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How to Take Kids on Night Hikes

Boy playing with flashlight camping lamp on hideout
Going outside at night can be exhilarating for kids. | pabst_ell/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Spending time outside at night opens up a whole new world for kids, exposing them to new sounds, new smells and new feelings they don't usually experience. And making it a learning opportunity is easy!
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When you're thinking about summer activities for your kids, you probably have plenty of ideas for things to do outside — nature walks, swimming trips and beach days. But you may not be thinking about a different time of day to spend time outdoors: at night.

Spending time outside at night opens up a whole new world for kids, exposing them to new sounds, new smells and new feelings they don't usually experience. It can be exhilarating for kids to be outside after dark, making the actual darkness less scary, said Wendy Paulson, a nature educator and teacher who was known as the "nature lady" when she worked in schools.

"Nighttime is kind of a forgotten opportunity, and it's really special," she said. "Children may have learned from others that it's scary, but it doesn't need to be; it's a wonderful time to be outside."

Paulson recommends going outside without a flashlight because, she said, "vision can be a crutch." When your vision is dimmed, you can experience your other senses more strongly.

"Going out in the dark sharpens your hearing and smell, even touch, your fingers can become more aware of the air," she said.

Other nighttime activities Paulson recommended include stargazing, including using a phone or tablet app to identify constellations. You can also use apps to look up frog calls and look for fireflies or other insects.

"If you take flashlights, you can hold the light right beside your eyes and focus it forward, and it can catch the sparkle in animal eyes, or even spider eyes," she said. "They're really tiny, but when the light catches them, they look big."

You can also make a nighttime walk into a learning experience with fun activities. Emily Mullen, a nature guide, said she takes groups out at the time of day when dusk is transitioning to night when people have a heightened awareness of their senses as they lose their eyesight.

Here are other fun activity ideas for group nighttime hikes.

The disappearing head trick. "If you have two people who are 10 to 15 feet away from each other, and they stay very still, you stare at each other's heads, and eventually their head blends into the darkness behind them. This all has to do with photoreceptors in our eyes, called rods and cones. The cones see color; rods see movement, greyscale and shape. The premise of the disappearing head trick is with low light and someone who's not moving, the eye can't differentiate between someone's head and the background behind it, so it just disappears; you become this headless person."

The one-eyed pirate game. Another lesson Mullen likes to teach is about night vision. "When it's dark, your eye builds up an enzyme called rhodopsin that helps you see better at night. To demonstrate, you light a candle, then cover one eye, and have the group stare at the candle while you tell a two-minute story. I usually tell a story about a pirate with a patch that covered his eye, so when he goes into the dark hull of his ship, he can move the patch from one eye to the other because one eye has its night vision preserved and the other doesn't. Then I blow out the candle and have them move their hand from one eye to the other, and you can see the difference, how much more clarity you get with the night vision eye when you shift your hand from one eye to the other.

Orange peel demonstration. Also with a candle, Mullen said she takes an orange peel and, with the inside facing out, so the pores are facing outward, squeezes the peel into the candle. "It will poof up like a little fireball for a second because citric acid is flammable, and the mist is so fine," she said. "You can talk about when you're building a campfire; you use small sticks first because smaller sticks have a higher surface area to volume ratio, and that's the same as spray particles."

Wint O'Green LifeSaver demonstration. Using Wint O'Green LifeSavers, Mullen makes a demonstration about triboluminescence, which is like bioluminescence seen in fireflies and plankton when animals light up. "With Wint O'Green, you can smash them between your teeth and see green sparks, which is called triboluminescence. When your teeth break apart sugar crystals, it causes a reaction that releases ultraviolet light. It's usually not visible to the human eye, but part of the oil they use in LifeSavers reacts with ultraviolet light."

If your surroundings are dark enough, you can see sparks as you chew!
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Mullen said you could also use two quartz rocks rubbed together to create sparks.

"At the beginning of the activities, I have kids look up at the sky, and then as the activities progress and it gets more dark, I have them look up again, and you can see far more stars," she said. "I tell them, 'the more you look, the more you see.' You can also learn to look at stars using peripheral vision instead of looking directly, and you'll see a lot more, again because of rods and cones."

Other activities suggested by Phebe Meyers, the community programs senior manager at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, include hanging up a sheet and shining a light on it to attract insects, making shadow puppets with hands, storytelling and walking in the dark to a place you usually go to during the day to see how it's different.

Of course, when you're going outside, it's important to remember safety. Ensure you bring a flashlight to help you walk, even if you turn it off once you begin to do the activities. Also, be sure to wear bug spray, walk in a safe place and never go alone. And if you are uncertain, you can find a museum or another group to join instead of going it alone. For example, try the Santa Monica Mountains Fund, the San Gabriel Valley Trail Walkers, the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve in San Diego County or the Los Angeles County Chapter of the Sierra Club. In addition, Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Fleet Science Center in San Diego offer guided nighttime stargazing.

Please note that some events may still be paused due to COVID-19.

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