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Hi! My name is Chris, and I'm writing this blog to share my passion...nature!
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As with any activity, please use your discretion and only do things that you deem are safe based on the age of your child and your location.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Find a natural space in your area!

There are so many beautiful parks, forests and scenic drives that it’s hard to know where to begin.  Today’s post will give you nine web resources for finding parks and other natural spaces in your area.

Try starting close to where you live. There is so much you can explore in your own backyard and throughout your neighborhood. There are also local parks, historic sites and walking trails. These are the types of places you are more likely to visit often for walks and bike rides with the family.

Then, venture out a little further…into your state or a neighboring one. Our family has found what we call a “gem” that we visit each year. Below is a picture of beautiful Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in upper Michigan.

Finally, there are those once-in-a-lifetime type trips…places that are farther away but with some planning you are lucky enough to find them and visit. For our family this was our South Dakota trip. By far one of the most beautiful and memorable trips we have ever taken. Below is a picture I took when we were in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota (see below for another image from that trip).

Start looking for one of the many beautiful spaces that are near you!

  • Local parks. Check your county web site, or do a web search for County Parks, Nature Centers and Botanical Gardens.
    • Search with the terms “your county name” county parks
    • Search with the terms “your county name” roadside parks
  • Trails for walking, hiking or biking. Check out Trail Link, and search by state. This site is part of the Rails-to-Trails conservancy, which creates networks of trails using former rail lines.
  • Want to go somewhere you can take the family dog? Many of the state parks now allow pets into campgrounds and on trails. Just check the park web site or call to be sure.  For everyday walks and dog park fun you can also search Dog Park USA.
  • State Parks. Check out this site to find a state park in your area. You can also…
    • Search with the terms “your state” state parks.  (Often you can order a recreation guide through these sites free of charge.)
    • Search with the terms “your state” Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  The DNR site for each state varies in how they present their information, but most should have state parks, state forests, lake information and state trails (for biking and walking).
  • National Wildlife Refuges are another great resource for finding public lands and waters. These areas are set aside to conserve wildlife, plants and fish.
  • National Park Service. This site lists almost 400 National Parks, and Scenic and Historic Trails. Search by park name, location, type of activity or even by topic of interest (glaciers, wildflowers etc).
Below is an image of North Bar Lake in Michigan (it's part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore). We took this picture from an overlook on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. It is unique in that it is attached to Lake Michigan via a small outlet (which happens to be a great place for kids to play). We could check out Lake Michigan with it’s big waves and cool water and follow the outlet between the dunes to swim in the smaller and warmer Bar Lake (which is almost hidden in the picture), all in our few hour stop.

  • National Forests. The U.S. Forest service lists National Forests and Grasslands by state.
  • Scenic Byways. These are selected roads throughout the US that are recognized and preserved for historic, natural, scenic (and other) qualities.
The image below was taken from Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway where the trees frame Mount Rushmore. Just amazing! 

  • Want to go camping? Many of the State Parks and National Forests use Reserve America to list their campsites (private sites are listed as well). Here in Wisconsin we can also go through our state DNR site to find a park, and be automatically linked with the Reserve America system (so you may be able to as well). Search the state you want to go to, and they’ll show you a campground map, the services & amenities offered there, and often will even have pictures of the individual campsites.

I hope you find this list useful. It probably doesn’t cover all the natural areas you may find where you live, but it’s a great start. I apologize for any followers living outside the US as the information in this post covers mostly US locations (since that’s where I am and what I’m familiar with).

Remember...before heading out to a new-found park or lake, check their months of operation and hours.
You should also watch for specific information regarding usage.  For example, some trails may be strictly for walking, while others are set up for hiking, biking skiing, snowshoe walking and snowmobiles. When looking for a lake, some may be better for swimming, while others are best for fishing.
      • Have a great idea that I didn't include?
      • Suggestions for future post topics?
      • Just let me know in the “comments” section.  Thanks!

For information on how to make the most out of your time in nature, see the post Let’s Connect With Nature.

To reference this post directly, use this link.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trees please!
Ten activities that will foster an appreciation for trees in your child.

Every fall I look forward to going to one of our local apple farms. Our son gets to see where apples come from and how they grow on the tree. We get to pick them ourselves and eat them right from the tree, and we walk through several acres of trees smelling the fresh apples (and some not so fresh that have fallen on the ground). We get to smell, taste, touch, see and hear. The next time you do an activity with your children (or scout group), try to incorporate all the senses, and see how it takes your experience to a deeper level.

Here are some other activities that you can do to inspire gratitude for the plant that gives, every day.

  • Trees give us so many different products! Print off this list of things that we get from trees (it’s from the Idaho Forests Products Commission). Go around the house and either point out the items or ask your child to guess what items came from a tree. (Tip for scout groups…this also makes a great memory game for a group of kids. Gather 15-20 items that come from trees, put them on a baking sheet or tray and cover with a towel. Show the items to the group for 10 seconds before taking the tray away. Ask the kids to write down as many items as they can remember. See if anyone can guess what the items have in common before you mention trees.

  • Be a tree! This works inside, but for the best effect head outside on a sunny, breezy day. Find a tree to be near and pretend that you are a tree. For younger children keep it simple. Stand with your eyes closed and imagine your feet are anchored to the ground like roots. Spread your arms out and wiggle your fingers like branches. Sway back and forth when the wind hits you. For older children, use this great script from Joseph Cornell’s book Sharing the Joy of Nature, and experience the life of a tree through all four seasons.

  • Get a new perspective! Look up close to a tree and far away, feel the different textures of the leaves, the bark, and the branches. Hug a tree! Try to slow things down. Sometimes we’re so caught up in the hectic pace of our everyday lives that we either forget to slow down or have a hard time doing so. Close your eyes and listen to the leaves rustle and the branches creak. Smell the air, the bark and the leaves.

  • Animals need trees too! Ask your child what the tree provides for animals? Who uses the branches, the trunks and the leaves?

  • Try real maple syrup! In spring, head to a local nature center or camp to see how Maple trees are tapped to make maple syrup and maple sugar. Some places sponsor a breakfast where you can come and try the freshly made syrup on pancakes.

  • What does a tree see? Imagine you’re high up in a tree. What would you see?

  • Look under a fallen tree or log and see what you find!

  • Do a bark rubbing! With one sheet of paper and several colored crayons rub the bark of 2 or 3 different types of trees.

  • Make a mystery box! Explore the sense of touch by placing different objects from trees in a box. Have your child touch the items, one at a time (without removing them) and describe the textures. Have them try to guess what it is. Try using twigs, buds, maple tree “helicopter” seeds, pine needles, bark, acorns, leaves, pinecones etc.

  • Identify one or two types of trees. Find a tree identification guide at your library or purchase one. There are also a few online guides like this one from the Arbor Day Foundation.

 I hope you have a wonderful time exploring trees in your neck of the woods!

For some ideas on what to take with you when you explore, take a look at my post Making a Discovery Backpack

For some great winter activities, visit my post The Wonder of Winter.

To reference this post directly, use this link.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Why are our children spending less time in nature?

When I was a kid there wasn't an endless array of kids shows to watch on TV. We had some toys, but nothing compared to what many kids have today (my son included). We did get Nintendo once we were a little older, but I don't remember spending all that much time playing it. What we did spend a lot of time doing was playing outside. There were about ten kids that lived nearby, and we romped around the neighborhood for hours every day.
We collected caterpillars in a little red wagon, caught grasshoppers in gallon ice cream containers with holes poked in the top, and explored the small wooded lot behind our house (now a retirement community). Outside was where we wanted most to be, and it's probably where our parents wanted us to be too.

What was once an integral and very important part of my childhood has at the very least significantly declined (if not disappeared almost all together) in the younger generations of today.

Today, so many different things contribute to children spending more time inside. Below is a list of the factors I feel are mostly responsible. My hope is that being aware of these may help your family incorporate more time outdoors into your lives.

  • TV. It seems like there are more shows for kids than there were all shows combined when I was young. It's almost like a drug of sorts. My son is perfectly happy camping for a week with no TV, but when we're at home, he'd stare almost mindlessly at it for hours if I'd let him.

  • Over-stimulation. We are so bombarded every day with TV, computers, cell phones and the business of life, that we often don't even hear what's going on directly around us (not to mention how much of our time is filled using said gadgets). Some of my mom friends have expressed that they have a hard time relaxing enough to sit and read. I think many people have lost the ability to be still, and to be comfortable just being with ourselves. And those are gifts I want to pass along to my son! Is it possible to be content when we feel like we're missing out on something if we're not hooked up to our electronic gadgets? Try to make it a point to unhook from everything for a weekend. It's hard to make a real connection with nature if you aren't still enough to hear it, see it, touch it and smell it.

  • Less leisure time (Louv, 2008). We make a conscious effort to not over-schedule our son (and our family in general) with different activities. Mainly because he doesn't adapt well to rushing around all the time, and any fun or learning we'd hope to gain from it would be lost. Also because it takes away from any free time we'd have to be spontaneous. Many of our best adventures (and greatest nature finds) have been when we've ventured off the “plan” for the day. It makes for great memories!

  • School structure. Today there is less recess time and more national curriculum requirements, both of which contribute to less time for outdoor play and study (Louv, 2008, p. 205). There is also so much pressure for kids to learn more (and sooner) in school. I was amazed at how structured and learning-focused my sons kindergarten class was last year. It used to be about play time, socializing, and learning to get along with other children. Now they are expected to learn incredible amounts of information (letters, numbers, beginning math and reading) and are even tutored if they are behind. It just blew my mind!

  • Parents (myself included) are much more cautious today. Richard Louv states (2008, p. 117) that parent's fear of things like stranger danger, traffic and even nature itself, prevents them from allowing their children the same freedom they had when they were young. I do give my son time alone outside to play (while I watch by a window), but he still doesn't have the freedom to explore outside the yard without me, even though I did at his age. We try to make up for this by spending as much time as we can outside with him, taking walks, going on bike rides and taking mini trips to local parks. We also camp as often as we can.
These are the factors I feel have the most impact on the amount of time children are spending outdoors. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. To find out more about this topic you can read Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Another great resource is the Children and Nature Network web site.

Louv, Richard (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Rev. ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

To reference this post directly, use this link.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Making a Discovery Backpack

Whether it's for camping, hiking, a day at the park, or some fun in the of my sons favorite things to do is gather up his nature discovery backpack and head outside. This is such a great way to get kids up-close with nature, and allow them (in safe ways) to come up with how they want to explore it.

The contents of his discovery backpack vary depending on where we're going or what he's in the mood to do that day. But basically it contains some of the components below.
  • Child-sized backpack (preferably with a small outside pouch to hold a water bottle).
  • Pocket Magnifier
  • Binoculars
  • Compass
  • Flashlight
  • Clear plastic zipper bags for collecting things
  • Plastic container (like a small margarine tub) for holding bugs and other small creatures. Please remember to always release them back into nature!
  • Camera (My son uses our old digital camera, which he loves!)
  • Shovel (We use a small plastic one from the sandbox toys.)
  • A journal & write about, or draw pictures of, their discoveries (you can usually get small spiral bound notepads at the dollar store). Sometimes we'll print out pictures of any new creatures we've seen that day so our son can glue them into his journal and then he'll write a sentence or two about where we found it.
  • Plastic (grocery store size) bag. We always collect litter everywhere we hike. It teaches our son that litter doesn't just “go away” and he gets to contribute to helping clean up the earth.
  • Hand-held kitchen strainer for catching tadpoles and pond insects. Can work as a sifter in a sandbox or at the beach too.
  • A pocket field guide for birds, trees, insects, or anything else that interests your family.
  • Water and snacks
We keep his backpack ready to go...packed and in the coat closet, so that he can access it any time. Make sure you add any other gadgets your children use when they play outside. Drop me a note if you find that your kids love packing something specific that I haven't included here. And happy exploring!

To reference this post directly, use this link