Thursday, April 7, 2016

Where to Go Birding with Kids

Photo: Kim Foley MacKinnon

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

In 1916, the Moose Hill Bird Sanctuary was established in Sharon, Mass., after Dr. George W. Field gave his estate to Mass Audubon with the goal of attracting birds and people interested in them. Today there are 56 Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries located around the state—and spring is a great time to introduce, or reintroduce, your kids to birds and birding (suggestions on where to go birding with kids below).

To get your kids interested in and excited about birds, I highly recommend Life-size Birds: The Life-size Book of North American Birds, just published last winter by the longtime birder Nancy J. Hajeski. The amazingly gorgeous and detailed oversized book (14 x 12 inches) features life-size photographs, a “Fact File” panel with bird stats including length, wingspan, and weight, as well as the best times for birdwatching. It’s a great resource and while not written specifically for kids, it will draw their attention—and it's fun to peruse together.

When you're ready to hit the wild, we love the following spots. (Call or check the websites for event registration info.)

Mass Audubon is celebrating its 100th anniversary on Saturday, April 9, 2016, with free admission at most of its sanctuaries, guided nature walks, and family friendly activities. Naturalists will guide explorations of local habitats on beach walks, trail hikes, and along mountain peaks. There will be nature-inspired games and scavenger hunts, animal-inspired arts and crafts, and pond and wildlife observation. Visit the Mass Audubon website for a free ticket.

Rhode Island
The Norman Bird Sanctuary on Aquidneck Island offers free guided bird walks every other Sunday from 8 to 10 a.m. Established in 1949, Norman's mission is to maintain the land “for the propagation, preservation, and protection of birds, and where birds and bird life may be observed, studied, taught, and enjoyed by lovers of nature and by the public generally so interested in a spirit of humanity and mercy.” In other words, it’s an ideal place for kids to learn about our feathered friends.

Maine Audubon hosts a Spring Owl Show with Birdsacre at Fields Pond at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on April 30, 2016. Visitors will meet Grayson from Birdsacre in a live owl show featuring a close-up look at different species and lessons on owl behavior, habitat, and more. Birdsacre is home to permanently injured birds that are unable to survive in the wild, including some that help educate the community about the unique and amazing qualities of their species.

Don’t miss Owl Tales presented by Connecticut Audubon at the Center in Fairfield, 10:30 a.m. on May 14, 2016. Kids can meet the center’s nonreleasable owls up close then head into the woods to look for signs of wild owls. All ages are welcome, but children must be able to sit on their own during the talk. Pre-registration required: 203-259-6305, ext. 109.

Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find trip ideas in AMC’s community for families, Kids Outdoors.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Trail Games: Activities to Keep Kids Moving and Motivated While Hiking

Roving hide and seek lets kids make use of good hiding spots along the trail. Photo: Ethan Hipple
 By Ethan Hipple

Let’s face it: Sometimes kids just don’t want to hike. They may be tired; the hill might be steep; the weather may be hot. Remember that, for kids, hiking can be hard work and downright unenjoyable if they feel like they’re on a forced march. On occasion, the kids. Will. Just. Stop. That’s when you need games.

I don’t know how many miles, exactly, trail games have helped motivated our kids along, but it’s dozens, at least. Whereas, in the past, you would have decided to throw in the towel and head back to the car, trail games will enable your family to keep moving towards your destination. Below are a few of my family's favorites.

Roving Hide and Seek
One of our favorites, this is best played with slightly older kids who you aren’t worried about wandering off the trail on their own. Basically, this is hide and seek played while hiking. It's surprisingly fun and exciting—and, we think, better than the original! The hider runs ahead on the trail and finds a tree, rock, or object to hide behind (or under), ideally within 10 to 15 feet of the trail. The rest of the group keeps hiking while the hider hides. Rotate hiders so everyone gets a chance, adults included. Kids who used to whine and struggle will be running up the trail to find the perfect hiding spot!

Have someone with a camera or smartphone walk ahead on the trail and take a macro—or super close-up—shot of an object along the trail: a mushroom, a knot in a tree, a crack in a rock. The close-up should focus on part of the object rather than the whole thing. (If you take a picture of the entire object, it will be too easy to find!) When the rest of the group catches up to the photographer, define a small 10-by-10-foot area—and then it’s a race to see who can find the object first. It takes just minutes to play, but the fascination of finding hidden objects in the woods makes it fun and keeps you moving!

Hiking Scavenger Hunt
Who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt? This one is really simple: Make a list of items everyone has to find, and the first one to find them all wins! (Kids don't have to actually collect the objects; they can announce their finds to the group for a Leave-No-Trace-friendly approach.) Here’s a list to get you started—but get creative! (Stumped? Find more scavenger hunt tips.)
  • Four different shades of green
  • Something blue
  • Heart-shaped rock
  • Piece of litter (Pick it up and carry it out!)
  • Something made by humans

One person thinks of someone whom everyone in the group knows. It could be a friend, a teacher, a family member, or a celebrity. The players try to guess the identity of the person, but unlike 20 questions, you can only ask rhetorical questions rather than yes or no questions. All questions must follow the format: “If this person were a _______, what type of ______ would they be?” Fill in the blanks, asking what type of car, food, weather, city, geographic feature, animal, et cetera the person would be. The first couple of answers sometimes reveal the identity of the person, so we have a rule that you must ask at least five questions before guessing. The real fun of the game is figuring out the “essence” of the person you are trying to guess.

Twenty Questions
The classic. The one that started it all. One person thinks of a person or a place; the others get 20 yes-or-no questions to guess what or who it is.

Tree Huggers
This is kind of like hiking musical chairs, with tree identification built in. One person serves as the Tree Master. As you are hiking, the Tree Master calls out the name of a tree (oak, for example). Everyone then has to run and hug an oak tree. Last one to hug an oak is out. Continue until only one person remains. That’s your new Tree Master. We can play this for miles.

Trail Bingo
Everyone picks one object you're likely to spot on the trail; for example, a stream, a hiker with blue shorts, a squirrel, and a red backpack. After everyone has chosen an object, play begins.
  • The game works like Bingo: Everyone is looking to find the same objects, but only one person can claim each sighting.
  • If you come across a hiker wearing blue shorts (or a squirrel, a stream, et cetera) the player who sees the object first should say, “BINGO! Blue shorts!” You must say BINGO first!
  • No one else can claim those blue shorts. They must spot and call out other blue shorts.
    If you find a group of something, like a group of several squirrels, that sighting counts as only one squirrel. Only one person can claim squirrels; everyone else must find another squirrel or group of squirrels.
  • The first person to find and call "bingo" for all of the objects chosen by the group wins.
  • Make sure the objects you choose are neither too rare nor too common. If you're trying to find a tree while on a hike, the game will end instantly. Try finding a birch tree or a dead tree.

This is great for kids who are learning their alphabet. Starting with the letter "A," everyone has to find something along the trail that begins with "A" before moving through the rest of the alphabet.


Think of a specific category, such as state capitals, foods, countries that begin with "M," sports teams, et cetera. Everyone takes turns naming something that fits into that category. Play rotates through the group until a player can’t think of something within a 5-second time limit or an answer gets repeated.

This post is adapted from Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Get more advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find trip ideas in AMC's community for families, Kids Outdoors.

Friday, March 11, 2016

6 Bike Paths to Explore This Spring with Kids

Add The Island Line Trail in Burlington, Vermont. Photo: Ethan Hipple

By Ethan Hipple

With winter coming to a quick end in New England, many of us are eyeing the bikes packed away in the garage. When the air warms and the spring peepers prepare to emerge from the mud, it's time to dig out the bikes, grease up the chains, pump up the tires, and head out for some spring rides!

The usual best place to start biking with your kids is right in the driveway or in your own neighborhood. Once you have the home turf down, New England is full of excellent bike paths that are perfect for families with young kids. Here are a few of our family’s favorites.

Pierre Lallement Bicycle Path to Arnold Arboretum | Boston, Mass.
This classic Boston ride is humming with commuters on weekdays, but on weekends it can be a great family outing. The 4.7-mile urban bike path has plenty of places to eat along the way, along with a couple of great playgrounds—notably the new Lorber Family Playground in Jackson Square. Installed in 2013, the playground features swings, zip lines, and the epic “Wall Holla,” a psychedelic hollow wall with tunnels and rock climbing features. If you follow the path all the way to the end, you’ll come to Harvard University’s tranquil Arnold Arboretum, which now allows bike riding on its paved paths. Note: To get into the Arboretum, you’ll need to cross a couple streets, so this is best done with kids who can navigate traffic safely.

Norwottuck Branch Rail Trail | Pioneer Valley, Mass.
This beautiful 8-mile trail (one way) connects Northampton with its neighboring communities of Hadley and Amherst. Particularly fun is crossing the 8-section trestle bridge over the Connecticut River. The Lawrence Swamp at the far end is a treasure-trove of wildlife. The trail was newly reconstructed and repaved in 2015, leaving the surface smooth and safe for kids. (Check out a map.) There are plenty of snack options along the trail in Northampton; in Amherst, you can follow a bike route into downtown for an ice cream stop.

Cotton Valley Rail Trail | Wolfeboro, N.H.
You might think of Wolfeboro as a lake town best appreciated by boat, but a growing number of bike paths are making this a cycling destination. One quintessential summer hat trick: Get ice cream downtown then ride along the Bridge Falls Path/Cotton Valley Rail Trail, followed by a swim at beautiful Albee Beach on the shores of Lake Wentworth. A particular highlight of this trail is biking across two causeways that cut straight across Crescent Lake and Lake Wentworth.

Franconia Notch Trail | Franconia Notch State Park, N.H.
One of our family favorites, this trail has some elevation gain to it, but it's worth the great views and the chance to ride through one New England’s most scenic mountain notches. There's lots to see along the way, with stops at the Basin, a series of falls and pools carved by glaciers through pure New Hampshire granite; the Old Man memorial; and the Flume, a steep-walled gorge with precariously thrilling walkways. Bring food and water as this path is relatively remote. With Lafayette Place Campground at the halfway point, the trail makes for a great weekend camping trip by bike.

Island Line Trail | Burlington, Vt. 
Like Cotton Valley in Wolfeboro, this bike path follows an old railroad bed on a causeway that crosses a lake. This time, however, the lake is bigger and the causeway is higher, making for an exhilarating ride on the open water. In summer months, there's even a bike ferry that connects two sections of causeway. The trail starts in downtown Burlington; passes several ice cream shops, sandy beaches, and leafy neighborhoods; and eventually brings to the shore of Lake Champlain—a gem of a ride.

Back Cove and Sundays on the Boulevard | Portland, Me.
Portland’s well known bike paths around the Back Cove and Eastern Promenade are a great family destination any time. But on Sundays from May through September, the city closes car access to the adjacent Baxter Boulevard, leaving it free for bikers, roller bladers, wagon pullers, and more. (Check out a map.) Restaurants dot Portland’s dining-centric scene, with something to please everyone—even the pickiest little foodies.

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find trip ideas in AMC's community for families, Kids Outdoors.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Coaching Kids on Wildlife Encounters

What to do when your kid meets a moose? The first rule of wildlife encounters is to stay calm. Photo: Doug Steinbock
What to do when your kid meets a moose? The first rule of wildlife encounters is to stay calm. Photo: Doug Steinbock

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

Whether it’s a rabbit in a Rhode Island forest or a moose on a Maine pond, at some point in your family’s outdoor adventuring, you’re bound to meet up with a representative of the local wildlife. Before happening upon an animal of any size, it’s best if your kids learn some basic ground rules.

Nancy Ritger, who oversees naturalist programming for the AMC huts and Cardigan Lodge, advises parents to remind kids what a treat it is to cross paths with an animal, not something to fear. “Observe it, watch it feed, do what it does, and count yourself lucky,” Ritger says. “See how long you can watch without being noticed. Most animals are well aware of you long before you are of them.”

Above all, she says, “Nobody should touch anything.” Ritger’s rule of thumb—use common sense and keep your distance—is good advice wherever you are, from a neighborhood park to a national forest to your own backyard. Animals that become too accustomed to people may begin to seek out humans, expecting food or attention. That isn’t safe for animals or for people. Never, ever escalate an encounter by moving too close to a wild animal or by restricting its free movement.

While those guidelines apply to all species, Ritger knows some animals are scarier than others. To prepare kids for run-ins with bigger or toothier critters, Ritger shares the following tips. In every case, the key is to stay calm.

Observe snakes, like all wild animals, from a distance. Don’t attempt to capture them. Although poisonous varieties do exist in New England (see "The Endangered Timber Rattlesnake"), you’re most likely to spot the common garter snake, the widest ranging reptile in North America. In general, all snakes tend to be inconspicuous, preferring to move away from humans and hide or to lie still in the hopes of being overlooked. Although snakes are often seen as threatening, Ritger says snakes only lash out if they feel cornered or restrained. Give them plenty of space, and they’ll leave you alone.

Keep a respectful distance and enjoy this iconic beast from afar. In almost every instance, the moose will move off. Be especially cautious during the breeding season in fall and the calving season in spring, when bulls can be unpredictable and cows can be very protective of their calves. Moose attacks are almost unheard of, Ritger says, but getting out of the area fast is your best strategy if a moose is acting strangely. And don’t forget to keep the family dog under control.

These large, strong wild animals should be given ample space. While aggressive and predatory behavior is very rare for black bears, which are typically wary of people, a bear may not immediately recognize you as a human and may be curious until it detects your scent. Don’t keep it guessing! Make the animal aware of you by clapping, talking, or making other sounds. Whatever you do, don’t approach bears and don’t intrude between a female and her cubs. Bears habituated to people can be a danger, Ritger says, but keeping your food secure and pets under control will help maintain the proper distance.

The most important word to teach your kids is respect. It’s a lesson that will last a few lifetimes—both your kids’ and their wild counterparts’.

For more on regional wildlife, read about timber rattlesnakes and spring peepers. You can always find tips on raising outdoor enthusiasts at and browse family trips at  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Family Activities for Bad Weather

Whether you head out or stay in, don't let bad weather put a damper on family fun. Photo: Scott Livingston

By Ethan Hipple

January ice. February snowstorms. March rains. April mud. Winter and spring weather can make it challenging to get motivated for family adventures outdoors. And since we all want our kids to have the most positive experiences possible, sometimes when it rains or snows, we bag our plans and stay home instead. But wait! Hold that rain check! Below are some ideas to keep your kids playing in less than optimal conditions. And for when the truly nasty weather hits, we’ve got indoor ideas, as well.  

Just go out in the rain (or snow or SLUSH)
We often forget is that skin is 100-percent waterproof. Once we get over the discomfort of slightly soggy clothes, being outside in the elements can be fun, especially if we keep warm by keeping active. One of my favorite family memories is a trip in the Vermont highlands: a day full of muddy trails, wet clothes, bushwhacking, misty vistas, drizzle, and fog—and adventure and exhilaration. A few tips:
  • In rainy or snowy weather, make sure you’re adequately prepared with good rain or snow gear, plenty of warm layers, umbrellas, and a change of clothes in the car. The number-one factor in staying upbeat on cold and wet days is wearing the right gear.
  • Keep bad-weather day trips short. Kids can endure less than optimal conditions and keep spirits high—but only for so long. After a couple hours, it’s just a slog. No one wants that.
  • Bring a tarp and a backpacking stove. Go for a day hike in the rain or light snow, set up a tarp for lunch, and fire up the stove to make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup—a recipe for happy campers.
  • Hot cocoa in a thermos. Essential.
  • Backup pocket chocolate also helps. My wife’s favorite childhood memory is of her father pulling out chocolate-covered marzipan on the ski lift. It kept them warm and brightened their spirits.
  • Watch the weather. Never go out in lightning storms, blizzards, or strong storms of any kind. You can have a great time in a drizzle, but there’s never a need to put folks in danger.

Indoor Options for an Outdoor Adventure

When the weather is too rough to go out, you can still embrace the indoors with an outdoors mindset. Here are some of our tactics:
Indoor camping. Round up a couple of couches, coffee tables, chairs, blankets, or tarps and build a massive indoor fort. Set up pads and sleeping bags inside then read a book, take a nap, or watch a movie on the laptop inside your cozy nest. Top it off with a picnic in the fort while it pours or snows outside.

Sardines. Hands down, the best rainy day activity, ever. Just like hide and seek except only one person hides, and everyone else breaks up and goes looking for them. When a seeker finds the hider, the seeker hides with the hider and waits for the rest of the seekers to come looking. One by one, the other seekers will eventually discover the hiding spot, and everyone ends up hiding together in a cramped space while one last seeker tries to figure out where everyone went. Great times. We usually play that the first person who finds the hider gets to hide next.

Climbing gyms. Rock climbers hit these indoor training grounds to keep in shape during the off season or just during bad weather. Most climbing gyms have great kids programs and introductory lessons for beginners. A quick web search will help you find you a climbing gym within about an hour of most locations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Science and childrens museums. There are so many great examples of these—and what better time to visit than a rainy day? Some of our personal favorites:

Watch SHOWS about the Outdoors
Some of our family favorites include:
  • “Planet Earth.” a TV show featuring mesmerizing cinematography of wild places and animals. You think you’ve seen everything, and then you see something on this show that blows your mind. We prefer the original British version hosted by David Attenborough, although there is also an American version.  
  • “Life,” a great BBC series from David Attenborough, similar to “Planet Earth.”
  • “Man vs Wild,” in which Bear Grylls gets dropped into wilderness locations without gear and has to find his way out to civilization.
  • Outdoor sports videos on YouTube. From biking to rock climbing to freestyle skiing, there is something here to inspire every child.
  • Guide You Outdoors. A YouTube channel full of educational videos about camping, knot tying, canoe camping, gear reviews, and general outdoor skills. 
  • AMC’s own YouTube channel features lots of great how-to advice and breathtaking time-lapse videos.

Trip Planning
Rainy or icy days are a great time to plan your next trip. Get out the maps, read a guide book, plot a route, buy tickets, and start organizing your gear. When the sun comes back out, you’ll be ready to go! 


Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Great Kids, Great Outdoors and find more trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families,

Thursday, January 7, 2016

How to Enjoy Sledding Season

One of winter’s best, and cheapest, thrills has to be flying down hills on a sled. My Boston neighborhood hasn’t seen much snow yet this year, but we know it is coming any day now! When it does, all the kids will be ready to head out to the Arnold Arboretum for some of the best sledding hills in the area.

Before anyone races out the door though, make sure to go over safe sledding strategies with your kids, such as waiting for other people to clear out of the way before taking a turn, avoiding overcrowded areas, and dressing appropriately. Layers are the key. While it may be a freezing walk to the sledding spot, once you’re repeatedly climbing back up hills, it’s easy to get overheated.

Many parents like to have their kids, especially younger ones, wear helmets as a wise precaution to avoid head injuries. Along the same lines, kids should never sled where there are lots of obstacles like trees and fences. Don’t forget to pack water---sledding can be thirsty work!

Where to Go
In the Boston area, favorite spots for sledding include Arnold Arboretum; the Sugar Bowl next to Jamaica Pond; and Larz Anderson Park in Brookline. Fallon Field in Roslindale is usually packed with people sledding down its big hill that ends in a large field. It’s a wide open space quite safe for younger kids.

Millennium Park in West Roxbury is another great open space with plenty of hills to sled down safely. Franklin Park has lot of options for sledding and many people head straight to the public golf course there. Boston Common also has some hills to sled and the Frog Pond ice skating rink can add to a fun day. Popular spots close to Boston include Borderland State Park in North Easton; World’s End in Hingham; and the Crane Estate in Ipswich.

Nashoba Valley's Snow Tubing Park
While you can swap out your sled for a tube at any of the above spots, there are some great places that take tubing to another level. Try tubing at night for a different experience.

Ski Ward in Shrewsbury has eight lanes, with 200 tubes and two lifts. Many people go to Ski Ward for its nine groomed ski trails, but the tubing area is also quite popular. Two-hour tickets let you ride as often as you like down the TubaSlide hill, and since lifts bring you back to the top, you can pack in a lot of rides. Riders must be older than age 6 and at least 42 inches tall. It also has snowmaking equipment on hand, when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

Nashoba Valley’s Snow Tubing Park in Littleton offers 18 lanes and more than 600 snow tubes. Four easy tow-handle lifts take you to the top. Parents who want a break may enjoy the full-service restaurant with views of the action. Timed two-hour tickets let you tube as much as you want. Kids have to be age 6 or 42 inches tall to tube.

Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Great Kids, Great Outdoors and find more trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families,

Friday, January 1, 2016

How to Snowshoe with Kids

Photo: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

By Ethan Hipple

Snowshoeing is a great way to introduce kids to winter sports. Not only is it low-cost, but unlike skiing, it requires no real training period. You simply strap on your snowshoes and walk. Plus, it’s pretty. Without leaves on the trees, sunlight reaches deep into the untrammeled woods, providing magical views.

That said, even a winter wonderland loses its luster when kids are frustrated or tired. To help your brood find its snowshoe groove, try these 10 tips.

1. Newbies of any age should start on groomed snow, such as a cross-country ski trail. It’s much easier to snowshoe on a packed surface than in deep snow. Once the kids are confident, try the fluffier stuff.

2. For your first outing, aim for a distance slightly shorter than you would take kids hiking. Snowshoeing may be straightforward, but it requires more energy than walking. If your kids can handle a 3-mile hike, try a 2-mile snowshoe. For capable 6-mile hikers, try a 4-mile snowshoe.

3. You can snowshoe any time of day. Just be sure to bring headlamps if you’re heading out near dusk. Nothing beats a full-moon wander.

4. Let kids know they’ll have to lift their feet higher than when walking. They’ll also want to keep their feet a shoulder’s width apart, so the snowshoes don’t catch on each other. For extra grip on steeper slopes, they’ll need to dig in the metal crampons on the bottoms of their snowshoes.

5. Especially for novices, I recommend poles for balance. Any old ski poles from the thrift store will do. Good winter boots are also essential. Any brand is fine, as long as they’re waterproof and warm.

6. Wearing the right size snowshoe will yield the best experience. Snowshoes are sized according to weight, with snow depth as a secondary factor.

Most beginning and intermediate trompers should choose recreational or trekking snowshoes. Both have good flotation and a rounded tail for better stability, and many are adjustable for varied conditions. The more snow there is, the more surface area you want; extending the tails will give you extra float.

Backcountry models are burlier, feature a heavier-duty crampon, and have a larger footprint—overkill for beginners. Also stay away from racing models, unless you plan on trail running. 

7. Don’t forget the cocoa! This is the best advice I can give you. You’ll be ready for a steaming cup once you reach your destination.

8. You’ll want to conserve heat when you do take a break, so bring something to sit on. It’s always a good idea to carry foam pads in case of injury, but if you’ll be out for more than an hour, consider adding lightweight camp chairs.

9. Always bring the 10 essentials—always, whatever the season. As a reminder, that’s navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first aid, fire, nutrition, hydration, emergency shelter, and tools.

10. Take heed, parents of toddlers: Snowshoeing can be hard on those newly able to walk. To avoid breakdowns, wait until the kids are on solid feet before attempting to snowshoe.

The great news is there are many ways for little ones to enjoy snowshoeing, even if they’re too small to try it themselves. Some families strap the kids into a baby backpack, but if you’re sticking to relatively smooth, low-grade trails, a converted bike trailer works beautifully. You can also make your own winter kid trailer. Popular in Scandinavia for centuries, these are known as “pulks” or “pulkas.”

If only adults had it this good!

Get more tips on raising outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and browse family trips in AMC's Kids Outdoors

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