Beth London and her husband David run Poker Hill School in Underhill. Learning about nature is an important part of the school’s philosophy and curriculum. Beth, David and their staff have helped scores of children develop a life-long love for the outdoors. Many Poker Hill students have come back when they’re older to participate in summer hiking camps at the school. Teenagers who got their start at Poker Hill have hiked the Long Trail together. Beth’s advice is invaluable for parents who’d like to get their children interested in hiking.
First – “Start out slowly!”
At Poker Hill, children take walks around the backyard pond and go uphill about a half-mile to a tepee hidden in the woods. “They’re little! Getting that far away from school, and going into the woods, feels like a real adventure.” Beth and David also take the youngest hikers to Indian Brook Reservoir, Mills Riverside Park and the trail behind the Old Red Mill in Jericho.
Second – “Do your homework before hiking with children.”
Adults at Poker Hill School walk the trails before heading out with the children. They plan on specific stops for short activities and adventures along the way. For example, Beth might tell the kids about big hollow tree that they’ll be able to hide in, or a huge rock where they’ll stop to take everyone’s picture. She knows ahead of time exactly where the group will take breaks for snacks or lunch.
Adults always make sure the children have sturdy shoes, socks, a hat and extra clothes. Four- and five-year olds can carry their own little packs, but they might need adults to carry water.
Homemade trail mix (peanuts, M&M’s and raisins) makes a great hiking snack. When there are students with nut allergies, hiking snacks include crackers and cheese or cheerios and dried fruit.
Poker Hill adults make sure that children know basic safety rules such as “adult first, adult last” and “don’t pick any plants”. They know they’ll have to repeat the rules over and over.
Beth stressed the importance of planning for that last half-hour, which can often be the hardest part of a hike. On Poker Hill hikes, adults keep children’s spirits up by telling stories or singing familiar songs. Beth says that kids often get caught up in a long, silly, repetitive song and forget that they’re getting tired.
Third – Adjust the hike for the age of the children.
“For most four-year olds, hiking for the sake of hiking doesn’t appeal.” One four-year old told Beth, “I don’t know what’s so great about hiking. It’s nothing but walking, ‘cept you do it for a long time!” The staff at Poker Hill School keeps children interested by including fun activities.
Sometimes, Beth shows the children a letter from an elf or a fairy asking for the children’s help in finding specific items such as a round flat rock, an acorn or a pine cone.
For other hikes, a staff member goes out on the trail ahead of time and stashes things like seashells or an egg from the school’s chickens or a bright plastic flower. Before starting out on the hike, the children are asked to look for things that don’t belong.
Another great activity is to read a book about fairy houses and then plan a hike around finding a good place to build one.
“Many five-year olds can enjoy hiking to a specific destination, after they’ve learned to like hiking.” After experiencing lots of shorter hikes, Poker Hill kindergarteners have hiked from Stevensville Road to Butler Lodge and through Nebraska Notch to Taylor Lodge.
Finally – “If you have to rush, don’t do it!”
Beth reminds parents to relax and to try to see nature through their child’s eyes. “You want to head home with your child feeling happy, excited and enthusiastic about her next hike. Remember: For a four-year old, pretty much everything is new. Give kids a chance to find stuff!”