Although most American families have probably never considered spending their weekends combing through the woods searching for mushrooms, this activity has actually been a regular part of many eastern European traditions for hundreds of years. Children in most European countries become mushroom hunters at a very early age; it's a part of family life as they are taught to be foragers both for dinner and for fun.
According to the Mycological Society of America, most kids who are taught about mushrooms can identify what is edible by the time they are teenagers and often delight in what they bring home. European children never hear adults referring to mushrooms as slimy, nasty, dangerous or dirty. Mushrooms hunting is in their bones and part of their heritage.
So how can you and your family take part in this fun and family friendly, not to mention inexpensive way to enjoy nature's bounty while building your own traditions? Here in the United States many have developed a certain misconception that mushrooms are somehow dirty or dangerous.
Children with cleanliness obsessed parents are often kept indoors far too much which often leads to a whole host of problems including an increase in obesity, ADHD and other behavioral problems as well as a disconnect from the natural world (Last Child In The Woods, Richard Louve).
So the first thing to remember about mushroom hunting is that it is very important for kids (and adults) to feel safe and comfortable in in the outdoors and in the woods. Please be assured that touching mushrooms, even poisoinous ones, will not harm you unless ingested and even then, very few are actually deadly. So don't be afraid to take your kids out on a good mushroom hunt. Kids are natural mushroom hunters. They are curious, energetic and love to run and and play in the woods, turning over logs, rocks and kicking up leaves.
Buy an inexpensive guide for your area and make a game out of it, like BINGO. Take along small plastic containers to if you want to take samples and definitely take a camera in case you come across one you can't identify. Mushrooms come in all colors, shapes in sizes, sometimes weighing at several pounds. Older kids may want to take spore prints which can be a real fun activity but for younger kids, just the hunt may be enough.
When asked what his favorite part of mushroom hunting was 7-year-old Race Els, who just began mushroom hunting last year, replied: "I love that there is always the possibility of finding something completely new, maybe new to the entire world. I feel like an explorer, which is really cool."
So as fall approaches and the leaves begin to fall, don't wait. Get out there and explore!
Sources include Missouri's Wild Mushrooms and The Mycological Society of America.