Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Most Popular Posts: Hikes near Waterfalls, Children’s Backpack Weight, and Other Favorite Topics

In a bit of spring cleaning, I recently realized that I didn’t share the top posts of the past year as I usually do in January. It’s an interesting list, so even though it’s belated, here are the Great Kids, Great Outdoors highlights of 2013: the posts that were read and shared most widely.

Top 10 posts written in 2013:
1. 11 Great Family Hikes Near Waterfalls, Rivers, and Lakes

2. How Heavy Should My Child's Backpack Be?

3. Upcoming Maple Syrup Festivals, Tours, and Children's Events
(Out of date now, of course, but it might give you ideas for next year.)

4. Snow Science: Fun Ways to Explore Snowflakes with Kids

5. How to Poop Anywhere, for Newly Potty-Trained Kids

6. Cool Plants for Kids: 8 that Explode, Eat Bugs, or Stick to You

7. Philadelphia for Families: 5 Great Hiking, Biking, and Paddling Spots

8. Family-Friendly Campgrounds with Waterfront Boat Rentals

9. Teaching Kids How to Avoid Getting Lost, and What to Do If It Happens

10. Cut Your Own Christmas Tree

Top posts from previous years:

8 Classic Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the White Mountains

Teaching Kids Cross-Country Skiing

10 Great Appalachian Trail Hikes with Kids 

Signing My "Fairy Princess" Up for Soccer, Perhaps Too Soon

Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure

10 Fun Fall Activities with Kids

Simple Winter Tree Activities for Kids

12 Great Outdoor Winter Activities for Kids

Gift Ideas for Outdoor Families

Early-Season Family Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley

Photo of a girl in Acadia National Park in Maine by Jerry and Marcy Monkman

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Catskills for Kids: 4 Family Trip Ideas

With the epic winter of 2013-14 finally behind us, who isn't thrilled to swap sleds, skates, and snowshoes for hiking boots, paddles, and sleeping bags? Living in New York City, the Catskill Mountain Preserve is our go-to destination for all of our weekend getaway needs. During the spring thaw, we plan trips to the nearby eastern and southern regions, and move further north and west as the seasons get warmer and drier. When the kids get out of school for summer break we can plan longer stretches away. Here are four of our favorite spots.

Ashokan Reservoir Dam 
Wet, slippery uphill trails can make for slow and slightly treacherous going for our 8-year-old daughter. So with its flat, paved paths all now closed to vehicular traffic, the Ashokan Reservoir Dam is a great springtime destination for hiking or bicycling as we wait for the sodden post-winter earth to dry up a bit. The out-and-back hike is about 5 miles altogether, offering beautiful views across the largest lake in the Catskills region. It is also popular with landscape artists who, like their early forebears in the Hudson River School, find inspiration in the sweeping mountain panorama. "The scenic value of this unusual viewshed cannot be overstated," writes Peter Kick in AMC's Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley. "It was landscapes such as these that spawned a new concept of picturesque and sublime wilderness, and the values derived from that vision led to the formation of the National Park Service."
Info: AMC's Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, 2nd ed. (AMC Books)

North Point 
"If you have time for only one hike in the Catskills, make it this one," Kick writes—and we agree. But with kids, pack a picnic and plan on taking a few breaks along the way. At about 7 miles, this relatively easy, thickly wooded hike takes you down into a cool glen, past a few waterfalls (always a hit with our kids!), and eventually up to the North Point summit, which is the only moderately challenging portion of the journey. From this vantage, you will see numerous peaks throughout the region. This destination makes an excellent day trip or overnight at the tent and RV campground, which fills up quickly during the summer (so reserve early). While the beach is always popular, we have always found a spot for our blanket and there is plenty of room across the lakes to paddle to your heart's content (bring your own canoe or kayak). This spot contains one of our favorite vistas: the awe- and art-inspiring view across the Hudson River Valley from the site of the once-grand and now gone Catskill Mountain House.
InfoAMC's Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); Outdoors with Kids New York City (AMC Books)

Campground Trail—Little Pond Loop Trail 
We have a dear friend who has a very rustic cabin outside Livingston Manor. Traditionally she comes over the mountains to visit us wherever we are in the eastern Catskills so we can hike and loll around together. This year, we have our sights set on visiting her so she can lead us on one of her favorite hikes—the Little Pond Loop Trail, which sets off on the Campground Trail (originating at a popular campground) and includes part of the Touch-Me-Not Trail. Except for a beaver meadow early on, this 3.1-mile trail is largely wooded throughout—great for shade, but not so much for stunning horizon views! On excursions like this, we like to play "I spy" with evidence of wild life (beaver markings, animal droppings, insect nibbling) and different types of leaves and colors, and then take a well-earned break swimming and picnicking at the pond.
Info: Catskill Mountain Guide, 3rd ed. (AMC Books)

High Five: Fire Tower Hikes 
Throughout the Region Dotted about the Catskills are five historic fire towers that have been restored and opened to the public. For nearly a century, some 19 towers topped various mountains across the Catskills, and from those high perches, observers-in-residence looked out for signs of forest fires. The towers were phased out by the 1980s, they fell into disrepair, and their environs were closed to the public for safety reasons. Today, thanks to the efforts of countless volunteers and the Catskill Fire Tower Project, a joint effort of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, five towers—at Overlook Mountain (which we did as a multigenerational hike with our children and their grandparents), Hunter Mountain, Red Hill, Balsam Lake Mountain, and Tremper Mountain—have been restored and opened as visitor observation decks. With wide and well-maintained paths (created in the bygone era for vehicles), they make for relatively easy hikes for kids or fairly rigorous bike rides. Fortunately there are plenty of beautiful resting spots along the way where you can stop and catch your breath.
InfoAMC's Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, 2nd ed. (AMC Books)

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Cheryl and William de Jong Lambert. Photograph by iStock.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Moon and the Stars: Introducing kids to astronomy

After learning how the two experts interviewed in this article became interested in astronomy, some parents may want to run right out and buy a telescope for their children.

Both Amanda Thompson, who works at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston, and Douglas Arion, who, among other things, is a professor of physics and astronomy at Carthage College, had their passion for the stars ignited quite young.

“I’ve loved astronomy since I was a kid, when I received a telescope as a gift and learned how to find the Orion Nebula,” said Thompson.

“When I was in sixth grade, I saw a telescope in the Sears catalog and wanted it,” said Arion. “My parents said they’d help me buy it if I got books from the library and learned about astronomy.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Now both help children learn about the stars.

Thompson has a masters degree in earth and environmental science from Wesleyan University, where she specialized in planetary science. She works at the planetarium and serves as the school coordinator and speaker.

Arion is a physics and astronomy professor at Carthage College, president of Galileoscope (a high-quality, low-cost telescope kit), and also teams up with AMC for astronomy workshops.

They both offered interesting ways to foster a budding astronomer, but one idea they had in common was especially creative: making up constellation stories. Forget trying to figure out where Sagittarius is or even the difference between the Big and Little Dipper, at least at first.

“Using the real stars, have the kids find their own constellations and show you how to find them,” said Thompson. “Then make up stories about them together. Bonus if you can tie multiple constellations together in one epic story.”

Arion said constellations are like clouds, that people see all sorts of patterns in them, and encouraging kids to make up their own stories about what they see can be engaging. He also said that if you don’t have a telescope, binoculars are another easy way for kids to look at the sky.

If you do decide to work with a telescope, you can learn with your kids if you aren’t already familiar. There are some easy objects to find, such as the Orion Nebula hanging from Orion’s belt of three stars (best viewed in the winter months), as Thompson did, or you can even look for a planet. Mastering pointing it at a single star can bring a great feeling of accomplishment, said Thompson. Ask your kids to draw what they see.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them is a book Arion highly recommends, and most parents are probably quite familiar with the author, H.A. Rey, of the Curious George series. Rey also wrote Find the Constellations. Rey and his wife Margret had a lifelong interest in astronomy, and today the Margret and H.A. Rey Center in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization, offers all sorts of educational programs in art, science, and nature. One of the most popular is a monthly stargazing event. Telescopes are set up, and volunteers from the New Hampshire Astronomical Society are on hand to help to decipher what you and your kids see.

Several websites also offer fascinating glimpses into the stars. You may want to bookmark NASA’s website called “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” which features a different image or photograph of the universe, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer. There’s an archive going back to the middle of 1995, so if your kids were born after that, it’s fun to look up the picture on their birth date.

Arion also recommended several smartphone astronomy applications that tech-savvy kids will love. One of the best, he says, is SkySafari, which is quite inexpensive.

“You hold up the phone [to the sky] and it tells you what you’re seeing,” said Arion. “You can’t get it out of their hands after that.”

Who knows? Just one introduction to the universe’s wonders, however you choose to do it, and your kids might be star struck, too.

Doug Arion coordinates astronomy programs at AMC huts and lodges throughout the year. Search the AMC activity database for upcoming events, or ask hut or lodge staff for details.

Read more from AMC Outdoors:

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day 
Each day a different image or photograph of the universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

Every night, a network of NASA all-sky cameras scans the skies above the United States for meteoritic fireballs, with the results presented here daily.

Hubble Telescope Photo Gallery 
Check out amazing images of the cosmos taken by the cutting-edge Hubble Telescope.

Planetarium program 
Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.

This app accurately shows you the sky from anywhere on Earth and lets you identify stars, planets, and constellations with your iDevice's GPS, compass and/or gyroscope.

Sun images 
You can’t look at the sun with the naked eye, but you can check out cool images of it at the website run by the Solar Data Analysis Center at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon. Photograph by iStock.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Big Night: Teaching kids about vernal pools

In late March or early April, a warm rain will fall and spotted salamanders will emerge from underground in the evening to return to vernal pools to breed. This phenomenon is known as “Big Night,” and it’s a great teaching moment for kids.

Here are some suggestions for how to introduce children to Big Night.

But first, a word of caution. In writing a recent column about vernal pools, I learned that Big Night is a bit of an exaggeration. Spotted salamanders and other species that reproduce in vernal pools don’t all migrate on a single night, and weather conditions can make the migration quite different year to year. “It doesn’t really happen all at once, but the phrase ‘Big Night’ generates interest and it’s easy to say,” said vernal pool expert Jacob Kubel, a conservation scientist with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “I say it myself.”
With that in mind, here are some ways to help kids understand vernal pools and the animals that depend on them:
  1. Read Big Night for Salamanders, by Sarah Marwil Lamstein. This wonderful picture book, illustrated by Carol Benioff, was a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children 2010. It describes how a boy and his parents help salamanders cross a busy road on a rainy night, so they can mate and lay eggs in a vernal pool. While educational, the book is also a good story that is engaging for children. My daughter (age 4) immediately wanted to go out and help too. The author's website has a downloadable classroom guide.
  2. Connect with experts and enthusiasts. Join an organized vernal pool activity, such as a family workshop or walk, through nonprofit groups like Mass Audubon, which maintains an online calendar of events. Get a field guide to the animals of vernal pools and learn much more through the Vernal Pool Association, an educational group based in Massachusetts that encourages the appreciation, protection, and interdisciplinary study of vernal pools, particularly by students. The association maintains a website, blog, Facebook page, and listserv.
  3. Visit a known vernal pool. Some vernal pools are certified and marked. In the Minute Man National Historical Park, which spans the towns of Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord, Mass., the Vernal Pool Trail is a short spur trail near the parking lot by Hartwell’s Tavern. In Amherst, Mass., two tunnels were built under Henry Street in the late 1980s so that frogs, toads, and salamanders can reach a nearby vernal pool safely. You can read more about the Amherst tunnels on this Federal Highway Administration page and see a short video on MassLive.com.
  4. Look for signs of vernal pools on your hikes. This is a great game for a young detective. If it is spring, listen for an odd quacking sound in the woods—it’s the courtship call of male wood frogs. Wood frogs are one of the species, like spotted salamanders, that gather in vernal pools to reproduce. Kubel also recommends looking for depressions in the earth that might hold water and noticing any concentration of shrubs such as winterberry in the forest understory, which may indicate the presence of a wetland.
  5. Go out with a flashlight on Big Night. Once you know where vernal pools are in your region, you can head out on the first rainy night in late winter or early spring when the temperature rises to 40 degrees or so. Spotted salamanders should be starting their trek, and you and the kids may be lucky enough to spot them—or even help them across the road. Remind the kids to get their hands damp before picking up spotted salamanders, to help the salamanders’ skin remain moist.


Read more about vernal pools in this blog post from a few years ago.

Photos thanks to the Vernal Pool Association.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snow Science: An easy game in a jar

After a fluffy snowfall earlier this winter, my husband and our 4-year-old went out in the backyard to play. They came back at dinnertime with a project that intrigued me: They had packed a glass jar full of clean snow and screwed the lid tight.

My husband asked:
  • How long would it take for the snow to melt?
  • How much water would be in the jar?
We discussed the possibilities for a bit and made our guesses. Then our grown-up dinner guests arrived. The questions intrigued them too.

Someone remembered a ratio that compared inches of snow to an inch of rain. But snow comes in different textures and weights. How much air was trapped in that day’s snow? More questions arose: How tightly packed was the snow in our jar? How warm was our house—and would the temperature go down overnight? Another discussion, and more guesses were made. Then the wait began.

Without giving away the answer for our jar, I can say that the guests had to leave before we knew it. And that the photo accompanying this post offers a good clue.

Try this one at home to get your kids thinking a little more about the snow.

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) says 13 inches of snow is generally equal to 1 inch of rain.

Read more suggestions for snow-related family activities in an earlier blog post, Snow Science: Fun Ways to Explore Snowflakes with Kids.

Learn more about snowflakes, and about the man called Snowflake Bentley, in the blog post Junior Naturalist: Snowflakes.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Outdoors Kids Around the World: How other cultures promote children's independence and self-control

In a large fenced park in Finland, Christine Gross-Loh was surprised that mothers were not concerned when their toddlers wandered far away; none chased their kids as American parents would. In Germany, she was astounded to see a 5-year-old boy using a pocketknife to whittle a piece of wood. And when she enrolled her own son in kindergarten in Japan, she was puzzled to learn that the kids spent nearly five hours a day moving indoors and out doing whatever they wanted—including play fighting with swords and guns made of rolled-up newspaper.

Through her study of parenting around the globe, Gross-Loh was frequently reminded “how hands-off parents and other adults are” in countries other than the United States. She recognized that her own responses as a mother are largely culturally determined—and not necessarily good for her kids.

The Boston-area mother of four shares her insights in the recent book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. Much of what she saw as she raised her young children in Japan for five years, and visited schools and families in other countries, suggests that children thrive when they have more time for unstructured play outdoors—and less adult guidance than many Americans might expect.

“Parents in our culture think our job is to guide children and make sure they’re engaged in the right activities,” Gross-Loh says. “It’s done with good intentions, but it robs them of the experience of being bored or feeling failure, which can be great ways to learn.” When children play on their own, they are practicing skills of risk-taking, independence, and self-control that will help them with future studies and social and emotional adjustment.

Playing outdoors has additional benefits. Research shows that young children who are allowed lots of time for unstructured outdoor play, rather than starting formal academics early, perform better on academics later, Gross-Loh says. And once children are ready for formal education, they are more focused and productive if they have regular outdoor recess breaks. In fact, the students in Naperville, Illinois, scored first in the world in science and sixth in math after their district implemented a physical education curriculum that focused on fitness rather than sports, and had students study their most challenging subjects after exercising.

Now that she knows the value of outdoor play, Gross-Loh lets her own kids roam more freely than she once did. “Before, I thought I would be a bad parent if I didn’t look out for their safety” by forbidding activities like climbing the beech tree in their front yard, she says. “But I was actually crippling their ability to explore.”

Ready to try to boost your kids’ time outdoors? Here are six recommendations from Gross-Loh to help you.

  1. Reduce indoor play. Limit screen time and cut down on other gadgets and games that keep kids indoors. With fewer attractions enticing them to stay inside, kids may better hear the call of outdoor play.
  2. Keep a flexible schedule. Don’t sign your child up for so many structured activities that he or she loses the chance to figure out what to do with an open afternoon.
  3. Model the behavior you want to see. Get outdoors yourself, either on your own or with your children, and see how they follow your lead.
  4. Find like-minded parents. Get to know neighbors whose kids ride bikes past your house; meet families who hike, camp, or ski and invite them to plan outings together.
  5. Get the right clothes. Speaking to a Danish graduate student who was interning at a forest kindergarten, a preschool in which children ages 3 to 6 spent several hours outdoors each day, Gross-Loh heard a phrase popular with Nordic parents: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Outfit your child with the right clothes and gear, whether it’s snow pants and mittens or a sunhat and sunscreen, and you will make outdoor time more enjoyable for everyone.
  6. Step back. Encourage your children to explore, and then try stepping back so that you are not guiding and supervising their outdoor play. Let them direct their time and actions more and more as your confidence and comfort increase.

Learn More
Read more about unstructured play, risk, and kids:

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson. Photo by iStock.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Outdoors Rx: A prescription for outdoor activity

Want to get your kids outside, discover new places in your area, and meet other families interested in the outdoors? AMC’s new Outdoors Rx program helps you do all these things—and win prizes.

Earlier this winter, my 4-year-old daughter and I went for a hike organized by Susan Brown, the youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC. I found out about the event in an online calendar, signed up by email, and showed up at the designated spot, Prospect Hill Park in Waltham, on a Saturday morning. There we met Brown and a family from Waltham, who had learned about the event via Facebook, thanks to the parent-teacher organization at their 7-year-old son’s elementary school. Given the wet and slippery conditions, we agreed to walk on the blacktop road into the park (closed to cars for the season) and explored for about an hour.

The park, founded in 1893, is a popular urban oasis, so the tracks we spotted in the snow were mostly those of dogs and squirrels. But Brown, an energetic redhead who says “I’m never in the office,” made these footprints interesting for the kids, showing them laminated cards of different animal tracks and helping them identify what they saw. The kids also enjoyed watching meltwater bubble beneath the ice on the edges of the road, and seeing park highlights such as Dinosaur Rock and the stone shelters on the Boy Scout Trail. Brown pointed out squirrel nests in the trees and helped everyone read a map of the park, teaching early skills of appreciating the outdoors with a light touch.

Outdoors Rx was developed in collaboration with MassGeneral Hospital for Children and launched in September 2013. Through the program, kids in the pilot communities of Waltham and Framingham can get a prescription for physical activity outdoors from their doctor or other health-care provider. AMC offers how-to and where-to information to help families get outside and leaders like Brown organize regular activities in the two communities. Children participating in the program are awarded points redeemable for prizes ranging from water bottles to a free stay at AMC’s Ponkapoag Camp in Randolph, Mass.
Although neither my daughter nor the boy in the other family on the hike I attended had received a prescription from a health care provider, Brown encouraged the kids to log their activity and participate in the program. But the walk itself seemed reward enough for them.

Learn More
Find out about the Outdoors Rx program, including times and locations for upcoming activities in Waltham, Framingham, and elsewhere.

Photo by Ryan Smith. In warmer weather, Susan Brown of AMC helps a young hiker on an exploration of Hammond Pond Reservation in Chestnut Hill.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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