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The Biggest (and Funnest) Playground

There is simply nothing better for the body and soul than a day (or few) out on the trails. Those of us with a love of hiking jump at the opportunity to sling on a backpack and get as far away from the rat race as possible. But what do these experiences mean for children – for their health, development and general wellbeing?

We have the great fortune to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world with free and easy access to countless mountain ranges with trails for all abilities. And yet the majority of children are never encouraged or given the chance to experience what this natural playground has to offer. Instead, the modern world drives them to spend more and more time glued to iPads, computer games, YouTube or whatever the latest viral trend happens to be. The benefits of reducing the amount of time spent in this way are clear. But what about the benefits of climbing a mountain instead?

With so much else to focus on indoors, it can take some doing to persuade young people that what they really want to do is put away all the tech, get their takkies and hat on and go for a walk. The excuses are many and varied: “But it’s too hot!” “But it’s too cold!” “But that’s SO far!” “But I have to study today!” “But are my friends going?” “But my xxxxx has started to hurt again!” (Please insert any or all injuries that have occurred over the past five years.)

Once this challenge has been overcome (with or without bribery), the rewards quickly begin to manifest themselves. Get onto the trail and the draw of the indoors and the internet is soon forgotten. Kids have an amazing ability to find energy reserves of which we can only dream (warning: this activity can make you feel very old), and really seem to revel in the freedom of being outdoors. There is always constant chatter, questions, examinations of bugs, animal tracks, plants, and anything else of interest. Climbing every available rock is a given. Spotting familiar places from the top of a mountain is always a favourite. Filling a water bottle from a cool, clear mountain stream is even better! And watching a child pick up a piece of litter left by somebody else because they know that it is wrong to leave it in nature is a wonderful thing.

There is a significant shift in mood and energy by the end of a hike (whether it is a hike with family and friends or a bigger group of children attending a camp). Energy levels are high (yes, even at the end they will still be sprinting up hills). The children are elated – proud of their achievement but also simply buoyed up by the effects of being outside and experiencing nature. We forget that children can also suffer from stress or anxiety, whether it is brought on by school assessments, competition for places in sports teams, friendships, or personal issues. Being in the mountains gives them a chance to forget about these concerns, take time to reflect on them or simply rediscover a joyfulness that is all too often subdued by the pressures of modern life.

A simple hike gives our children the chance to relax, play, exercise, build confidence and learn (about nature, the environment, themselves, and others). The benefits are enormous and the opportunities plentiful. Let’s do everything possible to get more of them out there as often as we can!

About the Author:

Fiona Bergmann is a former British Army instructor turned international development adviser turned leadership coach/mountain walking guide/wine educator. She runs leadership courses for children and teenagers at her family’s home, Kipepeo Farm, in the Franschhoek valley, where she also leads mountain walking and wine tours. Fiona has a particular interest in providing opportunities for young people to get back into nature.

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