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I have a 3 year old daughter and occasionally take her on a few hours walk in the woods / bush / up a mountain. We both enjoy it.

I don't expect her to be able to walk very far or climb up a mountain, so I carry her when she gets tired. The problem is that now she has gotten really used to me carrying her. We walk for about 200 meters max before she says she's tired. After that she will walk only small bits of the way. I end up getting a serious workout and she doesn't get any exercise at all.

If we get to a picnic spot or a play area, she runs around and plays, so I know she isn't really tired, she just prefers to be carried around. I tried explaining to her about the fun of pushing yourself, but I think that was at a way higher level than a 3 year old would follow.

I don't want to force her to walk, because I want her to enjoy it. What can I try to get her to push herself a bit?

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    Maybe your kid would like a different activity that demands hiking. Thing like geocaching might be more fun, taking picture of a nice view, going to a rock that's fun to climb. – the_lotus Jul 20 '15 at 13:05
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    @the_lotus We normally do go to see something cool. She really does seem to enjoy it. She generally wants to stick around wherever we go for longer than I want to. I think she just figured out that she can get there on her own feet or have me carry her there... and the latter is easier for her – neelsg Jul 20 '15 at 13:15
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    Maybe what she's really enjoying is less the hiking specifically, and more just spending time with you. – Zibbobz Jul 20 '15 at 16:37
  • My 2.5-year-old presents the opposite problem. He always wants down and to run! Then he demands that I run, too. We also engage him by describing the plants and leaves, pointing out flowers and bugs, and other cool things to make it more engaging. Have you tried anything like that? ("Racing", pointing out all the interesting things, etc.)? – user11394 Jul 20 '15 at 17:40
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    "A few hours" is a very long time at age 3. It's a matter of attention span and motivation, not physical endurance. I started my daughter on hikes of that length at age 6, and even at that age, we spent more time climbing on logs, discussing the map, etc., than actually hiking. – Ben Crowell Jul 22 '15 at 19:43
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Could it be that those "few hours walk in the woods" exceeded her range (both in physical endurance and attention span) pretty much from the get-go, so you ended up always carrying her towards the end of the hike?

(I got kids age 12 and 8 who get bored of a "hike" in much less than "a few hours". They can run around the playground, and do visits to the museum or the zoo for almost a whole day, but a "plain" hike would bore them witless.)

If your kid never experienced "making it through" a hike, thus making the hike itself something to take satisfaction in, she won't be eager to put significant energy into it, and will ask to be carried as soon as she feels like she's exerting herself -- because, what is the point in walking longer if, in the end, you'll carry her anyway, and she'll still get to look for fairies or explore the playground?

I think the trick here is to start small, let her achieve "completion" on a regular basis, and then extend things as her endurance, attention span, and willingness to exercise herself increases as she grows up.


One thing more, I don't think the average three-year-old needs artificial "workout" or "exercise". Usually their play instinct has them moving around pretty much non-stop anyway, inside or outside the house, and they have a rather fine-tuned feel for when they want to move, and when they want to rest. IMHO, it's better not to tamper with that too early in their life, but instead heighten their awareness for what their body tells them.

Plus, physical strain (which we grown-ups would label "exercise", "training", or "workout") can easily be actively harmful to young kids. Their bodies are already developing rapidly towards greater strength and endurance, at huge stress to their system, without any additional "load" from us adults.

  • You make a valid point. Most of the trips is to get to a nice waterfall or some nesting eagles etc. These trips are too far for her to walk the whole way, so I expected to carry her part of it. I guess we should do some trips that are closer so that she can do the whole trip on her own – neelsg Jul 20 '15 at 12:59
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    I think my question is worded a bit misleading about exercise. I don't want her to get more exercise, but I do want her to experience nature more and that is difficult when you are being carried. I never rush her and she can spend really long times looking at some bird or flower or even a rock or stick, so that is also why these trips take a "few hours" – neelsg Jul 20 '15 at 13:04
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    @neelsg: Good to hear my second point was unnecessary. You wouldn't believe what some well-meaning parents put their kids through. ;-) --- So bottom line, plan your excursions in a way that she making it all the way through under her own power becomes the rule, not an exception. Note that this will be double hard now that she got into the habit of quitting after 200m... you might have to start with really small things, then pick it up from there. Have fun, you two! – DevSolar Jul 20 '15 at 13:14
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Kids, even well after toddler years, tend to enjoy a hike in different ways than adults. We like taking our three out for walks in the woods, and have done so from infancy (some great baby pictures of Daddy carrying daughter in a sling!).

One possibility is that shorter outings will improve her outlook. Having small expectations was the hardest transition for us as parents. We can do a five mile hike easily and feel invigorated at the end. Anything more than a mile and my youngest reaches a point where he's totally done and can't stand the idea of walking another step. We accidentally took a five mile hike as a family (we didn't realize we'd taken a wrong turn until much too late) and it is still brought up by the kids as The Worst Vacation Idea Ever.

But if she's hitching a ride after only a couple hundred meters, "I'm tired" probably means "I'm bored and want attention." In that case, a distraction can be very welcome and help her forget the "exhaustion." The biggest boost to the distance my kids would walk on their own was setting milestones or mini-goals.

  • When we reach that funny shaped tree, I'll carry you for three minutes!
  • When we get to the next trail sign, it's time for a [trail mix, fruit, granola bar] snack!
  • Can you run up ahead and count how many of those little blue flowers are by the tree?

Creating a let's-pretend framework can also help. Maybe you're exploring a new planet, maybe you're hunting for fairies, maybe there is secret treasure along the path (e.g. shiny rocks!) that needs to be collected to fuel the car for the drive home. This is sometimes simpler if there is a sibling or friend along, since they weave their own game of pretend, but it's certainly feasible for an adult to initiate.

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    I realize (somewhat belatedly) that this doesn't really help communicate the idea of pushing oneself to go further on a hike, but sometimes a complex idea like that can be accomplished through different means :) – Acire Jul 20 '15 at 11:38
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    I like this. We have to remember that kids at that age don't have the same definition for words as we do. "I'm tired" for them can mean something completely different than what adult mean. Having mid hick goal is great, for adult just walking is fun, for kid it just mean walking to come back to the same place (which might be boring). – the_lotus Jul 20 '15 at 12:43
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    +1: My little boy and I go "Dinosaur Hunting", which means we yell and run away a lot. He'll run away from dinosaurs for hours, but ask him to hike for 5 minutes and he gets "tired" in 2 :) – Binary Worrier Jul 20 '15 at 13:51
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    I used to run a summer outdoors program for kids aged 5-7 years. All of them were wealthy city kids who were unaccustomed to being and walking in the woods. Early in the summer we started with walks of little more than .5 kilometers - always walking "to something" - with a number of destinations along the way. By the end of the summer we'd be doing 3 miles in high heat and humidity. Still we had to make sure we were walking with a purpose or destination in order to keep them going. It could be the next berry patch, that cool tree, the field, or the rocks - just so they know what's up. – That Idiot Jul 20 '15 at 14:26
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    @neelsg go for something like "if I'm carrying you then the faeries will hear us coming for sure" – Dean MacGregor Jul 20 '15 at 22:02
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At three or four years old we had this same issue with our oldest daughter. She would get used to me carrying her during the hardest parts of the hike, or when she got tired.

Our solution was that I would put her back on her feet when we came across trail markings, and she could only ask for me to pick her back up after two more trail markings have passed. This had the terrific side effect of teaching her to be aware of the trail markings.

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    As someone who is really terrible at noticing details in my surroundings, I love this idea. – Mark K Cowan Jul 20 '15 at 21:33
  • What is a trail marking? – MarkHu Jul 22 '15 at 18:24
  • @MarkHu: Strips of paint used to mark trails. I really thought that this would be something known in the world, but from some casual googling it seems that we only have them in Israel. – dotancohen Jul 23 '15 at 9:04
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I had the same problem with my four year old and was surprised that just letting her pick out a new colorful pair of running sneakers to "go super fast" was all it took to get her going much further without me carrying her. Maybe I just lucked out, buy you might try making a big deal out of a new shoe purchase.

Another idea is grab another kid to go with you. I have twins, and often they run ahead together too busy to ask for me to carry.

Or another idea is try having everyone in the hiking group take turns being the "leader". You follow your daughter when she is the leader, and maybe take turns.

Having your daughter pick a hiking spot and having a goal in mind also helps. Having a physical book (like this one) with hiking trails in your area with lots of pictures helps a lot. She picks a hike, and then is excited to go there and find the spots in the pictures. It also helps if things have fun names like "Rainbow Lake" or if you use your imagination and say look for the big black fish in the middle of the lake as we hike.

Be careful not to push her too hard or else you'll risk making her hate hiking completely.

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Great question, we have the same problem.

What we came up so far:

  • Singing songs, playing games ("I spy with my little eye") etc.
  • Simply telling her that she is too heavy to be carried.
  • Promise a reward if she manages it without carrying.
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    Thanks. I like the idea of singing songs and playing games. Will try that this weekend. I'll try the other suggestions if that doesn't work, but she can manipulate like a pro when you bring rewards into the picture. I think I'll end up giving her a treat for every single step she takes :) – neelsg Jul 20 '15 at 12:17
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    Never offer rewards (aka bribes) for something you want your child to enjoy doing -- it confirms that the activity is unpleasant and no one would do it without getting rewarded for it. On the other hand, you could have a "celebration" whenever she accomplishes something significant, the same way you celebrate a birthday, or winning a sport tournament. Don't promise it beforehand, but the first time she does a small hike by herself, go out for a fruit smoothie, or something else fun and healthy afterwards -- and you both get one, because you're celebrating her accomplishment with her. – Ossum's Mom Jul 25 '15 at 2:13
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One trick which worked marvels for me was, saying to him: if you are tired, you can run and wait for me under that tree over there, sit down and relax.

My son was often too tired to walk, but not tired enough to run to a shade under a tree where he can sit and look at me as I was walking.

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Try an alternative to carrying her the rest of the way.

Instead of having her be carried the rest of the way for the hike, start taking short (15 minutes or so) breaks to let her rest for awhile, before continuing on the trail.

This will mean that it will take longer for you, and you may have to shorten the full length of the trip, but it will give her time to rest, and give you both some time to bond (which may be what she's looking for anyway when she asks to be carried).

Individual adults have their own preferred pace for hiking, and kids are no different - adjust your hiking plans accordingly.

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You are looking at the problem as an adult, look at this as a three year old.

I walk -> 
I don't like it anymore -> 
I ask to get carried -> 
I like that...

Simple.

To break the cycle, communicate the way a three year old would.

While you are walking have three year old type conversations, about colors and heaven.

Don't walk, go from one place to another, like a tree or a rock and let the child decide sometimes (especially when the goal is obvious).

No more walking? Then skip, jump, hop, dance or wiggle your way, maybe just stop.

When you carry her, squirm and wiggle... communicate that it's hard for you the way a three year old would understand. I would carry her a way that she is not totally confortable, why would she want to walk otherwise?

But most important as you said it: she wants to play around, she does not want to be tired... would you blame her?

A three year old learns by doing. If it is fun no explanation needed, so show her!

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