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A few Sparks light up the urban trail

I had the great opportunity to lead Emma's Sparks meeting a couple of weeks ago.  The request: lead the girls on a neighbourhood hike.  How perfect was that? I love hiking! I love kids! It was the week leading to Earth Day! I immediately had grand visions of teaching these young, eager girls about loving the outdoors and being kind to the earth.  I imagined bright eyes all looking at me with utter interest as I talked about trail safety and how awesome it is to hear the birds and feel the spring breeze as we walked along a little green oasis in our urban neighbourhood.....

And then I gave my head a shake.

Reality check #1:   Sparks are the youngest group in the Girl Guide organization.  They're five to seven years-old. They're more interested in glittery stuff and Justin Beiber than hiking. Which is fine.  Heck, I've been known to get distracted by glitter. And I can even rock out to The Beibs at maximum volume with my own little pop-star, Emma.  But I know if MY six year old had to be bribed to go for a hike (that was before we discovered geocaching), there is a pretty good chance that her peers in Sparks would also require a little encouragement.

What is a stand-in-Spark-hike-leader to do?  First of all, I had to be realistic.  This age group has a limited attention span, especially when they're travelling in a pack. And hiking probably isn't at the top of the list of things they really, really want to do whenever they get a chance.  I had to resign myself to the fact that I wasn't going to convert these kids into junior naturalists in less than an hour.

I had to do a bit of planning - which meant deciding a route in advance that was quick to access, and quick to hike.

And finally, I had to come up with something for them to do as we trekked along the trail.

Here's what we did:

We "hiked" the greenway trail that is only a short walk away from our meeting space.  The greenway in our neighbourhood is a landscaped corridor offering a naturalized buffer between homes. It also contributes to storm water management.  It's full of birds and has trees and native plants.  It also has several entry/exit points that make it easy for hikers to get back to their starting point without having to complete a loop or walk a long distance to get back to the trail head.  In other words, it's an incredibly convenient space for introducing kids to hiking and nature when you have a limited amount of time.

Reality check #2:  A group of girls excited to be in a pack, on a nice day outside are easily distracted and don't move as fast as you would if you were hiking as an individual or small family group.Our time on the trail was definitely limited.  Getting 13 girls organized to go for a walk is harder than herding cats, which meant we walked about a quarter of the distance I originally thought we'd cover.


Before heading out for our walk, I spent the first few minutes of the meeting talking about some really simple, but important points of hiking safety.  For this group, those points are:
  • Always go with an adult
  • Always let someone know where you are going
  • Wear proper shoes. NO flip flops on the trail
  • Don't chase animals or try to touch, hug or catch them (insert jokes here about "black kitties with white stripes down their backs")
  • Pack out what you pack in/leave no trace and try to leave the trail in better shape than the way you found it.
Huh? How can a bunch of little kids improve a trail?  That led to the "doing something" part of my plan.  I announced at the trail head that we would be picking up garbage as we walked along the trail.  Garbage bags were handed out, and each girl got a glove for picking up the icky stuff that totally doesn't belong on a trail.

Reality check #3:  Kids can really surprise you with their enthusiasm to clean up garbage when they're outside.   I was surprised at how well went over! The girls were excited to be doing something good for nature, and went after the garbage with an impressive, competitive spirit.  I'm proud to report that we filled 3 bags in about 20 minutes.  (Seriously, though - where's that enthusiasm when it's time to tidy the mounds of clothes and toys strewn about the bedroom/playroom/family room?)


Reality check #4:  I was able to teach the girls a little something about being outside and appreciating nature.   And I'd love to do it again.  We watched the birds, checked out some of the native plants, breathed in the fresh air and left the greenway cleaner than it was before we got there . Sure, they were running madly off in all directions at one point.  But  that was tamed with a gentle reminder that they were stomping on the animals territory, and there "might be snakes over there" so they should stay ON the trail instead of everywhere but the trail.  And they were kind of loud in that giggly, screechy little girl way. But even that was tamed with an on-the-spot-made-up game of "let's see how quiet we can be so we can maybe see a bunny".

I'm happy to report that my planning seemed to work.  At the end of the evening, the hike was deemed a success by my toughest critic: my six year-old-Justin Beiber-Barbie-anything-sparkly-loving kid.  And to top it off, our neighbourhood trail was aglow with the Sparks that cleaned it up with their enthusiasm.


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