by Julie Murphy

When it comes to connecting children to nature in cities, trails are vital. Trails, pathways, and greenways are like arteries of nature in cities. They connect neighborhoods, parks, destinations, and create opportunities for meandering exploration. They may be destinations for runners and cyclists as well as bird watchers and hikers. So why focus particularly on kids and families? Today’s kids need nature more than ever (see the Children and Nature Network website and Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, in the resources section below, for more).Most cities and park systems have lots of trails, but children and families don’t often use them. Young children have particular needs and designing trails with them in mind can help make the trails more accessible for people of all ages.  There are a few simple ways cities and parks systems can both design new trails and modify existing trails so that families feel welcomed and invited.


First, design pathways as loops, and create multiple different lengths of loops. Loop trails are more interesting than one-way trails where families have to turn around and go back the way they came. Loops are more likely to keep children (and adults!) interested and exploring. Not all young children will have the stamina for a long walk, and not all caretakers will, either. Trails that loop back to where they start from and posted trail lengths will help caretakers of children know what they are getting into. Having a few different options, like a quarter-mile loop, a half-mile loop, a one-mile loop, and a two-mile loop can give groups with different ages and abilities choices to get out into nature as much as they are able.


Second, to make trails more attractive to families with children, provide facilities. A usable bathroom with changing tables and a water fountain goes a long way to providing the peace of mind to caretakers of young children that if they need it, it’s there. If there’s a bathroom facility nearby, but not obvious at the access point of the trail, provide maps and signage to let the parents and caretakers know where these facilities are accessible.

Providing amenities, such as benches, can make for a more pleasurable trail experience. Photo by Julie Murphy.


Third, think of the comfort of parents and children as they walk along the trails and pathways. Shade with patches of sunlight creates a comfortable environment for use in most seasons, depending on the local climate. For multi-use trails, make sure the path is wide enough for strollers and family groups, going in both directions. Provide benches and pull-offs at regular intervals. Pull-offs are areas where the path widens to allow for a parent pushing a stroller, or a child riding a bicycle, or a larger family group walking together to stand to one side while other trail users pass them by. Children and families often move more slowly than other users and may need to pause to explore or wait for others to catch up.

Importance of Play

All of the first three recommendations are generally good practice to make trails more usable for people of all ages and abilities. This fourth recommendation is specifically for bringing children into trails: add play along the way! Adult-scaled multi-use trails are often just plain boring to young children. To make them more interesting and to invite kids to keep moving forward down the trail, create different interactive destinations and play opportunities. The play opportunities don’t need to be complicated or expensive. They can be as simple as a cluster of log stumps for balancing. (For more ideas for play opportunities and more detailed design guidelines, see Pathways for Play and Nature Play and Learning Places, below in the resource section).

Playable destination feature. Photo by Julie Murphy

Another way to infuse activity is to provide activity sheets, brochures, or interactive mobile apps that point out wildlife, plants, or other natural points of interest for children to look for along the way. In fact, there’s a program called Kids In Parks, started by the National Parks Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation that does just that. Kids In Parks, through their program Track Trails, creates self-guided brochures for interacting with nature at a variety of parks and nature areas across the country. As kids participate in the program and record their adventures through the Kids In Parks website, they can earn nature-related activity prizes. See their website below for more information, to find a Track Trail near you, or to become a partner!

While walking along a trail in my city recently, I came across a family sitting in a small lawn in the bend in the trail. An infant in a stroller, a toddler running as fast as he could to keep pace with a jogger going up the trail, while the parents looked on and laughed. Eventually the toddler was outpaced and he gave up, distracted by leaves on the ground. By designing trails with children and families in mind, any city can increase the potential for beautiful little moments like this one.

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