Turn your family hike up a notch by going ‘creeking’

More than just a walk along a stream, this activity teaches kids about habitat health and biodiversity.

Forest trails and city sidewalks are great options for a family hike. But “creeking” can open a whole new world of exploring nature.

Creeks and streams support an amazing amount of plant and animal life, thanks to the combo of aquatic life and nearshore habitats. These diverse systems play a critical role in nature and are home to many threatened and endangered species.

"Think of the systems as being alive and stunning in many ways," says Mažeika Patricio Sulliván, director of the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and a forestry and ecology professor at Clemson University. "The variety of organisms found in and near them will be disproportionally diverse compared to other systems in nature."

And that can provide children with plenty of lessons in biodiversity. For instance, the stream and its shoreline are two distinct yet interconnected ecosystems that support diverse plant and animal communities, Sulliván says.

All these habitats provide food—plant- or animal-based—for critters living throughout the creek system. The roots and vegetation in the nearshore areas help filter water and prevent harmful sediment from building up, which can clog fish gills and bury essential food sources. And a stable shoreline prevents erosion, which can harm the waterway.

"The combination of these habitats makes the systems so interesting and impactful," Sulliván says. "You never know what you'll find in a stream or creek because they naturally vary."

Plus, creeks and streams drain into more extensive systems like rivers and oceans. Because the water quality and species in a local stream likely reflect the larger habitat, creeking can help children understand how habitats work together to stay healthy.

One of the best ways to explore creeks and streams is to get into the system and walk in the creek or stream. Here’s how to get started—as well as some activities to turn this learning experience into an adventure.

Getting started

• Creeking doesn't take much more than a hardy pair of shoes, but Sulliván advises parents to take some precautions.

• Respect the environment by not trampling vegetation alongside the creek, and minimize your footprint by walking single file in small groups.

• Kids will find lots of life by turning over stones. Just make sure only to observe the life—not take it with you.

• Especially with young children, avoid creeking after heavy rains; water depth and speed can change quickly.

• Children should never touch animals, but even some plants must be avoided. Do some quick research to learn about hazards in your local creeks and streams.

• Shrug off those minor slips, bug bites, bumps, and chilly water—they add to the experience and help kids build confidence and resiliency.

Activities for the best creeking ever

If you're worried your kids won't be engaged with just walking along a creek, try some of these fun activities recommended by Sulliván.

Start at the beginning. Find the source (or beginning) of your local creek, and begin your walk there. See if kids can point out how the creek habitats change as you continue downstream, and break the creek into sections if it’s a really long pathway.

Then reverse course. Once you hike to the end of the creek, head back upstream and see how things look from another direction.

Make a new map. Your local creek has small tributaries that are unlikely to be on a map. Explore these detours as you find them, and challenge kids to draw their own stream maps.

Inspect water quality—using nature. Kids don’t need a fancy water-testing kit to make guesses as to how healthy the habitat is. Just ID some insects. Species such as midges, blackflies, and mosquitoes are more tolerant to pollution; stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies thrive in cleaner environments.

Have some races. Healthy creeks have different “flow regimes” defined by the speed and depth of the water: fast-deep, fast-shallow, slow-deep, and slow-shallow. See if kids can figure out which regime they’re in by timing how quickly a stick or leaf floats from one point to another.

Discover the underwater world. Most creeks are shallow enough that children can see plenty of underwater activity when they’re perched above. This DIY underwater viewer is easy for kids to construct (all you need is a metal can, plastic wrap, and rubber bands) and can provide a glimpse into this mysterious world.

Explore microhabitats. A creek’s various habitats provide lots of opportunities to watch animals in action. Challenge kids to find animal behavior on land, in water, and on vegetation: for instance, a small mammal running along the shoreline, an insect landing on a flower, and a fish feeding below the water's surface.

Go forest bathing. Take five-minute forest-bathing breaks, which experts say is a great de-stressing tool. Have children stand (or sit) still and use all their senses—listen for animal sounds, feel the water temperature, smell and touch the tree bark. (This article has lots of forest-bathing tips.)

Look up. A creek is more than just the water flowing over its bed. Predators like birds are often perched in the trees above, ready to swoop down to snag fish or insects. See how many different kinds of birds kids can spot in one tree, and if they can predict what they’ll hunt for.

Look up again—for visiting birds. The ample food and vegetation along a creek also attracts migrating birds, so see if children can spot any feathered visitors. Have them take photos and note the size, color, song, and other distinguishing features to look them up later.

Try a night hike. Once kids are familiar with your local creek in the daytime, crank things up a notch and try the same walk after dark. They might spot bats instead of birds, raccoons instead of squirrels, and a whole new symphony of insect chatter. (This article has plenty of ideas for successful night hiking.)

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