Friday, September 25, 2015

Exploring Nipmuck State Forest and Bigelow Hollow State Park

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

Just over the Massachusetts border, Nipmuck State Forest and the adjoining Bigelow Hollow State Park in Connecticut offer plenty of outdoor activities, ranging from hiking and camping to fishing and geocaching. It’s also a great place to look for wildlife, like beavers and eagles.

On a recent guided hike led by Chief Ranger Bill Reid, or “Ranger Bill,” as he said to call him, my group learned about the 9,000-acre area, which is part of the Last Green Valley, a National Heritage Corridor composed of 35 towns in eastern Connecticut and south-central Massachusetts. We chose to hike to Breakneck Pond, accessed just off the parking lot by Bigelow Pond. The 2-mile roundtrip is an easy walk along a wide path which intersects with Nipmuck Trail and can be taken all around the pond (a 6-mile hike). Ranger Bill has been following the progress of some nesting eagles, but we didn’t catch a glimpse on our hike. It’s definitely worth bringing binoculars in case you get lucky.

Nipmuck State Forest and Bigelow Hollow State Park are located in the town of Union and sit within one of the largest unbroken forest areas in Eastern Connecticut.  According to local lore, the name "Bigelow" is derived from "Big Low" in reference to the deep hollow in which the 18-acre pond of that name is located. The word "Mashapaug" is the Nipmuck Indian word for "Great Pond," another pond in the park area.

Younger kids love the shorter Bigelow Pond Loop, a lovely one-mile hike that offers plenty of rocks to climb and places to stop and explore. It’s also easily accessed from the parking lot.

Ranger Bill also told us about the Last Green Valley’s “Walktober,” which is now in its 25th year. Walks, strolls, bike rides, paddles, and all sorts of other events are held throughout the month and are an excellent way to get outside and enjoy the foliage.

You can download a schedule on the Walktober website or call 860-774-3300 to have one mailed to you. Although there are just 31 days in October, there are more than 200 activities planned! 

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Every Kid In A Park

Photo courtesy
By Ethan Hipple 

We all know that many kids spend more time with their smartphones and tablets than they do outside. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that this may have something to do with why you are reading this blog. As a parent, you’re looking for ways to pull the plug and connect your children to the smell of the forest, the splash of the salt spray, the rush of the mountain winds, the freedom of running wild outside.

Well, that goal just got a lot easier to accomplish for parents of 4th graders across the country. As part of President Obama’s effort to make America’s public lands accessible to all, he has directed federal land management agencies such as the National Park Service and National Forest Service to issue free family entrance passes to any child in 4th grade. The pass gets the 4th grader (and their entire family), into any site that charges an admission fee, starting on September 1st, 2015 and ending on August 30, 2016.

The idea is to get every kid in a park, whether it is their neighborhood park, or a national icon like Yellowstone, that may be 1,000 miles away or more. We can’t expect people to protect what they don’t love. And they can’t love it if they don’t know it. So the first step is to get every kid in a park. Once they are there, nature will take over. They’ll take a hike to the top of a mountain, swim under a waterfall, or see a bison, grizzly bear, or a dolphin. These experiences develop a sense of wonder, appreciation, and love. Plus, it’s fun.

Hopping in the car this weekend to spot egrets at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, on Plum Island, in Massachusetts? For families with a 4th grader, the $20 fee is waived.

Planning a spring break road trip to the side canyons of the Grand Canyon, to sleep in a forest of juniper and pinon pines, listening to the coyotes howl as the Colorado River rushes by below? $30 entrance fee is waived.

Heading up next weekend to Acadia National Park for camping and some biking on their delightful network of car-free carriage roads? $20 fee is waived.

The Every Kid In A Park 4th Grade pass covers entrance fees at every National Park, Monument and Historical Park in the country, as well as all entrance fees at National Forests and National Wildlife Refuges. It also includes lesser-known but still spectacular Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management Sites. (Parking, camping, and other fees still apply--this is for entrance fees only).

The Park Service has put together a simple and easy website that allows 4th graders to log on and complete a short activity before receiveing their free pass, which is printable from your home computer. Parents and educators can also use the site to plan trips and get information on field trips to public lands throughout the country. They have an excellent map feature that lets you plan a roadtrip across the country, or just figure out which Parks or Forests are within reach of your home.

The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, and the Every Kid In A Park program, is part of their centennial campaign called “Find Your Park”, co-chaired by First Ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. Check out their website to learn about the centennial, and different events in your area. There’s even a fun video from Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Go get in a park!

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

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Walk and Bike Back to School

By Ethan Hipple
Piles of fall leaves, crisp autumn air, seeing friends after a summer apart: Many parents have fond memories of walking or biking to their neighborhood schools. Back in 1969, more than 50 percent of all kids got to school on foot or by bike. Compare that to 2009 and beyond, when less than 13 percent of kids used either method, according to the organization Safe Routes to School. 

And yet, this old-fashioned practice is enjoying a modern revival across the country, with all kinds of positive—and trackable—implications.    

Learning and cognition. A 2012 study of 20,000 Dutch children found those who biked or walked to school performed measurably better on tasks requiring concentration—an improvement that lasted four hours. Walking or biking to school ranks up there with getting a good breakfast or a solid night’s sleep. 

Connection to nature. Common sense tells us that walking provides a more intimate relationship to our surroundings than driving, and research confirms it. A recent study by Bruce Appleyard of San Diego State University shows that kids who bike or walk have a better sense of place and geography than those who get around by car or bus. He found that kids who are driven to school often don’t know where they are, leading to anxiety and unwillingness to venture out on their own. 

Social impact. Traffic makes us lonely. Anyone with a long commute knows it, but decades of research tells us that neighborhoods with lighter traffic encourage a sense of home and belonging. Donald Appleyard, Bruce’s father and the author of the 1982 book Livable Streets, published research indicating that residents in low-traffic areas have two more neighborhood friends and twice as many acquaintances than those in high-traffic areas. 

Confidence and satisfaction. Exercise releases dopamine and serotonin, natural compounds in our bodies that trigger feelings of pleasure and well-being. Put simply, exercise makes us happy, and a degree of independence makes us more resilient and self-reliant. Maybe this is why Grandpa has such fond memories of walking 5 miles through the snow, uphill both ways.

The best way is the easiest: Walk or bike to school with your kids. After a few dry runs, they might be ready to go it alone. For kids younger than 8 or 9, try a “walking school bus”: a group that walks together, often with an adult chaperone. Need a push? Consult the following resources. 

Walk and Bike to School Day. Find or set up an activity in your area for this annual October event at 

National Bike and Walk Day. Check with your school or parks department for group rides or walks affiliated with this May event. In the New Hampshire town where I live, 600 school kids and commuters participate—one out of every 10 people. If there isn’t an event near you, set one up at 

Safe Routes to School. This group provides advice, plus technical assistance and grants for creating sidewalks and bike paths. Read more at 

• Get more kid-friendly ideas at and join AMC’s community for families at

• For more bike tips, check out East Coasting and Fixing a Flat.

• Ready to take your pint-size pedalers on a longer haul? Don't miss Bike Camping for Beginners 

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of AMC Outdoors. You can find more tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts here, in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog, and share your own ideas in AMC’s online community for families, Kids Outdoors. Photo: Anne & Tim on Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pond and Stream Science for Kids

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

You don’t have to live near a teeming ocean, a sprawling lake, or even a rushing river to help kids get their feet wet when it comes to aquatic science. From measuring water velocity to perusing paramecia, there’s plenty to investigate in ponds and streams near you. 

For its hands-on-learning series A Mountain Classroom, which runs throughout the school year for students in grades 5 through 10 at various AMC backcountry destinations, the Appalachian Mountain Club relies on a small pond next to Cardigan Lodge, in New Hampshire.

“I find that water studies are a fantastic way to ignite the spark that gets a lot of students interested in their surroundings,” says Lisa Gilbert, coordinator of A Mountain Classroom for AMC’s Cardigan Lodge and Highland Center. “Plus, it’s pure and simple fun!”

Don’t have a trip to the White Mountains scheduled? You and your kids can benefit from the same tools and strategies AMC educators use. Follow Gilbert’s great advice on how you can adapt these activities close to home.

When kids use a hand lens or a magnifying glass to get an up-close look at water samples, they’ll see their favorite swimming hole in a whole new light. For starters, you’ll need a small net. The kind you can get at the pet store for transferring fish from one home to another is perfect. You’ll also need a clear plastic bucket or another type of large, clear container; an eye dropper or a turkey baster; and ice cube trays.

Have kids get their nets down into the mucky leaf matter and detritus at the edge of a pond or stream and scoop some of it into their nets. Kids can dump the contents of their nets into the clear container, which should be filled with water from the pond. Let everything settle for a minute and then watch what happens.

You should see lots of young insects and other macroinvertebrates moving around, including dragonfly, stonefly, and mayfly nymphs; crane fly and mosquito larvae; and predacious diving beetles. Using an eye dropper or a turkey baster to catch them, transfer each critter into its own section of the ice cube tray (also filled with water) so kids can get a better look. When you’re done, make sure to release the creatures gently back into the water. The easiest way is to slowly submerge the container then turn it over and remove it. For more info on indentifying pond insects, check out the Stroud Water Research Center.


Physical tests can be a fun way to tie in basic math and measuring skills. For starters, kids can determine water velocity by measuring a specific length of stream then floating a tangerine or an apple down the same stretch and timing how long it takes to move from point A to point B. Kids can also use a tape measure to check a stream’s width or a yardstick to measure depth. Junior scientists eager to go to greater depths can weight one end of a string and sink it to the bottom. Mark where the surface hits the string before pulling it back up and using a tape measure to find the depth.

Who knows? By plunging in early, kids may discover a future career—or at least some cool bugs. Have fun!

Find more ways to introduce kids to citizen science in the AMC Outdoors archives.

You can always get more tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and share your own ideas in AMC’s community for families, Kids Outdoors. Photo: Leslie Science & Nature Center/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0


Friday, August 14, 2015

3 Family Hikes in the White Mountains

AMC recently teamed up with The Boston Globe on a Hike the Whites online bracket, featuring 64 of the top hikes in the White Mountains, including many family-friendly picks. Voters chose their favorite hikes throughout the competition, and we thought you’d be interested in learning a little bit about the top three hikes from the family category. You can read all about these White Mountain hikes for kids (and their parents!) over in Kids Outdoors, AMC's online hub for getting outdoors with kids. 

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How to Explore Tidal Pools with Kids

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

For budding young marine biologists, or even just animal or ocean lovers, tidal pools offer oodles of opportunity for exploration. Found along the shore, these pools form in depressions in the sand or in pockets between rocks when the tide recedes, leaving small temporary habitats for all sorts of marine life.

As with Leave No Trace principles on land, it’s important to tread lightly, so to speak, when exploring a tidal pool. After all, they are home, even for a short time, to many marine plants, algae, and animals.

The National Park Service offers several tips for exploring tidal pools safely and responsibly, including a warning that careless handling and footsteps can wreak a lot more havoc than the changing tides. When you and your kids visit the beach, don’t wade or sit in tidal pools and be careful where you put your feet. Some creatures are too small to spot! In addition, never pry animals from rocks, which can hurt them, and always make sure to re-cover any animals you find under rocks or seaweed so they won't dry out.

Now that you’re primed to investigate them safely, what might you discover in a tidal pool? Among the most common animals in New England tidal pools are plankton, seaweed, barnacles, crabs, sea anemones, and even sea stars. Part of the adventure is that every tidal pool will be completely different and reveal something new. 

One of my family’s favorite places to look for tidal pools is Wingaersheek Beach, in Gloucester, Mass., where the ebbing tide leaves an enormous beach filled with tidal pools. 

Another favorite is Halibut Point State Park in Rockport, Mass., a gorgeous coastal spot that’s magical to explore.  Other popular New England spots include Brenton Point State Park in Newport, R.I. and Acadia National Park in Maine. For in-depth information on tidal pools in Massachusetts, head to Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, where they have all-weather tide pooling activities, with a touch tank and activities led by naturalists.

A little planning ahead will improve your chance of finding tidal pools, so be sure to consult a tidal chart before you head out. Visit the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association website for tide charts all along the region’s coast. Another excellent resource is the NOAA Virtual Tide Pool, an excellent interactive way to learn about tide pools and the creatures that live there.

One last tip: It can be fun for kids to keep a journal of what they see in the pools and to take photos. You’ll appreciate the memories and they’ll love the chance to compare what they find with previous and future visits. 

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

How To Plan a Scavenger Hunt For Kids

By Ethan Hipple

Who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt? Perfect for young and old alike, this activity—also known as a treasure hunt in some family circles—lends itself to camping trips, birthday parties, even your own backyard. From close-to-home forays to summer-long hunts all over New England, an outdoor scavenger hunt introduces a healthy dose of competition and discovery while giving kids a chance to try new experiences. As a family, we’ve made them a part of our outdoor adventures for years. Here’s how to plan your own scavenger hunt.

Checklist Competitions
During a down day on a multi-day paddling trip, the kids were restless and looking for something to do. Solution? A nature-based treasure hunt around the island we were staying on. The quickest and easiest way is to make a list of items to find, and whoever finds them first wins. If you have cameras or smartphones handy, you can add a documentation element to the hunt.

Armed with their lists, the kids raced around the campsite and the surrounding woods for an hour, checking items off their lists. Whoever got their list checked off first got an extra piece of chocolate at dessert. A sampling of what they had to find:
• Birch bark
• Frog
• Bird
• Moss
• Mushroom
• Acorn
• Squirrel
• Pine cone
• Animal scat
• Animal print
• Snakeskin
• Natural object colored blue
• Piece of trash

Unlike the previous items, whose locations they noted but left in place, the kids picked up pieces of trash and added them to our carry-out bag: a game and LNT lesson, all in one.
Kids will love the thrill of discovery on an outdoor scavenger hunt.
Clue- and Route-based Teamwork
When you want to take a team-based approach, you can hide a list of clues, one leading to the next, with a prize waiting at the end. You can do this right in your backyard or on a camping trip or outing. The kids work together to solve the clues; for example, in a backyard hunt, the first couple of clues might go like this:  

“This tree has white bark that burns easily and makes an excellent fire starter. Go here for your next clue!” (Destination: birch tree.)

And the next clue: “Now that you’ve found the birch, look for the home of earthworms, vegetable scraps, and grass clippings.” (Destination: compost pile.)

Tailor your clues to your kids’ age group and interests—and get creative with your prizes: s’more fixings, birthday presents, fishing gear, or just simple bragging rights.

Season-Long Treasure Hunts
These are the granddaddies of all outdoors scavenger hunts: the season-long activity accomplishment checklists! These involve visiting a string of locations and/or accomplishing a certain set of activities within a season (summer vacation, for example) or beyond. Items might include:

• Spend the night out under the stars (10 points)
• Catch and release a fish (5 points)
• Go surfing (5 points)
• Reach the top of a mountain (10 points)
• Build a shelter out of natural materials (10 points)
• Spend the night on an island (15 points)

Ready to take it to the next level? Your treasure-hunting team could win prizes when you enter the excellent Venture Vermont contest, sponsored by Vermont State Parks, or the Wild Outdoor Wolfeboro hunt. (The latter could easily be tailored to suit your town or community.)

Or start from scratch and write your own rules with a group of families and friends. The best part of these hunts is they usually require photo or video documentation, so you end up with a hard drive full of amazing memories from a season together in the outdoors.

Whether you spend a Saturday morning or a whole summer bagging adventures, your family will spend quality time outside trying new experiences and making great memories. Happy hunting!  

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

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