By Sandy Kauten
In light of how wildly rainy our fall has been so far, you might be excused for not going on a family hike on the weekend and allowing your kids to have extra screen time. But you’ve heard the statistics. Spending time outside is supposed to make you (and your kids) happier, healthier, and even wealthier (think gas money saved when you ride your bikes). So what’s a conscientious, but not hankering-to-to-hiking parent or caregiver to do?
To start with, don’t beat yourself up! Not EVERYONE in Oregon has to be a nature nerd. It’s okay if you don’t want to be buddies with bugs and would rather read a book about hiking than actually set foot on a trail. There are ways, however, that you can help your kids connect with nature that don’t involve you hanging out with creepy-crawlies or trekking for miles.
First, think about your friends and family. Without a doubt, there’s someone in that group who loves to spend time outside – fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, bird watching, running, gardening – there are all sorts of possibilities. And at least one of those folks also loves your children! Invite someone to share their outdoor passions with your kiddos. Nature adventuring with children can actually be a real treat for folks who don’t have kids of their own – or whose young ones are all grown up. Alternatively, offer another family whose kids you like to spend time with a trade – you take my kids for a hike and I’ll have yours over to make pizza.
Next, remember there are a myriad of ways to learn about and appreciate nature, and not all involve going outdoors. Why not start with a visit to the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History (mnch.uoregon.edu)? First Fridays are free, second Saturdays are for families, and third Fridays feature Little Wonders pre-school stories. Check out their cool Explore Oregon exhibit for sure. The Eugene Science Center (eugenesciencecenter.org) can also provide indoor entertainment and sponsors monthly Tot Discovery Days and early STEM story times. Their current exhibit Sun, Earth, Universe and their ongoing Discovery Room cover lots of interesting natural ground. The Adventure Children’s Museum (adventurechildrensmuseum.org) in Valley River Center is another fun place to visit, and provides a variety of opportunities for imaginative nature play, including a Pacific Northwest camping playspace and a pretend beekeeping exhibit. (Interestingly, all three of these museums are close to nearby natural areas. The MNCH has a courtyard that features native plants, the Science Center is in Alton Baker Park, and the Valley River Center is right on the Willamette River…just in case you decide to venture outside for a breath of fresh air!) Beyond museums, don’t forget public libraries. Books and movies about nature can inspire kids (and maybe even you?) to explore the real world outside.
Finally, remember there are actually plenty of ways to spend family time outside without committing to an all-day endeavor or a long, wet trek in the mud. A visit to the Cascades Raptor Center (cascadesraptorcenter.org), with its live eagles, owls, and other birds-of-prey can be a fun, short adventure, requiring minimal walking and providing lots of wildlife bang for the buck. For outdoor exploring with the five-and-under crowd, try a Nearby Nature Green Start Play Day (nearbynature.org). At these morning events, every second Tuesday of the month, kids and their caregivers get a gentle intro to spending time outside, with simple games and hands-on activities in the Learnscape Outdoor Classroom. Nearby Nature’s Haunted Hike in October, featuring a pumpkin-lit walk through the park and costumed critters from nature nearby, is also a short term outdoor commitment, and provides an evening of learning about local animals. Finally, mark your calendars for Play in the Rain Day on November 9th, an awesome free event sponsored by the Youth in Nature Partnership (youthinnature.org) that offers a day of easy-to-access outdoor fun for kids of all ages at Mount Pisgah Arboretum.
So yes, even if you’re not-so-nuts-about-nature, you can find ways to connect your kids with the wild outside and make sure they enjoy the healthy benefits of spending time outdoors. And you never know, if you take it step-by-step, one of these days you might just find your feet on that hiking trail after all, and discover that nature’s actually kinda cool!
—Beth Stein is the Executive Director of Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The organization hosts summer daycamps in local parks as well as school programs, special events, and restoration projects. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see nearbynature.org.