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It’s children’s mental health week from 3rd-9th February 2020. This is an issue very close to my heart as I have four children aged between 7 and 20. My children have all been walking with me since they were tiny, and I am convinced that long-distance walking improves children’s mental health. All four of my children are healthy, happy and thriving.

Rise of technology

The rise of technology has led to children spending more time indoors than ever before. A study conducted by Persil in 2018 found that by the age of 7, children will have been looking at screens for an average of 456 days. That’s the equivalent of four hours every day. Goodness knows what terrifying statistic Persil may have found if they had researched children older than 7.

It is perhaps not a spurious correlation that 1 in 8 children and young people also suffer from a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety or conduct disorder.

As parents, we spend a great deal of our time and energy worrying about the physical health of our children. But their mental health should be just as important. I believe that limiting screen time, getting outside and walking is one of the best ways to help our children to become resilient, confident and strong – both physically and mentally.

Getting outside

We have been taking our children out into the hills with us before they could walk. The eldest two are now 17 and 20, and they still enjoy walking and wild camping with us when work and study commitments allow. In fact, our eldest son recently completed the West Highland Way by himself – his first solo adventure! You can read about his experience here.

Walking the Pennine Way, aged 9 and 12

Of course, taking children into the remote outdoors (and especially into mountain environments) is a massive responsibility. Adult supervision is crucial, and we spend a good deal of time and energy making sure that the children understand the importance of following our instructions first time. When the children were younger, we took them on walks we knew well. This meant we could change the route easily if we needed to.

I’ve previously written about five basics to consider when walking with children here.

One of our youngest children’s first ‘proper’ walks in Derbyshire. He was two years old in this picture and he walked from Win Hill to the summit of Mam Tor, and back through the valley to Castleton.
Time to play in the river – supervised, of course!

Find your brave

The theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week, run by the charity Place2B, is ‘Find your Brave’.

Place2B define bravery as follows:

“Life often throws challenges our way. Bravery isn’t about coping alone or holding things in. It’s about finding positive ways to deal with things that might be difficult, overcoming physical and mental challenges and looking after yourself.”

To me, this could be written about walking. Long-distance walking improves children’s mental health as it teaches them to face difficult situations with resilience (the weather, a tricky bit of path, having to walk an extra couple of miles to find a wild camping spot). It teaches them about real life, rather than living inside a computer game or on a screen. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches them what’s really important in life: cooking a meal, setting up shelter, and keeping warm and dry.

It’s not always sunny and dry! An important lesson in resilience.
As above, about 11 years ago – note that the girls are wearing the same jacket in both photographs! Good gear lasts well…

Long-distance walks

I think the long-distance, multi-day walks are especially good for mental health, both adult and child. There is something soothing in the rhythm of walking day after day, and the stresses of everyday life quickly get left behind.

Long-distance walks require discipline to complete, especially in bad weather, and this is an important life lesson. It teaches the children resilience. I also think it teaches the children to trust us, as we help them to get through a particularly difficult part of the walk.

The children have now completed several long-distance walks, and you can read about how they got on here:

The Weavers’ Way and the Boudicca Way in Norfolk, the Isle of Wight Coast Path, part of the South West Coast Path (Land’s End to Perranporth), the Cumbria Way, Wainwright’s coast to coast, the Pennine Way and the Gower Peninsula.

These walks are quality family time. The younger children especially love it when our teenagers walk with us, as they get to spend time with them.

Quality family time on long-distance walks
The boys

Wild camping

Whenever we can, we like to wild camp (mainly because it keeps the costs down!)

You can read my 11 wild camping rules here, and my best walks for wild camping here.

Wild camping is a great adventure for the children, and it is great to show them how you can make yourself warm, dry, sheltered and fed with just the contents of a backpack – and no electricity.

A wild camping adventure in Cumbria – no electronics in sight

There are so many mental health benefits to long-distance walking and wild camping. Children stand to gain so much from these experiences – much more than staring at a screen ever could.

I could not think of doing any of my long distance walks with children, without my waterproof phone. I use it for navigation and safety. Read my review of the GPS and mapping here and My Ulefone Amor 3W phone review. It’s reassuring to always know exactly where we are, in case we need to change the route for safety etc.

Further reading

My 11 wild camping rules

Books about facing a personal challenge in my 9 inspiring books about the outdoors

Other walks the children have completed: the Weavers Way, the Cumbria Way, the Isle of Wight Coast Path, the South West Coast Path and the Pennine Way.

Walking 1,200 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats, including the three peaks, totally changed my life: read my account of the walk here.

You can also follow me on Twitter @wildwalkinguk

Wild Walking UK note:

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