12 authentic outdoor experiences for kids and families.
In today’s world, children become tech-savvy almost from the time of birth. Eight-year-olds gab away on cell phones while their three-year-old siblings masterfully navigate iPads. Meanwhile, spending time in nature is all but forgotten.
Though we work hard to provide our children with homes filled with eco-friendly flooring, BPA-free sippy cups and organic produce, we must acknowledge that a green upbringing is incomplete without extensive time in nature. The advice of 19th century educator Charlotte Mason to “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without” is as helpful a mantra to today’s parents as it was to their counterparts over 100 years ago.
The trouble is, we can no longer turn our children loose to roam the great outdoors without fearing for their safety. And the kids quickly become bored if we simply kick them out into the backyard. But there are plenty of safe and fascinating nature experiences that you can share with your children. Get started with these 12 ideas:
- Pick-Your-Own: These farms offer visitors the opportunity to harvest everything from blueberries to Christmas trees. Often, this literal fruit of your labor will come at a much less expensive price per pound, compared to buying the equivalent amount at a grocery store. In addition to obtaining fresh, affordable produce, children learn how food is grown and better appreciate the amount of work involved in harvesting it. Visit pickyourown.org to find a listing of Houston-area farms.
- Take a Hike: Visit a park with nature trails for an authentic woodland experience. Bring along a nature guide and attempt to identify leaves and flowers along the way. Bay Area residents need look no further than Armand Bayou Nature Center, which offers four trails as well as full-moon Night Hikes. If you desire to explore other large parks, consider purchasing the Texas State Parks Pass, which will allow you unlimited visits to all Texas state parks and state historic sites
- Keep a Nature Journal: Supply your child with a sketchbook and art supplies (charcoal pencils, oil pastels and colored pencils work particularly well for this purpose) and venture out to artistically interpret the natural world. Most times, my children and I fill our nature notebooks with images of the flowers and trees of our suburban lawn. But for greater variety, bring your nature notebooks along to area parks and nature preserv
- Make a Splash: For a refreshing nature experience during steamy summer days, visit an area river or lake. Bring along a canoe, kayak, or tube in which to float the day away. These non-motorized watercraft will enable you to quietly glide through the water and observe the many animals that call the area home. Check into the water levels of rivers before embarking—a river that is experiencing dramatically high or low water levels could pose a safety risk.
- Zip Through the Trees: Zip lining gives you a bird's-eye view of the natural world as well as the exhilaration of gliding through the treetops. There are several zip line canopy tours in the Hill Country as well as in the forests of Northeast Texas. Be aware that some zip line companies have weight and age restrictions; check these out along with the company's safety record before booking an excursion for your child.
- Gaze at the Stars: It's hard to match the simplicity and beauty of staring into a blackened sky that glimmers with the twinkling lights of hundreds of stars. Simply take a star guide and telescope into your backyard or experience more high-tech stargazing by visiting an observatory. George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park is open to the public on Saturday evenings for stargazing.
- Tend a Garden: Children gain much knowledge about the natural world through the task of keeping a simple garden. Engage your children in every aspect of your garden, from the planting of seeds to the watering and weeding, as well as the eventual harvest. Another advantage of this garden tending is that children are much more inclined to eat fruits and vegetables that they have grown themselves. Check urbanharvest.org for Houston-area gardening classes
- Visit a Farm: Many farms offer farmstays or farm days, providing families with the opportunity to experience farm-life firsthand. During these farm trips, your child may enjoy the privilege of milking a cow, feeding baby animals, and playing in a pile of hay. Find a listing of area farms on localharvest.org.
- Sleep in the Woods: The family camping trip remains the classic nature excursion. In addition to family bonding, use your camping trip to teach your child outdoor survival skills such as using a compass, building a fire and providing emergency first aid. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offers weekend workshops for families that teach skills such as camping, fishing, kayaking and archery. Check www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ for details.
- Visit the Shore: Bay Area residents have the upper hand in this nature experience, due to our proximity to the coast. After building sandcastles and enjoying the surf with your children, make sure to set aside some time for nature exploration. Walk along the beach collecting shells and watching crabs. Peer into freshly beached seaweed to discover the tiny sea creatures which may have hitched a ride on it.
- Walk on the Wild Side: View exotic animals at Houston’s world-class zoo. If you’re not comfortable with traditional zoos, there are other ways to enable your children to observe a variety of animals. Visit Bayou Wildlife Park in Alvin for a safari through 80 acres of natural habitat. If you have time for a longer drive, visit Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, which is a non-profit, rescue zoo.
- Go Geocaching: In this treasure hunting game, your children will use a GPS to find small containers stashed in area parks. Your children can enjoy the thrill of collecting these little treasures; just make sure to replace each trinket with something of equal value. Check out the Houston GeoCaching Society at hgcs.org for more information on this adventure sport.
In addition to providing wonderful opportunities for family bonding, these nature experiences will enable our children to have a greater understanding of the reasoning behind our practice of eco-friendly lifestyles. Only through this sort of experiential education can we truly pass the torch of environmental passion to the next generation.