Do you remember when “playing” had less to do with digital devices and more to do with running barefoot and climbing trees? Today’s children are used to studying and playing online. Sometimes their friendships are also online — with virtual characters.
Spare a minute and picture this: children’s muscles atrophying from sitting long hours on a couch or chair; the insides of their minds cluttered with images from the latest video game or TV series; their spirits stifled or lost in an unreal world, whether at school or home.
What if one single sport or activity could repair all these damages? What if our children could build better health in mind, body and spirit through an activity that takes them into nature to learn what they can never learn in classrooms with walls?
Trekking is an activity that tests, pushes, nudges, teaches, rewards and builds the child into a wholesomely healthy person. It awakens dormant muscles, ignites curiosity about the natural world, triggers joy and insights into the self and its relationship with the earth.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” We couldn’t agree more.
Children are usually more physically fit and carry less mental baggage than adults. They are also freer in spirit. This is why they thrive exponentially in the face of the opportunities that trekking offers to build their health.
We spoke to parents, children, psychologists and trek leaders to gather their perceptions on how exactly trekking makes children healthier. While it may seem rather obvious that trekking would build children’s health, we learnt that there are many nuances to the way this happens, especially in the current context.
Trekking is an activity that tests, pushes, nudges, teaches, rewards and builds the child into a wholesomely healthy person. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking triggers awareness about fitness
It was reported as far back as 2014 that the fitness levels of Indian children from 23 States is far from the desired levels. After two years of being shut into their homes, unable to go out or play, the children of today are likely to need fitness activities more than ever before. Given the shrinking space for outdoor play and severe lifestyle changes, children are not as fit as they used to be.
Fitness is compulsory for trekking. To walk long hours in high altitudes, children need strong muscles and bones, besides good stamina. Yet, sometimes the act of trekking (from school or a local club) triggers awareness on the importance of fitness in children.
Our team members recently observed that children who earlier could complete a trek in four hours are now taking six hours. “Over the years of being locked in, it seems that muscles have weakened and endurance has drastically reduced. The motivation to exert oneself has visibly reduced and the body has become lethargic,” observes Izzat Yaganagi, head of Experiential Learning at Indiahikes.
Trekking doesn’t just build a child’s fitness levels. It stokes their appetite for fitness. We have seen children who have trekked with us take home a determination to continue their fitness routines for life. Aditya Bodke, Slope Manager, Indiahikes recalls how a father and son duo had come on a trek together. The father’s fitness levels inspired the son to go back and build his endurance for more treks.
Trekking becomes even more important when you consider the high levels of Vitamin D Deficiency (VDD) among Indian children. It has been recorded that despite ample sunshine, VDD is prevalent among 50-90% of Indian children.
Trekking shakes children out of their inertia and leads to playing a sport or taking up a regular exercise routine. When schools and families step in to encourage these initiatives, the result is likely to be stronger and fitter children. As India stands on the brink of housing one out of every ten obese children in the world, building fitness for and through trekking cannot be over emphasized.
Trekking doesn’t just build a child’s fitness levels. It stokes their appetite for fitness. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking makes children more adaptable
City bred children are often spoilt for choice when it comes to lifestyle options. While trekking, the paring down of choices opens them to the possibility of living with whatever is available. They learn to swap luxuries for basic, safe and practical living arrangements in rugged surroundings.
Aditya describes how we design our treks so that children are made to face small and big challenges. From washing utensils in cold water, carrying their own backpacks, sleeping in sleeping bags and tents, not using water in the restroom – every aspect of the trek nudges them to adapt. By the second or third day of the trek, they have adapted to many things that they might have complained about on the first day.
When children learn to be flexible or to “go with the flow,” they experience significantly lower stress and less conflict. Learning to adapt to the situation and meet the demands of the moment is considered a key requirement, not just for better mental health, but also to become successful in life. Resilience — the ability to bounce back, is considered a key life skill for success and well-being. Resilience is born out of adaptability.
On a trek, the landscape, weather and the trek’s demands constantly shift. Children are forced to learn adaptability while trekking. On our treks, children are constantly nudged to build their mental muscles for coping with change.
Avni Meda has been trekking since she was 8. Now almost 14 years old, she has been on “three big treks and 4 or 5 small treks.” Her mother, Shilpashree, says that trekking regularly “has definitely made her more adaptable.” She has observed that Avni is willing to go with whatever lifestyle or food options are available — something that cannot be said of most urban children.
On our treks we see that parents are worried about how “fussy” their children can be but are surprised when their children simply adapt to the demands of the situation. Parents become aware that they are unwittingly feeding into the issue by protecting the children from their “dislikes.”
Nithya Poornima is a Bangalore based Clinical Psychologist. Formerly a faculty member at NIMHANS, she has worked with children for over two decades. While trekking with her son, Nithya noticed that “..not everything about a trek is pleasant for all children.” Trekking, in her opinion, brings “likes and dislikes” to the forefront. “Children become more aware of themselves, their emotions and preferences.” This becomes part of the training. On our treks, we constantly see children breaking out of their likes and dislikes. They adapt and learn to survive very hard conditions.
Avni affirms that trekking has enabled her to feel that “things don’t have to be only this way or that. I feel I can manage however it is.” Knowing this has helped her arrive at the belief that she can take care of herself in any situation, she says.
On a trek, the landscape, weather and the trek’s demands constantly shift. Children are forced to learn adaptability while trekking. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking connects children with nature
Nature is muddy and beautifully so. In the process of “evolving,” human societies have villainized dirt. Children are the worst hit. They’re often protected from “dirt,” the outdoors and mud.
Trekking lends itself to being more in contact with nature and “dirt.” It overturns the highly sanitised environment of the city. While trekking, children touch snow, soil, seeds, leaves, moss, tree trunks, rocks and more. They are exposed to dung and fresh mountain air. They drink water from mountain streams. All of this reconnects them with nature. They understand the role nature plays in their lives and their responsibility towards it.
In addition, it improves their immunity. According to The National Wildlife Federation, playing in the dirt exposes children to healthy bacteria, parasites and viruses — building a healthier immune system.
It is a boost for the mind as well. Studies have shown that contact with dirt can “significantly improve a child’s mood and reduce anxiety and stress… Dirt can even improve classroom performance.”
Writing about how disconnected urban children have become from nature, journalist and author Richard Louv coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder.’ In his book, ‘Last Child in the Woods’ (2005), he brings together “a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development. It is crucial for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.”
Our Experiential Learning (EL) treks are specially designed to include activities that rekindle children’s natural affinity for nature. Aditya shares how some children from a school group were initially hesitant to participate in an activity involving touching and playing with mud. The joy of mud-play turned out to be infectious, however. Everyone was soon elbow-deep in mud. The thrill of reconnecting with nature showed up as laughter, playfulness and the widest of smiles.
The connection with nature precipitates new inner connections within the child’s body and psyche. Nithya Poornima recalls interactions with Caroline Essame, an occupational therapist from Singapore and founder of Createcatt. While talking about how developmental capacities emerge from different experiences, Caroline Essame had noted that people who are exposed to “imperfect surfaces” (like the mountain trails) have a chance “to keep their brains and bodies more active, which leaves them more sensorially integrated and confident,” says Nithya.
Meera Krishna is a Tai Chi teacher and independently conducts treks with her husband Murali Krishna. Meera says that when children connect with nature through trekking, they experience healing in very wholesome ways.
“Trekking no doubt rejuvenates the internal organs. Even one intense trek per year can bring very real benefits to the body,” she says. What sets trekking apart from other physical activities is “the oxygenation it brings to the body with very fresh air. When you go trekking it is in nature. The very air and vibe of the forest has a different influence on the body.” She sees trekking as far more than a physical activity. It is an activity that makes one fall into a “natural state of connection with nature,” according to her.
According to The National Wildlife Federation, playing in the dirt exposes children to healthy bacteria, parasites and viruses — building a healthier immune system. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking can help children heal from the effects of the pandemic
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported that 31 Indian children died by suicide every day in 2020. We know this is not the whole picture on children’s mental health after the pandemic because suicides are underreported in India.
Children have been indoors for almost two years. Summers that should have been spent outdoors turned out to be stressful times of being locked in. The pandemic has deprived children of many kinds of stimulation and interaction vital to their growth, says Dr. Sai Kirthi Kamath, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist from Bangalore, who has been working independently with children for close to two decades. As a result, “speech, socio-communication issues and autistic features seem to be on the rise, in paediatric cases,” she says. In older children, increased cases of “addiction to gaming” have been observed, besides a “loss of contact with reality.”
It is in this context that she emphasises how trekking is beneficial for children’s mental, physical and emotional health. She has observed more “resilience, adaptability, better decision making skills, better social skills and confidence to survive any situation” in children who are exposed to nature and trekking. “Tactile, sensory and motor abilities are a lot better when you are outdoors. It is extremely important to expose children to these possibilities through the outdoors, especially in these times,” she says.
She personally advocates trekking and has sent her children for camping and trekking trips that involved not being in touch with them for almost a week. “Right from packing to how they take care of themselves to how they engage in group activities to how they adjust there (and at home when they get back) – is beautiful to witness,” according to her.
The pandemic has deprived children of many kinds of stimulation and interaction vital to their growth. Trekking can help reverse that. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking gives children a break from digital worlds
It is a known fact that the overuse of digital technology by children leads to innumerable physical and mental health problems. A study has linked excessive screen time with developmental delays, particularly with respect to language and communication, especially in children below 5. A recent news report described how children’s health has deteriorated due to increased screen time, after the pandemic.
Aditya opines that “this is not necessarily their fault – it is just the way the system has become. Children, as young as ten, have texted me from their own phones after a trek.” In the mountains, children are cut off from their “screens” to a great extent. Children thoroughly enjoy this exposure to non-virtual reality. They become newly alive to their surroundings and relationships.
“When you are with nature, the mind is absorbed by a lot of sights and sounds from nature,” says Dr. Sai Kirthi. On the other hand, children are “exposed to cyberbullying and social media through digital screens. They live and relive these experiences leading to a bundle of negative emotions,” she says. This is why children with mild to moderate symptoms of depression are first advised to be part of some physical activity in the outdoors.
Walking in unpredictable terrain and weather while immersed in nature, children get to meet themselves, their peers or even parents in newer ways. This is very nourishing for them. Disconnected from their devices, children connect with their parents in ways they could not in their lives back home, says Swarada Ghangurde, Senior Trek Leader, Indiahikes. She often observes this on the family treks conducted by Indiahikes, she says.
Walking in unpredictable terrain and weather while immersed in nature, children get to meet themselves, their peers or even parents in newer ways. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking gives children happy memories
Avni stresses that this is what makes trekking very important to her. “Trekking gives you experiences that you can cherish for a long time. Whenever you’re in a sad mood, you think of those times and you liven up so much – because you know that that side of the world is always there,” she says.
Studies have linked happy childhood memories with better health in the long run. People with fond memories from their childhood are less likely to experience chronic illnesses and mental health issues like depression, say researchers.
Izzat has observed many children creating happy memories, with other children or their families during Experiential Learning treks with Indiahikes. She says these are especially healthy for the children because they have been created in an environment “free of materialism,” in a space where there is nothing that money can buy, while engaged in an activity that brings joy. She shares that though it may seem like those happy memories formed in childhood matter less over time, studies have shown that they play an important role in better physical and mental health when people reach middle age or old age.
“Happy memories of childhood are fading. What do families do together? The city families go to malls or resorts,” she says. “Holidays” that involve touristy activities require constant planning, commuting and expense. There is opportunity for conflict. “Parents return exhausted and children – agitated, from such holidays. When families go on a trek – even if it is a small, day trek, they get to see and experience each other in a new way, away from the stress, distractions and compulsions of everyday life. Our Experiential Learning treks become an opportunity for children to make happy memories and acquire the emotional muscles for long term wellness, says Izzat Yaganagi.
Happy memories formed on treks are especially healthy since they have been created in a space where there is nothing that money can buy. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Trekking is like “a multi-vitamin” for children
Trekking develops and grows children into better health in unmatched ways, says Izzat, referring to it as “a multi-vitamin.” As children trek, nature calms their minds. Their bodies become stronger in every muscle and ligament. The learning journeys they cover leaves their spirits soaring. Trekking thus enables children’s holistic health in ways that few other sports or activities can.
These are times when children are made to believe that academic achievement is of paramount importance. While many measures may still be taken towards building their physical health, their mental and emotional wellness is not paid much attention. The privileges of a protected life do not allow children to experience any difficulties, leading to emotional fragility. The concept of “playing outside” has also taken a beating for many reasons beyond our control.
Lifestyle related illnesses, obesity, rising suicide rates and the damages inflicted by the pandemic on children’s physical and mental health have led to a drive towards schools and families exploring outdoor Experiential Learning Programmes for children. It is in this backdrop that trekking becomes an unparalleled and joyous option to build children’s health and wellness.