Learning about the outdoors is a work in progress for my family despite the fact we are outside all the time and I’ve been writing this column for 10 years. But when I’m asked how I learned about trees, birds, the night sky and a whole host of other useful (and maybe not so useful but fascinating) tidbits about the outdoors, I think back to my family’s early adventures. When my kids were younger I spent a fair amount of time looking for family-oriented classes. Not classes where I dropped my kids off. No, I’m talking about classes where adults and kids could learn together.
These type of classes are more common than they used to be and I am happy to see this trend has taken off in southern Maine in a variety of venues.
Below is only a short sampling of options based on my family’s first-hand experience (both recent and during my kids’ younger years).
WOLFE’S NECK WOODS STATE PARK, FREEPORT
My children’s first introduction to tree identification was a ranger program at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park. We went on a tree “scavenger hunt” (now called the “Tree Hunt”) with a worksheet and pencil. We returned a short while later with an almost-blank worksheet and spent time chatting up a patient ranger who gave us tips on how to look at trees to figure out what kind they were (it’s not just about leaves; bark matters too). We still have that hand-out, now nearly 8 years old, in our family scrapbook.
I contacted Andy Hutchinson, park manager at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, about ranger programs this summer. These programs are offered every Saturday and Sunday until June 15; on June 16 the ranger programs are offered daily through July and August at 2 p.m.
Hutchinson said one of the highlights is the “Osprey Watch” scheduled every Tuesday and once every weekend in July and August.
“In July the babies in the nest should be learning to fly and fish. In late August or early September, the baby ospreys should be self-sufficient and ready to migrate to South America on their own, after the parents have already left for South America themselves.”
SOUTHWORTH PLANETARIUM AT USM, PORTLAND
I have taken my kids to planetarium shows since they were preschoolers and they have always loved the experience. Despite having seen some of the shows in the dome multiple times, we still seem to learn something new we missed. But mostly my family likes the mythology and other storytelling orientated programs offered there now that they’re older.
There are also some changes in store for the Southworth Planetarium this summer. They have given the “Rusty Rocket’s Last Blast!” show a makeover. The new computer-animated omni-dome program, which will debut July 15, will offer even veteran planetarium-goers a chance to see and learn about the solar system in a new and entertaining way. Show admission prices for shows range from $5 to $6.50/per person, depending on matinee or evening showtimes.
The planetarium is also teaming up with Portland Trails to offer star watching walks along some of the trails this summer. Check trails.org/programs for more information.
WELLS RESERVE AT LAUDHOLM, WELLS
There is a fun, easy trail system that leads to the beach that we have always enjoyed, particularly in the spring before it actually warms enough to swim (although that doesn’t stop my youngest from rolling up her pants and giving her feet a cold water dip). There are also a wide variety of special programs, guided tours and general nature walks that are open to all ages. Some programs have a small fee while others — like the ones I list below — are free with the cost of admission ($1/kids; $4/adults).
We attended a bird banding program once and the girls were fascinated with the concept of how that kind of research is conducted.
Suzanne Kahn Eder, education director at Wells Reserve, said a popular family-oriented program at the reserve is the “Life Between the Tides Walk.” Families explore the “biodiversity of the intertidal zone at Laudholm Beach.” The docent-led walk looks for crabs, sea stars and snails with about a mile of walking. There is another program, “Secrets of the Salt Marsh,” that explores the estuary and also focuses learning on marsh habitat.
One of the special programs in July, “Flying Jewels,” will explore the wonders of dragonflies and butterflies. The Reserve’s natural resource specialist will explain the role the different habitats of the Wells Reserve play in the life cycles of these creature. Nets will also be available to see if participants can catch one for a close look at the fascinating insects. This program will be held July 24 at 1 p.m.
Families can also get a hands-on experience helping native species with the “Monarch Rescue.” This citizen science program allows families to join a team of monarch rescuers to find and move monarch eggs and caterpillars to “safe” fields that aren’t mowed in the summer. It’s Aug. 14 at 9 a.m.
GILSLAND FARM, FALMOUTH
There are a variety of family-friendly programs at Maine Audubon centers around the state. A program that has been a highlight for my family has been the “Bird Walk” program at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. The Thursday morning walks are all about the early bird catching the worm since this program starts at 7 a.m. But as my kids and I can confirm, it was worth the early morning wake-up call. We have learned so much about birds, not only from the Audubon guide leading the walk, but also with the other participants. It’s a program geared for novices to expert birders. The times we’ve attended have been a great opportunity to chat with other birding enthusiasts in a way that has been low key and educational for all ages. The cost of this program is $5/members; $8/nonmembers.
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