Jack's Penguin Slide

where and why we take a hike

a place kids can meet what they eat

I guess, strictly speaking, a farm might not be considered nature.   On the other hand a really good farm can do a lot with and for nature.  Our CSA (community supported agriculture) is Angelic Organics in Caledonia, IL, but really any farm will work.  Check your local extension office listings for local farm tours.  We went on an Alpaca farm tour in Minnesota a few years ago that was pretty awesome

Number 12: Angelic Organics farm and learning center.

Why we love it: We live just a couple of miles away from our CSA farm, which means we can pick up our weekly box at the farm and enjoy a look around while we are there.  Jack has been able to see where the vegetables he eats come from, what they look like growing in the field, and has helped me harvest from the u-pick fields.  (We’ve also u-picked strawberries, blueberries, and his favorite raspberries from other local farms.  And in the case of black raspberries, from a local park.)  I can’t say it enough, I think it is so very important that children know where the food they eat comes from.

Where it’s located:  Our farm is located just off Rockton Road in Caledonia, IL. Your farm can be anywhere!

Jack’s favorite Farm activity: We recently attended the annual open house where Jack got to pet a goat and pick up a hen.  How cool is that?

Image

Leave a comment »

places for kids on bikes

The list of bike trails in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota is extensive.  And this family still has many miles to go, before we’ve biked through even a small portion.  But, so far, here are some of our favorites.

Number Eight: The Stone Bridge Bike Trail that starts in Roscoe, Illinois and ends at Illinois Route 173 (where it meets up with Number Nine: The Long Prairie Path).

Why we love it: It is such a handy, dandy path.  The start of this bike path is just a few minutes bike ride from our front door.  We use it (in conjunction with the Roscoe/Rockton city bike paths) to get to a variety of local places like the ice cream shop and the library.  We could in theory get all the way to Harvard, Illinois and jump on a Metra train to Chicago.  Not something we’ve done…yet.

Where it is located:  The Stone Bridge path starts for us in Roscoe where IL 251 crosses Rockton Road (last exit before or first exit after the tollway, depending on where you’re coming from).  The bike path is part of the Natural Land Institute and doesn’t have a real website, but you can find information on it at places like trail link on the web.

Jack’s favorite Stone Bridge Activity: The highlight of the trail, is of course the Stone Arch bridge over South Kinnikinnick Creek that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  But Jack tells me that the hard to find Geocache at the cow pass near where the path crosses under the tollway, is his favorite spot to stretch his legs.

Numbers Ten and Eleven: The Sugar River Trail and the Badge Trail in Southern Wisconsin

Why we love it: We’ve biked portions of this trail several times, starting each time in Monticello, Wisconsin where the two trails cross.  Heading North on the Sugar River Trail takes us to New Glarus home of the New Glarus Brewery and a rocking Octoberfest.  Heading North on the Badger Trail takes us to the 1/4 mile long Stewart Tunnel.  Going through the tunnel requires a flashlight and is in Jack’s own words “super spooky”.  Both trails follow old rail beds, and are easy and fairly level, with lots of birds, butterflies and wildflowers to view along the way.

Where it’s located:  follow the link to the website for information on trail heads and user fees.  These paths connect with others that go to Madison, the Illinois boarder and beyond.

Jack’s favorite Sugar River Trail Activity: A ride into New Glarus usually ends with lunch and a trip to the Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus.  Chocolate being the key word there.

Image

Leave a comment »

places for the birds and your kids too

We are a birding family.  You don’t have to be to enjoy the next few places on our list, but our bet is you will soon become one…

Number Four: Nygren Wetland Preserve in Rockton, Illinois (managed by the Natural Land Institute)

Why we love it– Birds, birds, birds.  Once the water thaws in the spring this is the place to see all kinds of migrating birds including Sandhill Cranes and The American White Pelican.  I know you’re thinking, Pelicans?  In Illinois?  You’re kidding, right?  But I’m not.  Pelicans seriously migrate right through our town to their summer homes on the Great Lakes.  In the heat of summer you can also see turtles, frogs and snakes.  If you’re really lucky you might see a river otter.  We haven’t been lucky yet, but we keep trying.  The preserve has an easy (about 2 miles) interpretive walking path with signage about the restoration of the wetlands and the things that live there.

Where it’s located– Off Rockton Road, just west of the quaint little town of Rockton.

Jack’s favorite Nygren activity– Bird watching (of course) from the observation deck.

Image

Number Five: Sand Bluff Bird Observatory in Durand, Illinois

Why we love it-This small bird banding operation (the birds are small, not the operation) is open to the public.  They band migratory birds on weekends in the spring and fall and will let you watch and answer all your silly questions.  Jack and I will be learning how to check the bird nets, in order to volunteer here, and perhaps expand our bird knowledge.  In May (usually Mother’s Day weekend) they host Bird Fest!  It is a great introduction to how and why birds are banded.  You can tour the nets with a guide and maybe even get to carry a bird back to the banding station.

Where it’s located– It’s actually kind of hard to find, but the web site gives decent instructions.  And it’s well worth the drive.

Jack’s favorite Sand Bluff activity– Taking a hike up to the hawk banding tower.

Image

Numbers six and seven: Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area and Horicon National Wildlife Refuge near Horicon, Wisconsin

Why we love it– Run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service respectively, Horicon’s combined acreage makes in the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States.  There are trails for biking and hiking, a neat boardwalk, and plenty of camping close by.  And in case you haven’t guessed yet, lots and lots of birds.

Jack’s favorite Horicon activity– There are more turtles here than you can shake a stick at.  But don’t shake a stick at them, that’s kind of mean.

Image

Leave a comment »

Two More Places to Take Your Kids

As long as we’re talking about great (and did I mention free) parks in the Northwest Illinois area, we should have a nice long discussion about the Winnebago County Forest Preserve.  We’ve been slowly making our way through the list of forest preserves since we moved here and Jack was born 10 years ago.  We haven’t hiked them all yet, perhaps because we’re partial to our favorites.

Number Two:-Hononegah Forest Preserve in Rockton, Illinois

Why we love it-This small and venerable (it’s one of the oldest) preserve is located a mere two miles down the the street from our house.  We are connected to it by bike path, and it’s a great place for a muddy mountain bike ride in the spring. It is also the first place we took Jack camping.  Raccoons stole our bread, but that didn’t deter Jack from the beginnings of a lifetime love of camping.  And we’ve been going strong ever since.

Where it’s located– Just outside of the quaint little town of Rockton, Illinois.

Jack’s Favorite Honoegah activity-He has a secret climbing tree here.  That’s all I’m allowed to say about the topic.

Number Three-Sugar River Forest Preserve in Durand, Illinois

Why we love it– We took our first annual Thanksgiving day hike here when Jack was still toddling.  The trails are both easy and interesting, with some beautiful oaks and the possibility of seeing deer.  A hike from the River View Shelter can end at the children’s playground, which was always a great incentive for Jack.  Plus they have camping, some primitive sites are even on the Sugar River.

Jack’s favorite Sugar River activity– Being a human sundial at the children’s playground.

Image

Leave a comment »

50 Places to take your kids in the Midwest

My husband, who knows my great desire to get kids outside, showed me an article from Outside magazine, 50 great family adventures.   While I applaud their desire to get families out into nature, these over-the-top $20,000 “dream” vacations, are way out of reach for the average American family.  So, Jack and I got together and came up with our own 50 Great Family Adventures not far from our own back yard.  Most can be done in a day or a weekend.  All are located here in the Upper Midwest, which was (in my opinion) sorely underrepresented in the article.  True, we don’t have mountains or an ocean coast line, but there are still plenty of learning opportunities and places to make lasting memories here.

Number One: Rock Cut State Park, Rockford Illinois

Why we love it– With over 40 miles of hiking trails, we never have to take the same hike twice (although we often do our favorites again and again).  Rock cut also has great tent camping right on the lake and canoe rental.  We like to take a canoe out for bird watching on Pierce Lake, where we have been lucky to see an abundance of  herons (blue and green), black birds and turkey vultures.

Where it’s located– Just off I-90 on 173 in Rockford, Illinois.  It was recently given it’s very own exit.  If you want to stay the weekend, but don’t want to camp, there are plenty of hotels in the area.  Also, if it’s raining when you visit (like it often does for us), there are some great museums in the area where you can relax and dry off.

Jack’s favorite Rock Cut Activity– Mountain Biking!  There are both paved trails and dirt tracks to ride on, making it a shady place to take a ride in the hottest months of summer.

Image

3 Comments »

boxes

My 3-tray, hand-crafted worm bin arrived yesterday (vermiculture, woot woot!) in a box just begging to be upcycled.  When I unpacked it this morning, I left the empty box sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, wondering if Jack was still of an age to be interested in an empty cardboard box.  It’s been awhile since we’ve had a box of any significance in the house, and I thought maybe at 10, he had outgrown the obvious attractions.  Does the child who snipes zombies online with friends, still have room in his heart for an empty box?

Imagine my joy then, when we came home from breakfast at Denny’s (pancakes, woot woot!) and the child asked “can I make something out of that box?”.  After some deliberation, it was agreed that it was the perfect size for a Sarah Dog house, and then we spent a wonderful couple of hours crafting the dog her own bungalow.  Now if we could just convince her to go inside it.

Image

Leave a comment »

rocks

A third easy way to introduce children to nature is with rocks.  Rocks are easy to overlook.  They just sit there, everywhere, all the time, not doing much.  But Rocks can be so much fun.  They can be touched, stacked, circled, and even thrown.  Jack especially likes the throwing part and we’ve skipped and thrown rocks all over the state and country.  I just make sure that we are alone when we’re throwing.  I wouldn’t want to disturb anyone else’s nature experience.

Jack’s second favorite rock activity is stacking.  I myself prefer a good spiral.  Sometimes we collaborate.  And sometimes we throw rocks at our collaborations.

But what can rocks teach kids?  Colors, counting, math, patterns, time, history, erosion….  The list can be as big as you make it.

Here are some rock inspired photos.

Image

Rock spiral on the beach in Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin

Image

Getting into the potholes near Taylor’s Falls, Minnesota

Image

Throwing rocks at the sunset at Lake Elwell in Montana.

Image

My rock stack at Lake Minnewanka in Banff, Canada.

Image

Jack’s rock stack at Lake Minnewanka in Banff, Canada.

Image

Red rock heart at Illinois State Beach.

Image

Someone else’s excellent rock pile at the top of Mt Elbert in Colorado.

Leave a comment »

birds

Birds are another easy way to connect kids to nature.  I have been telling Jack the names of the birds we see since he was a baby, but it wasn’t until we had a sick day viewing of the movie The Big Year last spring, that he showed any interest.  He ended 2012 with 89 different birds sighted.  We are going for 100 in 2013 and have already logged a Canada Goose.

Birds are a great way to get children to interact with nature because they are so accessible.  Birds can be seen in almost any yard with a feeder.  They can be seen any time of year.  They are good tools for talking about migration and ecology.  And they are pretty.

I used to play a bird game with Jack when he was little.  We would find a nice grassy place to sit down and close our eyes for a minute or two.  During that time we would see how  many different bird calls we could hear.  Then we would compare what we heard.  Jack has always been better than me at hearing the birds.

Here are a few of my favorite birding with Jack pictures.

Image

Canada Geese at Nygren Wetlands in Rockton, Illinois

Image

Looking for birds at Springbrook Nature Center in Coon Rapids, Minnesota

Image

Red Winged Blackbird attacking a Great Blue Heron at Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Illnois.

Image

Biking and birding at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin.

Image

Heading out to do some hiking and birding at Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Image

Getting up close and personal with a Clark’s Nutcracker in Banff, Canada

Image

Canoeing and looking for Green Herons at Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Illinois.

Image

Watching Turkey Vultures at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin.

Leave a comment »

trees

Trees may well be the easiest connection children (or any of us for that matter) have to nature.  When Jack and I go hiking, we are constantly pointing out to each other really “great” trees.  Jack is encouraged to explore the trees he finds interesting, including to climb them.  The great thing about trees is they are almost everywhere, including back yards, and local parks and gardens.

Trees are great teaching tools for all ages.  Little kids like to touch the bark and pick up the nuts, seeds and leaves that fall to the ground.  Trees can teach them new vocabulary and about textures, shapes and colors.  Older kids can learn about natural cycles of living, growing, and dying from trees.  They can discuss how trees provide shelter, food, oxygen and erosion control.  And of course there’s always time to relax in the shade and read a book or draw a picture.

Here are some of my favorite tree pictures of the last few years.

Image

We’ve been lucky to be able to do some traveling.  Here is a younger Jack playing hide and seek in the roots of a tree in the rain forests of Costa Rica

Image

Fall colors at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin

Image

Finding an interesting tree in the middle of Chicago.

Image

Trees make great jungle gyms!

Image

Checking out the remains of a stump at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Image

Being silly in hollow logs at Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin.

Image

Taking a break at Interstate Park in Taylor’s Falls, Minnesota

Image

This tree was made for climbing at Bunker Hills Park, Minnesota.

Leave a comment »

This is Jack

This is Jack.  He is a wonderful child.  Part of that is probably luck, but some of it comes from the time and effort we put in to getting him outside.  He’s been toddling around a camp sight since he could walk.  He’s been hiking since he was 4.  He’s been backpacking since he was 8.  He’s been over rivers, through jungles, up mountains and under water.  But you don’t have to take your kids anywhere far away or special to get them outside and into nature.  You just have to take them.

Image

 

Tree pose above Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada

Leave a comment »