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,  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Outdoor Trips with Kids: Cape Cod's Sandy Neck Beach Park

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

It’s easy to skip the local playground during the summer, when so many beaches beckon—especially on Cape Cod, which can seem like one giant sandbox. Certainly there’s no lack of choices, but for those who might like to avoid major crowds of vacationers, Sandy Neck Beach Park, a 6-mile-long barrier beach in Barnstable County, is perfect.

Among other charms, Sandy Neck has a gorgeous beach, sand dunes, historic dune shacks, maritime forests, freshwater wetland areas, vernal pools, and a salt marsh. There’s a network of trails leading visitors into the interior of the 1,500-acre park and can be accessed either from the beach or near the gatehouse, at the park entrance. There’s even a remote campsite about 3 miles from the parking lot for those willing (and able) to carry in their gear.

Sandy Neck has been recognized by the commonwealth of Massachusetts as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern for its fragile dunes and multiple endangered species, including piping plovers and least terns. Visiting and explaining these distinctions to your kids can be an easy teaching moment while you explore. Several nature programs are offered at the park from spring through fall, including guided nature hikes to look for piping plovers and rare Diamondback Terrapins (and their nests), as well as talks about area plants and animals.

Two upcoming events are perfect for families. The first is the Summer Flora & Fauna Hike on Wednesday, August 19 from 10 a.m to noon: a 1.5-mile hike through Sandy Neck’s Great Marsh and sand dunes, exploring barrier beach life with Nina Coleman, manager of Barnstable Land Trust and Sandy Neck.

The second item to put on your calendar is the guided Hike for Terrapin Hatchlings on September 9 from 10 a.m. to noon. You’ll search Sandy Neck for the tiny tracks of hatchling terrapins as these quarter-sized newborns make the treacherous journey from their sandy dune nests to the safety of the marsh.

The parking lot is capped at 200 cars, so arrive early to grab a spot during weekends in the peak summer season. There’s a concession stand, showers, and restroom/changing facilities. The beach can be rocky in places, so water shoes are a good idea.

Sandy Neck Beach Park, 11889 Phinney’s Lane, Centerville, MA; 508-790-6272.

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,

Thursday, July 16, 2015

An Introduction to Paddling with Kids

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

There’s no right age to introduce your kids to paddling. If they’re interested, it’s the perfect time. Experienced parents who know the ins and outs of water safety will be well prepared to start kids off with good practices. But if you need a refresher, you might prefer some help from the pros. More on that below.

However you go about teaching your crew, Dave Cole, the vice chair of AMC’s Worcester Chapter and a paddling leader, identifies two absolute essentials: a great sense of humor and patience. Following closely behind are a PFD (personal flotation device); a paddle; a dry bag for extra layers, snacks, and sunscreen; and the prerequisite that all participants are strong swimmers.

Ethan Hipple, coauthor of AMC’s Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, stresses that kids should always wear PFDs and that parents should set a good example by wearing them too.

PFDs come in five types. Most children will wear a Type III, suitable for various activities, while infants will wear a Type II, designed for calm waters. You’ll choose a PFD based on your child’s weight: Infant PFDs are for kids 8 to 30 pounds; child PFDs, 30 to 50 pounds; and youth PFDs, 50 to 90 pounds. To test the fit, secure your child in the PFD then grasp the shoulders of the vest, lifting your child. Your paddler’s ears and chin should not slip through.

If you’d rather wait to invest in gear until you see how your kids take to the water, Cole suggests signing up for a workshop, which often provides everything you’ll need. In addition to the classes below, check with your local REI store and Audubon chapter.

AMC offers family-friendly paddling events throughout the year, including the Midweek Getaway July 7-9 at Mohican Outdoor Center, 90 minutes from New York City. Check for updates.

Boating in Boston, with locations including Boston and Hopkinton, offers a two-hour kayak orientation on boating safety, equipment, basic strokes, and maneuvers. The class is geared toward first-timers and is capped at eight people, so kids will get plenty of direct instruction.

L.L. Bean’s Kayaking Discovery Course, offered through many of its stores, begins with a safety talk. Participants are then fitted with a PFD, kayak, and paddle; once everyone is comfortable, the class hits the water for a guided interpretive tour.

Charles River Canoe & Kayak leads classes for kids, teens, and families in Boston, Newton, Waltham, and Cambridge. Advanced lessons in paddle boarding and sea kayaking are available, but the kids’ kayak class sticks to the basics, starting with an on-land introduction to equipment and strokes before diving into skill-building games.

PFD? Check. Basics mastered? Check. Great! Before you put in, Cole has one last piece of advice: Keep things playful. “Kids love games, like boat racing and balance tests, and are thrilled to play them on the water,” he says. He also advises packing beach chairs and nature guidebooks for when paddlers, adult or child, need to take a break. 

Ready for a longer paddle? Check out Canoe Camping with Kids and Regional Island Adventures.

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,  

This story by Kim Foley MacKinnon originally appears in the July/August issue of AMC Outdoors. Photo: Lotus Morning on Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hiking Blueberry Mountain and Rattlesnake Pool

By Ethan Hipple

Tucked away in a little-visited high mountain valley on the Maine-New Hampshire border, Evans Notch is an outdoor paradise, with many great options for families with kids. From high peaks above treeline, to backcountry swimming holes, to multiple secluded campgrounds and even an AMC family camp, this area is ripe for exploration and adventure. The Blueberry Mountain—Rattlesnake Pool Loop is perhaps the most idyllic short day hike in the area, and ranks as one of our favorite family trips in all of New England.

Even 4-year-olds will love this hike! 
3.9 mile loop

From Fryeburg, Maine, take Route 113 North for 19.4 miles to Shell Pond Rd. (This will be 0.7 miles north of AMC Cold River Camp). Take a right onto Shell Pond Rd, and follow for 1.1 miles to a locked gate with a small parking area on the right. 

The 3.9 mile loop has a little bit of everything—giving it the variety and excitement needed to keep young children engaged in the trip. From a start in the woods, to a short but steep climb, to ridgetop views, picnic spots, and blueberry picking—this hike has it all. And to top it off, on the hike back to the trailhead, there is a short side trail to Rattlesnake Pool; one of the most idyllic, clear, and alluring swimming holes we have ever found. A full afternoon could easily be spent lazing by the side of this emerald green shady pool with good jumping rocks for all ages.

You will want to do this loop hike in a counter-clockwise direction (Shell Pond Rd to White Cairn Trail to Blueberry Ridge Trail to Stone House Trail to Shell Pond Rd). This will put the swimming hole near the end of your trip when you are hot and sweaty and need a good break. And as any parent knows, nothing puts a spring in the step of a 8 year old more than the thought of swimming ahead! 

From the small parking area at the gate on Shell Pond Rd, proceed on the dirt road for 0.3 miles to the marked trailhead on the left for the White Cairn Trail. We sometimes bring bikes along on this trip so we can bike that 0.3 miles—you’ll have to do it at the end as well, so it’ll shave some distance off if you have room for the bikes.

Turn left and proceed up the White Cairn Trail, which will go through a small clearing, then climbs steeply up the ridge, over massive rock staircases and ledges with views to the south. The going will be slow with small kids, but they can have fun climbing the big rock staircases, which with a little positive spin can be presented as a giant jungle gym! Near the top of the ridge there are some ledges that make for great picnic spots. 

At 1.4 miles you will hit the Blueberry Ridge Trail—leave plenty of time to pick blueberries when they are in season from June through August. Follow the Blueberry Ridge Trail for just 0.2 miles, then turn right on the Stone House Trail, which will lead you back down into the valley. Follow it down for a mile, where you will find the spur trail on your left that brings you a couple hundred yards to Rattlesnake Pool, a classic “Shangri La” New England swimming hole. A steep rocky approach leads to a 10 foot deep, turquoise blue, crystal clear pool. Rocks line the edge of the pool and there are good jumping options for all abilities. On a hot day, this place is heaven.

Rattlesnake Pool: heaven.  
Continue on down the Stone House Trail and another short spur trail on the left leads you to Rattlesnake Flume, a small but interesting gorge just downstream from the swimming hole. Continue on down the Stone House Trail to Shell Pond Rd, and turn right for 0.5 miles  to complete the loop back to the parking area at the gate. 

Plan B
Good lake swimming is available at The Basin, a day-use recreation area on the National Forest, about a mile north of Shell Pond Rd. Camping is available at Cold River Campground near The Basin, and AMC runs a delightful family hiking camp in the area called Cold River Camp. For a great mountain drive back to North Conway, take the Hurricane Mountain Road, a narrow and twisting notch road that brings you up and over into Intervale, N.H. To get to Hurricane Mountain Road, follow 113 south from the Stow Store, then turn right on South Chatham Rd, then left onto Green Hill Rd, then right onto Hurricane Mountain Rd. 

The Stow Corner Store, about 5 miles south of Shell Pond Rd on NH 113 (actually just over the border in ME), is a quintessential country store with hand-scooped ice cream, homemade soups and sandwiches, fresh-baked pizza and famous baked goods. North Conway, N.H., and Fryeburg, Maine, have full dining options for any taste. 

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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