We had a discussion in the family about how long of a walk can be taken with our 6-year-old daughter. We walked for 18.5 km (about 11.5 miles) and she was tired at the end, but after a 40 minute rest on the train she was full of energy again. Could this cause issues with her feet? Is there some norm for different ages?
It's an interesting question and one we discuss often in our home.
My kids and I have just returned home from our longest walk here in Sydney so far.
My wife and I have been walking with the kids since they were born (actually right through both pregnancies) and before they could walk - on my back for probably thousands of kms. Now when given the option, they choose bushwalking over pretty much anything else.
As others have said, we make walking interesting, lots of breaks, lots of fluids and we try to keep out of direct sun and maintain some early exits if needed.
As a result, our kids are enthusiastically involved in the 'real' world and love to identify dozens of creatures - from bull ants to "frogpoles" to all manner of bird calls etc. We really are spoiled here in Sydney.
Today we walked a total of 16km, 14 of which was in bushland on gorgeous tracks. The terrain was moderate with some reasonably long hills and a few steeper inclines. The kids did it quite easily and cheerfully and on our way home wouldn't let me pass a play area without them running for the swings. No sign of fatigue in our eldest and a few minor complaints from the youngest right at the end (who asked if she could ride her bike when we got home!).
Our daughter is 2 1/4 and son is 4 1/4. No doubt many would consider this outrageous but our two been walking happily since about 9mths and being red-heads, have been quite independent and insistent on doing it themselves. :-)
We have researched the possible issues and monitor our kids all the time. We are not afraid to push them a little beyond their own comfort zones (they are hardy and resilient) and they respond with incredible effort and wonder at what they can achieve.
For us, it's a great opportunity to talk about all manner of things and walking distances with the kids is also a lovely 'microcosm' of life - where we discuss longer term goals, understanding that there may be some fatigue and desire to give up but the reward for sustained effort is the rush of achievement and the knowledge that we've done what we set out to do. On reaching our goal today, our little girl raised her hands in triumph and exclaimed (to a handful of amused passers by) - "I nailed this one Daddy!!".
Perhaps everyone else knows something that we don't - but for us so far, we see our children as possessing unlimited capacities which are available to them with our patience, care and love and so far, we've all been rewarded in spades.
So to directly answer the question from our perspective - we would say that it's totally dependent on the child and their health/fitness and genetics/profile/history. I would suggest however that there's no doubt that most kids would have the capacity per se. All being well, by 6 our kids will likely be able to do incredible distances, but they will have had 5 years of building up to that with mummy and daddy as walking role models.
Maybe worth a note here - we have chosen not to have TV or electronic devices in our children's lives at all (yet). [Ducks and runs for cover...].
I had taken a 'children camp carer` course a few years ago. They said there that while children can often walk a long distance - and are even willing to do it, they will suffer consequences of such strain in the evening or the day after. They supposedly may experience extreme tiredness, apathy, headaches, nausea and/or diarrhea.
On the other hand, my friends often take their 3-7 yo kids hiking. I can't tell how many km they walk, but these are whole-day walks and the terrain is often difficult. I have not heard any stories of the mentioned consequences.
I'd say that 18 km is a lot for a 6 yo. However, if you walked slowly and rested from time to time, there should be no problem. I think I wouldn't plan such long walks with a daughter so young, especially if I didn't have previous experience with how long can she walk. It's just an opinion though.
Remember to watch your child - if you see signs of tiredness, take a break. Eat a snack, rest for a while. Carry the child on your shoulders for a while, it'll be fun for her, I guarantee it. And then resume the walk.
Assuming your child's shoes fit well you will not cause foot problems by occasionally going on long hikes. (If her shoes are too tight, you might worsen problems like hammertoe, bunions, and so on, but the walking alone won't cause such problems and the real cause is the shoe.) Fatigue, blisters, and sore legs are temporary issues. The permanent changes you are likely to cause are strength, determination, an appreciation of nature, and the kind of adult who says "I did all kinds of things with my parents and was part of their leisure activities" which, in my opinion at least, are all good.
Clearly you know how to take your child on a hike: I expect you brought food and drink for her, told her in advance she'd be walking all day, encouraged her if she was tired, stopped at lovely lookouts or other interesting places so she could enjoy them, and so on. If she wants to go on another walk, I would say you've got a good thing going on, and enjoy it!
I don't think you're going to find a list of 'age appropriate distances', because it's so variable by kid. My not-yet-three year old can sometimes walk two miles plus with no problem, while I suspect the average two to three year old cannot.
From a physical point of view, the biggest dangers are short-term (exhaustion, dehydration), and long-term (damage to feet, knees, etc.) Kids at that age have very flexible ligaments and tendons, and generally are not susceptible to the sorts of knee damage older adults are susceptible to, but they have their own issues in repetitive stress injuries.
Most of the RSI's to be concerned about are related to inflammations or stress fractures near the growth plates in the legs and arms. This article has a good explanation of many of the ones to be concerned about. In particular, with walking I would pay attention to Sever's disease given it's more often associated with running (and being active). Stress fractures are also something to pay attention to; if your child has a stress fracture and continues to be active on that foot without taking care of it, it could cause longer term issues.
From an exhaustion point of view, one thing I learned to be careful of is structuring the activity so it can be stopped midstream without too much difficulty if I don't estimate my child's exhaustion threshold. Going on a long bike ride, for example 3 miles there and then same back, if you find that at the 3 mile point that the child is tired, you need an exit strategy.
Equally important is making sure you don't let the child define the acceptable length; many will keep going until they're exhausted and then mention it. Define the length of the outing ahead of time based on how your child/children have been able to perform in the past, and allow it to shorten with your exit strategy if needed - but don't allow it to lengthen unless it's still easy to exit.
My 7 year old just completed a half marathon on Saturday, to raise money for her friend's charity, as it is one which doesn't get much attention. And this was all Lexie's idea - we just supported her.
In training, she has walked between 10 and 13 miles each weekend with her mother, and on Saturday after the half marathon she then ran around a park with friends for an hour or two, then went on a trampoline for half an hour and finished the evening dancing.
She is a bit tired today, though, but not sore.
Simple requirements: enough biscuits, fruit and water to be taken at regular intervals. Kids don't have the energy reserves of an adult.
I concur with Joe's comment about allowing exits - we set up the route in a way which meant we could cancel if we had to at any point:
(If you want more info, feel free to click on her Justgiving site)