If you were to ask a room full of people what some of their fondest childhood memories were, odds are nine out of 10 would talk about time spent outdoors throwing snowballs, playing in parks, building treehouses, and riding bikes. Simple pleasures that for generations defined what it meant to be a kid. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Our lives have become so digitally dependent that our children are more likely to catch a firefly in an iPhone app than in field surrounded by trees and wildlife. They are turning into turbo bots, who spend countless hours a day staring at screens while totally disconnected from their natural surroundings.
According to Eva M. Selhub MD and Alan C. Logan ND, authors of Your Brain On Nature, “Scientific studies have shown that natural environments can have remarkable benefits for human health. Natural environments are more likely to promote positive emotions, and viewing and walking in nature have been associated with heightened physical and mental energy. Nature has also been found to have a positive impact on children who have been diagnosed with impulsivity, hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder.” In an effort to reprogram the way kids are developing, forest schools are making their way stateside, encouraging children to be wild while educating them about the environment. Curriculum in these free play-based schools are focused around using the woods as a means to build independence and self-esteem. This not only empowers children, but also instills a deep sense of respect and admiration for Mother Nature.
Hike it Baby is another one of our favorite grassroots organizations, aimed at getting kids from birth to school age outside. Comprised of a network of Hike it Baby ambassadors, they currently have over 300 branches with new groups popping up in South Africa, Australia, England, Japan and other cities. They also have close to 160,000 families committed to their thriving collective. What we love most about Hike it Baby is that not only are they helping children to build beautiful bonds outdoors, but they are also providing new, often isolated moms and dads with a community of like-minded parents eager to plan adventures and create lasting friendships. We recently caught up with founder Shanti Hodges to discuss the evolution of Hike it Baby and what’s next.
Q. Hike it Baby went from a meet-up to a national movement. Can you tell us a little bit more about that evolution?
A. Hike it Baby started when I had my son in June 2013. I was just wanting to find a way to get outside and on trails in Portland, Oregon, but I wasn’t finding any groups that did that. What’s interesting is you have a baby and then the support that’s out there is really focused just on moms and things like nursing and babywearing. I just wanted to find people to hike with. Not work out. Not do hard hikes. Just get out. So when I didn’t find it, I started a newsletter list and then a month later built out a website and a Facebook page.
I imagined just creating a way for families to connect in Portland, but within a year, it expanded quickly. By July 2014, people were contacting me from all over the country. That fall, I brought others in and we built out a “training,” did some crowdsource funding to help build the website out, and really looked at where this was going. It’s crazy to think that just a few years ago, Hike it Baby didn’t exist and between January and November of this year, we grew from 197 cities to 298. People always ask me why I think this happened and blew up so fast. I think it’s simply because there was a hole in healthy outside things for families to do in an organized way. Sure, lots of people were hiking, but finding each other was the missing link. That’s all I did by building a website. From there, it became a movement and took off on its own.
Sponsors have been completely amazing and a big part of funding us. We could use more of course, but honestly, KEEN, Deuter, Onya Baby, Oakiwear and all of the little outdoor-focused brands that have stepped up to help us push forward are how we have kept growing and supporting everything. Also, we do these challenges called Hike it Baby 30 that are healthy and fun, but also really are a great, simple fundraiser for people who really believe in Hike it Baby and what it’s done for their family.
Q. Why is it so important to get children outside?
A. I think if you ask anyone what their fondest memory was as a child, it usually involves an outside memory, at least it did for me. With the dramatic changes in our world from technology overload to fear, we have stopped allowing those outside memories to be the bulk of our childhood. At least that’s what I am seeing. I feel like it’s time to reclaim outside space for children and it has to start with birth on, so children are comfortable with nature from their earliest days.
If you take a city-locked child who has had little connection with nature and thrust them in the woods in fourth grade, are they really going to have the same connection and understanding of it all? I wonder about that often. What I am seeing with Hike it Baby is that we are creating an outside habit for families, so where people would once meet up with babies in a coffee shop, they are now connecting on a trail instead. That’s so healthy for your baby, your toddler, you, your friends and your community, so it resonates out.
The other thing is that outside can be rough at times. There’s snow, rain, heat. It’s important to not shelter children from these elements, and for them to know what it’s like to walk in the rain and jump in muddy puddles.
Q. How do (new) parents benefit from this kind of community?
A. You make heaps of friends both locally and around the country. We motivate each other to get out on all kinds of days. We share our gear finds and our tips for the trail. We are both online and offline, so it’s like a 24/7 support network.
One of my favorite stories is from a woman I met in Alaska on a hike. She told me her mother died when she was really young, and her dad had to work very hard and a lot to support her family. Her favorite memory with her dad is the one time in her childhood when he took her mushroom hunting. She never forgot that day. Now with her son, who is 3-years-old, she wants to make sure every memory he has of her is an outside one, so she’s hiking and outside constantly. She told me her experience made her realize you never know when life can shift and you could lose someone, so she wants to make sure that’s her child’s experience of life with his parent. The stories that come in from Hike it Baby families are amazing and remind me of how critical this group is to community.
Q. What are your plans for the future of Hike it Baby?
A. We are going to just keep plugging along as a nonprofit. We hope to find some grants to support us in more trail awareness for families. We also are having some good impact on low-income communities, so that’s an important part of what we’re doing with our program. We are super accessible and it’s important that we remain that way.
To hear more about Shanti and Hike it Baby, head over to She-Explores to check out their latest podcast dedicated to Adventuring with Kids.
Images courtesy of Hike it Baby.