Go for a hike, enjoy a vista, have a picnic, or learn about the centuries of overlapping history.

National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., is a great place for outdoor activities like kite flying and sightseeing. There is even an annual Kite Festival held on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

TIP 5: CREATE A SCAVENGER HUNT

A park ranger showcases fossils to a visitor on Junior Ranger Day at Shenandoah National Park

Celebrating National Junior Ranger Day at Shenandoah National Park

NPS Photo

Allow time for your kids to stop and explore when something catches their eye. Kids will innately want to examine everything, so why not make it part of the journey? Use it as an opportunity to create a fun game that will engage your kids, like a scavenger hunt. You can dream up your own, or print off L.L.Bean’s Family Hiking Scavenger Hunt.

The Junior Ranger and Angler programs are also great ways to introduce your kids to the outdoors in a fun and engaging way, providing activities and introductory experiences for kids to complete during park visits. Upon completion, kids receive an official Junior Ranger patch and Junior Ranger certificate.

Want to learn about more fun ways to get your kids to love the outdoors? Check out L.L.Bean’s guide, “How to Get Your Kids to Love Hiking,” for more tips and ideas. Discover which parks are close to home and after your visit, be sure to share your family memories by tagging #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque!

Parks for Play Travel Guide
Discover just some of the ways young people can enjoy and connect to their national parks with Parks for Play: 35 National Park Adventures for Kids of All Ages.

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