5 Nature Places to Explore with Kids

Planning a family outing? Consider a trip to these natural sites in the U.S. and inspire your kids to love the great outdoors.

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Outdoor activity can develop a child's motor skills and coordination, improve attention span, and stimulate creative thinking. "Natural outdoor environments provide a context in which each kind of play is often more complex, extended, and self-determined. In natural spaces, children have a freedom to play in ways rarely possible in even the most developmentally appropriate indoor environments," say Janet E. Thompson and Ross A. Thompson, authors of Natural Connections: Children, Nature, and Social-Emotional Development.

Soaking up some sun offers the protective health benefits of Vitamin D, which prevents early childhood and lifelong diseases such as bone disorders, heart disease, and diabetes. Get your kids to exercise, enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, and have fun learning about the world. Here are five types of outdoor spaces to explore and play with your child.

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Randall Schieber

Gardens and Arboretums

Most communities have either a small native plant garden at a local college campus or park or a 100-acre courtyard at a museum estate. If you're walking the grounds with a younger child, let him lead the way along the well-paved paths ahead of you. Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, who wrote the research paper From Playpen to Playground: The Importance of Physical Play for the Motor Development of Young Children, says that "motor experiences for infants and toddlers should be fun, relaxed, and internally motivated rather than overly directed or evaluated." Point out things your child might find interesting, such as seasonal flowers, trees, and wildlife. If you're exploring with an older child, have him identify various plant families -- the amazing New York Botanical Garden has 50 collections on 250 acres! Gardens and arboretums also offer children's programs and family events such as concerts, scavenger hunts, and family activity days.

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Jason Lindsey

Nature Preserves/Wildlife Refuges

Nature preserves and wildlife refuges are natural environments within a community that are sectioned off to protect certain species of local plants or animals. Whether they're in a dense redwood forest or on open wetlands with coastal vegetation, children can learn how local wildlife coexist in habitats and ecosystems; they can spot bunnies and lizards and cross bridges to new discoveries. Talk to your kids about why these areas are in need of protection and how preservation efforts are making a difference. The Bolsa Chica Conservancy in Huntington Beach, California, was established to restore and preserve wetlands that provide food and shelter for endangered local and migrating birds. Visitors' centers offer unusual items for viewing, like a box full of bones and antlers to touch, and bugs preserved in glass.

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National Parks

In 1872, President Grant signed a law making Yellowstone the first national park in America. The U.S. National Park Service was created in 1916 to protect and conserve national parks, to leave them to future generations. Today, they encompass prehistoric structures, archaeological sites, historic military battlefields, and the longest cave system in the world. With more than 17,000 miles of trails and habitat protection for endangered species, national parks offer ample opportunity to explore nature, and the historic sites are the perfect place to teach kids about important events from the past that shaped our culture. In California, you can walk through groves of giant Sequoia trees, the world's largest living things, at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Further east, you can visit early American buildings and battlefields within the "historic triangle" at Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia that includes Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

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Kaysh Shinn


A trip to the beach offers kids ample space to dig, sift, and search for different kinds of shells and sea life. Point out the sand crabs, pelicans, and dolphins, and talk to your kids about the creatures that once inhabited empty shells on the shore. Go tide pooling at a beach with a rocky shoreline and look for sea stars and urchins. Explore your creative sides by building sandcastles with moats and tunnels. No two beaches are alike, so visit a number of locations to sOne beach may be a wide-open space with nothing but sand; another may be positioned below tree-lined bluffs with rock formations in the water. how kids how the coastline changes.

You can see the remains of an old shipwreck on the beach at Fort Stevens State Park in Hammond, Oregon. Take a few minutes to sit together, listen to the waves, and watch the sunset. Explain how tides have highs and lows that are controlled by the moon, and that the water comes much further onto the beach during high tide. Help your kids identify a water line from an earlier high tide.

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Beaches offer a glimpse of sea life above the surface, but aquariums allow kids to learn about life below. At aquariums, kids can see underwater communities of tropical fish living among coral regions or see how kelp forests serve as a shelter for crabs, eels, sharks, and more. Touch tanks allow kids to get up close and personal with sea creatures they normally wouldn't be able to touch or observe, like sea cucumbers, urchins, and skates. The largest aquarium in the world is the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which houses beluga whales, whale sharks, dolphins, and manta rays. By contrast, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California, is about the size of a department store and houses tanks of sea life found locally in the Monterey Bay. Many aquariums are indoors, making them an ideal place to spend a rainy afternoon.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

Heidi Deal is a freelance writer and mother. She focuses on writing about issues that affect children, parents, animals, and the environment.

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