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Having been a kid until recently, legally speaking (and, internally, for probably the rest of my life), I know all about the wonder and excitement that comes from being immersed in nature, surrounded by the calls and chirps of an orchestra of unseen animals, and being dwarfed by and seeing my parents equally small among impossibly tall trees or rock formations. Getting out of the house and into the wild was a special treat, since my parents were 9-to-5ers, and it was always too hot in Las Vegas to go out by myself.
Now that I’m older, I routinely forget that every once in a while I need to get back out, away from the sharp unnatural angles of the city, my apartment, and the corners of the bills that keep showing up every month without fail. I need to get back to the trees, to the crisp air, and to paths that were made by water and generations of animals rather than people and asphalt pavers.
Here are five places that make it easy to stoke out your kids on adventures in nature (and which can be pretty fun for you,too).
1. The park / forest
Maybe it’s really difficult to get out of the city limits. That’s why nearly every major city in the country (and much of the world) has a park of some sort. Park staples include grass (which comes with a host of experiences every kid needs, like grass stains and the itchiness), trees, maybe some body of water or a garden, and, if you’re lucky, a handful of animals. Go have a picnic or collect some bugs or enjoy a moment of silence while your kid cartwheels herself sick. Either way, the park is the easiest way to get a little nature into your and your child’s life.
I’m of the opinion that regardless of where you live, your kid needs to spend some time in the woods, to climb trees and feel the mossy squish underfoot (and, of course, if you have the opportunity, do some ziplining). The first forest I can remember visiting was Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco, and if you’re looking for the mac-daddy of forests, that one will do. There’s something magical about being enveloped in mist and the impossibly red bark of trees so big you can climb inside them. And when I say you, I mean adult you — those trees are freakin’ huge and crazy old.
Make a day of it, teach your kids about how trees make oxygen, and that forests like that aren’t everywhere because of deforestation and why it’s important we conserve the forest (which, admittedly, was a lot for my young brain to grapple with, and I think I cried about it a little at the time, but it was an important lesson nonetheless). Either way, the forest is a necessity in a ‘natureducation.’
2. The canyon
Mother Nature is beautiful, but she’s also a kickass force to be reckoned with, and that’s apparent nowhere more clearly than in a canyon. Even better if that canyon is surrounded by desert — a hostile environment, everything spiky (if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting one in person, a tumbleweed can be an asshole), where the ground is harsh and jagged, and, yeah, it’s really hot.
I remember going to Red Rock Canyon in Nevada in the middle of summer when it was really too hot to be outside and marveling at the animals that managed to make life happen without air conditioning. Watching lizards do push-ups (yes, this is a thing), and seeing bobcats off in the distance scaling sheer cliffs of burnt-red sandstone.
Later, following the Calico Tank trail down between sheer walls to the cooler shade and softer ground below, I learned that the canyon landscape exists because of the slow wear-and-tear of moving water and wind over an impossible amount of time, which threw my short life into harsh perspective. Again, a moment where young me came a little too close to the big realizations and questions about life, but the canyon made it easy to shake those off and get lost in the reds and tans of the land.
3. The (insert body of water here)
Another must, be it the ocean, a river, lake, stream, whatever (and, yes, make him wear that god-awful tacky life-vest — it’s a rite of passage). Some of my fondest memories throughout my entire life have happened on water, from weekend trips to Lake Mead on a dumb pontoon boat with my dad, to summer floats down the Clackamas River in an inner-tube with my besties, and even a guided boat tour down Glen Canyon.
Being able to get sun-drunk and safely interact with a bottomless body of water, to paddle at the surface while musing about what sea-beasts lurk below, and to, again, feel very small in the wide world, is the perfect recipe for a great day and a forever memory. Plus, if your kid is the brand that somehow never stops bouncing off the walls, a full day of swimming at the lake will guarantee that she’ll sleep the whole car ride home and the entire night after.
4. The wildlife refuge
The purpose of the wildlife refuge is to create a microcosm of an ecosystem and protect the plants, land, and wildlife from the ever-broadening expanse of people. With some 560 refuges in the US alone, you should be able to find a variety of habitats relatively close to wherever you are, and should definitely take your kids to experience the other side of nature, the multitude of non-humans with whom we share the planet. Each reserve is home to its own population of animals with their own unique and perhaps unusual behaviors, which really need to be seen (and subsequently explained).
Take Kofa National Wildlife Refuge near Yuma, Arizona. The 665,000 acres of desert are home to a variety of wildlife doing their wild thing. The bird-watching there is prime, with easily seen species including the American kestrel, northern flicker, Say’s phoebe, cactus wren, phainopepla, and orange-crowned warbler. Catch them in August, and you’ll see the bighorn rams fighting for dominance and mates by running headlong into each other (a perfect way to broach that awkward subject). So when your kid wants to see some animals and get a dose of nature, skip the zoo; go to a refuge.
5. The backyard
When I was younger, I had a couple of books of the One Small Square series. The idea was this: Rope off a one-foot-by-one-foot square and study it. Catalogue all the kinds of leaves, dirt, rocks, bugs, and debris — literally anything you can find in that small square. Draw them, research them (the books were specific to types of places, so you could just look up and reference what you were finding), get super scientific about it. As a kid, I loved that stuff, grouping and organizing and cataloguing and researching, and spent hours teasing apart my one-square-foot plots like I was going to make the next biggest archaeological find.
The gem of this, of course, is that it can be done literally anywhere you have a small square — the front yard, the backyard, the small grassy patch behind the apartment. It costs nothing and will get your kid interested in the smaller stuff while, for a change, making them feel big among the infinite ants, rolly pollies, spiders, leaf bits, twigs, and grass roots of the world.