Thursday, June 30, 2011

Great Park Pursuits

In 2006, shortly after the publication of Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, Connecticut governor M. Jodi Rell launched a statewide “No Child Left Inside” initiative to reconnect children and families to the natural world. A key part of the initiative was an eight-week contest for families called “The Great Park Pursuit” that took place in the state’s parks and forests.

Since then, a half dozen other states, including several in New England, have developed similar programs. Those state park systems are gearing up now for the 2011 “Great Park Pursuit” season. The basic notion behind the first program has remained — to introduce children and families to the great outdoors. This year, however, Connecticut has stopped running its program as a contest; other states offer a range of family-friendly activities.

Follow the links below for more information about Great Park Pursuits and other similar programs around the region.

Connecticut
• The state launched a year-round Great Park Pursuit Outdoor Recreation Challenge earlier this year. There’s no formal registration process, but letterboxes, secret codes, and passbooks encourage children and their families to explore Connecticut’s state parks.
• The next event is a Family Boating Day on July 9 at Mansfield Hollow State Park.

Maine
Maine has two programs. The Maine State Parks Passport program is open to anyone who visits Maine state parks. The Take It Outside! program is limited to state residents.
• The Maine State Parks Passport program runs from Memorial Day through September. Free passport books are available at any state park or historic site.
• Through Take It Outside! in 2011, Maine families who have never been camping have the chance to spend a weekend at one of 11 participating Maine State Parks. Families receive a two-night reservation at their chosen state park and are lent a complete set of camping equipment for the weekend. The program, which is offered to Maine residents only, starts July 15 and continues through the first weekend in August.
• Take It Outside! programs are also held throughout the summer at various locations around Maine.

Massachusetts
Massachusetts began a Great Park Pursuit program in 2007. The program has grown over the years. In 2011 it includes a team contest and events at parks around the state.
• The 2011 Massachusetts Great Park Pursuit kicks off on Friday, July 1, and concludes with a “grand finale” on September 10. The Massachusetts Great Park Pursuit is a team activity; the minimum team size is one adult 18 years or older and one child under 18. Teams collect special stickers for their game cards.
• Teams are challenged to visit different Great Park Pursuit programs and to design their own activities. Programs include hiking, fishing, history, coastal walks, night-sky programs, and more.
Two examples:
Fishing clinics at Walden Pond. July 2, 9, and 23. 7:00 am – 9:30 am. Walden Pond staff provide instruction and fishing gear for visitors ages 7 and up. Pre-registration is strongly encouraged: Each Saturday morning event is limited to 12 youths. All children must be accompanied by an adult. http://www.mass.gov/dcr/events.htm
Thoreau on Greylock family hike. July 16. Mt. Greylock State Park. Hike along the historic route of American naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau to the summit of Mount Greylock, accompanied by local writer and scholar Lauren Stevens. 5.5 miles one way or 11 miles round-trip.

New Hampshire

Registration for the New Hampshire Great Park Pursuit has already closed and the summer-long competition has begun. However, anyone can take part in some of the other activities, including self-guided NH Biodiversity Quests.
• Here’s a challenge for Franconia Notch State Park: Locate dead and downed wood (rotting logs, downed branches), a dead standing snag, a forest seep, and a yellow birch “barber chair.”

Rhode Island

Registration for the Rhode Island Great Outdoors Pursuit is still open, even though the program has already begun. It includes both guided and self-guided events and offers a list of places to explore in Rhode Island communities.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Unplugged Summers


A friend planned a girls-only vacation with her pre-teen daughter. She booked them a night at a historic Cape Cod inn, rented bicycles, and made a reservation for two at a restaurant she thought her daughter would enjoy. It had been a busy school year, and she liked the idea of walking along the beach together and talking. “Preventive medicine for the teenage years,” she said.

But when the weekend came, my friend found herself contending with unwanted digital guests. On the drive to the Cape, her daughter listened to music on her iPod. When they arrived at the inn, she slumped in a chair, texting friends, with barely a look at their surroundings. At dinner, my friend noticed the telltale signs of under-table texting and blew up. Her daughter’s response surprised her: She reminded her mother that they hadn’t left for biking until my friend had replied to email, that she’d talked on her phone on the drive down. And that her smart phone sat on the table, inches from her elbow.

As we say in our family, Busted!

Summer is a good time to reduce the hold our digital distractions have on us, individually and as families. There’s no better time to replace some portion of our screen time with “green time” spent outside. Consider this summer grab-bag of ideas for making that switch and add your own:

- Use summer’s change of pace. It can be easier to change our routines or try new ones on vacation. This summer, try taking family vacations from technology. The break can last as a long as a walk in the park or extend to a full day, a weekend, or more. On summer drives, play car games or (gasp!) all listen to the same music or audio book instead of retreating to separate digital worlds. Leave digital devices behind on your next trip to the pool or your next family hike.
- Put yourself on a technology diet. Do you check your smart phone during family meals, during conversations with your children, or on vacation? Do you spend significant non-work time on the computer or in front of a screen? You may be giving your children the message that they are less important to you than whatever is on the screen. Try setting aside particular times of the day, or of a vacation, to spend time with your children without any digital distractions.
- Send the children to a technology-free camp. Or the entire family. Many summer camps insist that campers surrender their electronic devices while they’re at camp. “Without the persistent interruption of text messages, Facebook updates, and even the quainter notion of a phone call, campers become more grounded and invested in their surroundings, relationships, and activities,” says Laura Gillespie of The Aloha Foundation. AMC’s family camps encourage guests to keep cell phone and other technology use to a minimum.
- Turn off the power. If you don’t use electricity, it’s hard to keep the technology habit going, even with batteries. Susan Maushart put her three children through a “blackout bootcamp” — several weeks without electricity, in which light came from candles and food was stored in a cooler of ice — and then instituted a six-month digital media ban. (And then wrote a book about the experience, The Winter of Our Disconnect.) Without electronic stimulation, Maushart’s children oriented themselves differently in what they called “RL,” or the Real World, spending more time with friends, playing music, reading, and “blossoming,” in Maushart’s words.

Backpacking trips offer similar opportunities for slowed-down time and deeper connections — and candlelight. Experience suggests that it’s easier not to pack electronic devices in the first place than to place limits on their use once they’re in the tent or on the trail with you. That is, until the batteries run out. Then they’re simply dead weight.

My friend and her daughter are planning another trip later this summer. They’ve agreed to turn off their phones while they’re driving, to check email and Facebook only once a day, and to leave their digital distractions behind at least one day.

Summer is short enough here in New England that it's a shame to spend too much of it in the virtual world.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A little night magic: stars and planets


Before the school year ended, Virgil’s third-grade class visited the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vermont. For their final science unit of the year, they were studying astronomy, and their teacher had some surprises for them. I went along as a chaperone.

We started our visit inside an inflatable planetarium called Star Lab, crawling into the room-sized bubble through a short tunnel and sitting in a large circle along its thin walls. Inside, once our eyes adjusted to the dark, Montshire educator Mike Fenzel turned on the night sky.

Obviously, he didn’t turn on the real night sky, but the scaled-down moon, stars, and planets looked real enough, and with Fenzel at the controls they followed their actual paths across the smaller sky. The class marveled at his “30-second night,” in which the deepening of twilight, the moon rising in the east and setting in the west, and the coming dawn all passed by in less than a minute. But the kids erupted with glee when Fenzel ran time in our small universe backward, making the moon travel from west to east.

Our journey through the night sky the second time around went by more slowly and touched on kid-friendly highlights. “I always start with the Big Dipper,” Fenzel told me later. “We live in an area where we can see the Big Dipper every night of the year for the entire night,” as long as it isn’t too cloudy. Right now the Big Dipper — also known by its Latin name, Ursa Major, or the Great Bear — starts high in the sky and slowly swings down toward the horizon by daybreak.

Fenzel explained that, in spite of what we might expect, the hottest stars may actually appear blue in the night sky. Slightly cooler stars will show up as yellow or white. The coolest stars come in the hottest colors, red and orange.

After an hour, our night in the Star Lab was over, and the class emerged into the bright light of day. Our next astronomical stop was the museum’s Planet Walk, which fits our solar system into a 3-mile hike. We started at a big orange sphere three feet in diameter — the sun. The real sun was high overhead, throwing off the first heat of the season. A path led toward scale models of the 9 planets in our solar system.

We reached the first planet, Mercury, in less than 30 strides. It actually lies 58 million kilometers from the sun. The scale model of Mercury was about the size of a ball bearing — tiny compared to the big orange sphere we’d just left. Thirty more steps brought us to Venus, the brightest object in our sky except for the sun and the moon, and about the size of a pea in this parallel universe, not much larger than Mercury. By the time we reached Mars, we hadn’t walked a tenth of a mile, not even the full length of the museum parking lot.

In their astronomy unit, the third graders had learned that the word “planet” comes from a Greek word for “wanderer.” To find the rest of the planets, we would need to wander ourselves, along a trail that climbed out of the Connecticut River Valley.

The description on the Mars model explained that to reach the fifth planet, Jupiter, we would need to walk three times as far as we’d already come. Jupiter is the biggest planet, more than two times bigger than all the other planets combined; here, it was the size of a basketball. Fenzel had told us that as the summer progresses, we’ll be able to see Jupiter in the constellation Aries.

From Jupiter to Saturn, we walked the same distance we’d covered to reach Jupiter, a little more than a third of a mile on our forest trail, where squirrels and chipmunks chattered back at the kids from safe perches on tree limbs and logs. Actual distance: about 700 million kilometers.

After Saturn, the trail skirted a big meadow where the grasses already reached shoulder-level on most of the kids. We’d walked a little more than a mile when we reached Neptune, the eighth planet, perched on an outcrop. In the distance to the north, we could easily make out the spires of Dartmouth College, rising on the opposite side of the river. In another half-mile or so, we’d reach Pluto, long considered the smallest planet but now demoted to dwarf status, 6 billion kilometers from the sun.

The real sun was beating down on us and a bus was waiting to take the kids back to school. So we turned around and traveled back through the parallel universe, our perspectives realigned, with a deeper sense of the night sky and the scale of our solar system.

Learn more
- .. about the Planet Walk at the Montshire Museum.
- ... about the solar system from National Geographic.

Illustration from Greenwings

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Advice for Adventurous Fathers


Outside magazine is not normally a place I turn to for parenting advice. So I was intrigued when a link to a Father’s Day-themed series in the magazine came across my desktop. Some of Outside's macho attitude came across with it: The text to the link asked, “Are You Raising a Wimp?” and offered “Essential Advice for Adventurous Fathers.”

Here’s how the article started: “They say that becoming a dad means your days of big trips and serious adventure are over. They are so wrong. Starting this Father’s Day, be your hard-charging self again. It’s what your kids need most.”

It then cited a statistic from a recent study by the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation, which the Outside editors phrased this way: “75 percent of kids aged 6 to 12 who participate in adventure sports are simply copying their parents.” Their concluding advice — “[Y]our first act as an awesome outside dad is to walk out the front door.”

I understand the outdoor adventurer’s desire to keep getting out — into the mountains, onto the trail, on the river, on the rock. And being a mother or father needn’t prevent us from going off on serious adventures. But being “an awesome outside dad” takes much more than heading for the hills without the kids.

Other statistics collected by the Outdoor Foundation but not included in Outside's article make it clear, in fact, that if fathers want their children to become “hard-charging adventurers” in their own right, then Dad needs to walk out the door with kids in hand — even if that means scaling back his own adventures for a time. It makes sense that young children are heavily influenced by their parents’ choices. If you’re 6 years old, or 12, you’re most likely to go hiking or participate in other outdoor activities if your parents take you. The second most common reason children in the study gave for not spending time outside, after “not interested”: “My parents don’t take me.”

This statistic is especially important because the study also noted a precipitous decline in outdoor activity in this age group over a shockingly short period of time. In 2006, 78% of children ages 6 to 12 reported participating in outdoor activities; in 2009, the year of the study, only 62% of young children reported participation.

Another part of the magazine’s Father’s Day package sends this message exactly. The editors asked some of their best-known writers, Ian Frazier and Mark Singer among them, to contribute essays on fathers. I recommend ignoring the introductory article and accompanying gear guide (unless you’re just dying to buy an igloo-building kit) and instead reading their thoughtful meditations on fathers and the outdoors.

Advice for adventuring fathers from Outside magazine writers:
- More patience, less danger. Steve Rinella, host of the Travel Channel series “The Wild Within,” remembered a father who threw him off a dock to force him to swim and who barred his sons from coming inside on bitter winter days. Rinella writes, “He didn’t want to raise a thin-skinned softy who couldn’t handle hardship.” But now that Rinella is a father himself, he is looking “to create a future that we can remember with fondness.”
- Focus on what you can share. Ian Frazier did not share his father’s mechanical aptitude: “He told me I didn’t have the brains God gave a screwdriver,” Frazier writes ruefully. But they did share a love of rambling, whether on foot or behind the wheel of a car. So the two hiked mountains and drove across the country — and the tinkering gene skipped a generation to Frazier’s son.
- Teach them to be safe and let them make mistakes. “Never take your skis off,” Marc Peruzzi’s father told his 7-year-old son, who quickly discovered the limits of such advice. Peruzzi arms his children with perhaps more useful safety information, then lets them roam.
- Less is more. “If I could have one do-over,” Mark Singer ruminates about being a father to four sons, “it would be to have spent less time telling them what I’d done in my life, what arcane knowledge I’d accumulated. If only I had just listened and absorbed what the world looked like through their unadulterated, as it were, eyes.”

Being an adventuring, role-modeling father is hard work, harder in some ways than the adventures themselves. But it’s hard work during a relatively short window of time. The Outdoor Foundation study shows that by age 13, kids are making choices increasingly influenced by their peers. So, Dads, walk out the door — and take your kids with you when you go.

Happy Father’s Day.

Learn more
- Tough Love: Outside writers on fathers

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Summer tips: heat and humidity


Last week’s steamy weather reminded me of a hiking trip our family took last summer. Shortly after noon on a blisteringly hot, windless, and humid July day, we pulled into a trailhead parking lot for an overnight hut hike we’d planned for months. We started sweating as soon as we stepped out of the car, and Virgil started complaining almost as quickly. He complained about the heat, sweat in his eyes, and how uncomfortable his small, very light pack felt against his back.

I was eager to get to the hut and didn’t want to deal with a whining child. It took more energy than I had, in the heat and humidity, to jolly Virgil along. I wanted to ignore him, and if I couldn’t ignore him, I wanted to yell at him. We kept him going for a while, but he seemed to deflate with each step, until he was hardly moving. We took a break. I noticed his bright red face. He shrugged off his pack and out of his shirt and lay down on a rock, listless. It wasn’t until I saw the raised red bumps on his neck and under his arms, though, that I got it: He was truly suffering in the heat.

Those red bumps were a heat rash. Virgil’s red face, and the fact that he wasn’t sweating, meant that his body was struggling to cool itself down. If we’d taken his temperature, it might have seemed that he had a slight fever. And if we hadn’t stopped right there, he might have developed heat stroke.

Heat stroke occurs when a person doesn’t sweat enough to lower his or her body temperature. It’s the most severe heat-related ailment and a life-threatening emergency. A child’s body heats up 3 to 5 times faster than an adult’s, making children more vulnerable to heat stroke than adults. A child, as we were seeing with Virgil, can become dangerously overheated in only a few short minutes.

Virgil needed to drink to replenish his body’s ability to sweat. Out came our water bottles. Even before he’d had his fill of water, we soaked his shirt and put it back on him to cool his skin and soothe the itchy rash. We started up again, but at a much slower pace, resting often and drinking even more often. Virgil’s energy eventually returned, he stopped whining, and we made it to the hut in good shape.

A child with heat stroke may have any of the following symptoms:
- temperature of 103 degrees F or higher, not accompanied by sweating
- hot, red, dry skin
- rapid pulse
- restlessness, confusion, or dizziness
- headache
- vomiting
- rapid, shallow breathing
- lethargy

To prevent heat stroke and its milder form, heat exhaustion:
- Let children slowly acclimate to hot temperatures over several days or even weeks
- Make sure children drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after physical exercise, Drinks with caffeine, carbonation, or a lot of sugar are much less effective than water at replenishing the body’s fluids and should be avoided. Many sports drinks fall into this category. Dehydration contributes to heat stroke.
- Avoid sunburn, which interferes with a body’s ability to cool itself and causes a loss of body fluids
- Give children frequent breaks to cool down
- Dress them in lightweight and loose-fitting clothing
- Schedule activity for cooler times of day
- Bring children into the shade or into an air-conditioned space
- Give children cool baths

Heat stroke requires immediate medical treatment. If a child develops heat stroke, you need to bring his or her internal temperature down as quickly as possible.
- Call 911.
- Undress the child and if possible move him or her into a cool room.
- Sponge the child’s body with a washcloth and fan the damp skin.
- Apply ice packs to the groin and armpits.
- Give the child cool fluids only if he or she is alert and able to drink.
- Don’t attempt to treat the high temperature with a fever-reducer such as Tylenol.
- Never leave a child in a parked car. Heat stroke can occur within minutes in a car; the temperature inside a car can quickly climb 10 to 20 degrees higher than the temperature outside.

It may be hard to believe that it’s going to be hot again. But before long, we’ll have those hot, steamy days of high summer. I’m actually looking forward to them.

Learn more
- Information on heat stroke from the Centers for Disease Control
- Heat-related illnesses and children


Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Fledging in the graduation season


I looked it up in the dictionary: Fledging means taking care of a young bird until its feathers and wing muscles are sufficiently developed for flight. Add an “l” and you get the name for a young bird whose wing feathers have recently come in. Fledglings often remain under the care of their parents, though, even after they’ve learned to fly.

I’ve been thinking about both words lately, in their several forms — verb, noun, and adjective — and in uses both scientific and metaphoric. It is, after all, the fledging season, when young of the year (and not only those that grow feathers) take first steps.

Sometimes there’s not much warning. The baby robins we’ve observed over the past couple of weeks from our kitchen window opened their eyes late last week. On Saturday morning, they were busy pulling out fluffy white tufts with their small yellow beaks — fledging feathers, no longer necessary now that their flight feathers were coming in — and jostling for position in a nest that suddenly seemed much too small for the four of them. One bold one even stepped out of the nest and onto the slippery slope of the upright toboggan that’s been their nest platform. It tottered there for a few seconds and then scurried back into the nest.

The next morning, standing at the sink, I automatically glanced over at the nest. Empty. Later, we walked around the back yard, looking for clues. Ursula found a snake skin on top of the rock wall and remembered coming upon a large snake sunning itself and watching it slither back down between the boulders. Snakes eat birds’ eggs and young birds; so do squirrels, blue jays, and crows. A stray cat might have clawed its way up the toboggan, though that seemed less likely. More likely was that the 2-week-old birds were ready to leave the nest, and did.

Assuming the young birds made it safely from nest to ground, they’ll spend several more weeks learning the ways of the robin world from their parents. The adults will teach them how to feed themselves, where to perch safely during the day and at night, and what dangers to avoid.

I discovered the empty nest the day after our nephew graduated from high school. He graduated on one day; the next morning, he caught the first flight to the west coast. By now he’s registered for college classes and flown on to Alaska, also alone, to begin a summer job at a cannery. The suddenness of his departure, even though planned, caught his parents by surprise. In the nest one day, gone the next.

Taking wing, metaphorically speaking, isn’t always so abrupt, and even our nephew’s leave-taking is the end result of many years of nurturing and preparation. And he won't fly away forever: He'll be back at the end of the summer and over vacations for several years more. But his mother told me, “Once they leave for college, they don’t really live with you anymore. They’re just visiting.”

Fledging: letting go.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Summer outdoor fun in and around D.C.


Beth Homicz, co-author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes near Washington, D.C., recently shared several of her favorite family-friendly hikes in and around the nation’s capital. For that list, she focused on outings that combine history and nature. One of her favorite hikes in the greater D.C. area, though, is less about history and more about simple family fun.

Homicz calls Watkins Regional Park, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, “a great place to spend an afternoon, especially in the summer.” The park is full of child-friendly delights: a small-gauge train that offers rides all summer; the historic Chesapeake Carousel, first built in the early twentieth century and lovingly restored; an educational farm with animals children can feed; pony rides and hayrides.

Ten short trails radiate out from the park’s nature center, guiding children to beaver and frog ponds, past wildflower meadows and butterfly/hummingbird gardens, and through woodland forests. Families can borrow baby backpacks and kid activity packs from the nature center, or participate in a variety of free activities such as Friday night bat hunts and Saturday hikes led by naturalists.

The park website covers some of the basics, but Homicz encourages families to get out and see the park for themselves. “It’s much more enticing in reality than it is online,” she says — a delightful example of underpromising and overdelivering.

In addition to Watkins Regional Park, Homicz points out several other family-friendly summer events in the D.C. area:
- The National Gallery of Art hosts a “Jazz in the Garden” series on Friday evenings in the museum’s Sculpture Garden through the summer.
- Brass bands from the United States armed services perform on the west steps of the United States Capitol Building on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings June through August and in other locations around the city.
- The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place on the Mall during the two weeks surrounding Independence Day.
- On Monday nights from the end of July through August, free classic movies are shown in the “Screen on the Green” movie festival on the National Mall.
- The National Park Service commemorates the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas with a variety of special programs and activities at Manassas National Battlefield Park, July 21 through July 24.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Family Hikes In and Around Washington, D.C.: the consummate outsiders' guide


The newest guide in AMC's Best Day Hikes series gives fresh meaning to the phrase "outside the beltway." Each year, millions of families travel to Washington, D.C., to see the nation's museums and monuments. AMC's Best Day Hikes near Washington, D.C. divulges insiders' secrets to getting outside the famous walls of our nation's capital—and some surprises for families who already know the city.

Who would have known, for instance, that a walk around the National Mall passes no fewer than a dozen public gardens, including two butterfly gardens and a fragrant Victorian courtyard where children can smell nature as well as see it? Beth Homicz, co-author of the guide with Stephen Mauro, points out that spending time outdoors in metropolitan D.C. doesn't take away from learning about the nation's culture and history but can actually add to it. She recommends four family hikes in particular that bring the nation's history outdoors.

1. The National Mall, Washington, D.C.

The National Mall is the geographical heart of the nation's capital, Homicz says, and also the heart of its tourist area, receiving more than 24 million visitors a year. It's not necessary to hike the mall's full 2.25-mile length, because any of the green spaces listed below offers a respite from crowds and sun.

Butterfly Habitat Garden at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History—four different landscapes attract many of the D.C. area's 80 butterfly species

Constitution Gardens —Walk across a bridge to an island memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence in a pond that's also a haven for ducks and geese

Folger Rose Garden Roses and a view at the entrance to the Smithsonian "castle"

Haupt Garden An old-fashioned garden with fountains that sits above two underground museums

Heirloom and Victory Gardens at the National Museum of American History The history of plants in America during settlement and wartime

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden A changing collection of outdoor sculptures, flowering trees, and a fountain in a sunken garden

Moongate Garden An Asian-inspired garden above the Sackler Gallery (best on cool days)

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden An inviting garden surrounding whimsical works of modern sculpture, plus a snack bar and restrooms

Native landscape gardens at the National Museum of the American Indian

Ripley Garden A Victorian "fragrant garden" in a curving design

U.S. Botanic Gardens Enjoy desert and tropical plants inside and butterfly and water gardens outside

2. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C.

A short drive from the Capitol, the National Arboretum is a "wonderful green space inside the city," Homicz says, with several features of special interest to families. A tram takes visitors on a half-hour tour of the grounds. Picnic tables in the National Grove of State Trees make it a pleasant place for an outdoor meal. Children can feed Japanese koi in an aquatic garden. And the Arboretum's rows of blooming cherry trees in the spring are more peaceful than those along the National Mall.

Homicz urges visitors not to miss the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum inside the arboretum. It contains a nearly 400-year-old white pine bonsai that survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima and was given by Japan to the U.S. in 1976 as a bicentennial gift—"an object lesson in peace and reconciliation," Homicz says. The arboretum also houses the Washington Youth Garden, more than 100 small plots tended by area elementary-school students, inside a colorful flower border.

3. Prince William Forest Park, Quantico, Virginia
The largest forested area in the D.C. region contains 37 miles of hiking trails, 12 miles of popular Scenic Drive biking, a piece of petrified wood more than 150 million years old, and several connections to American history. Among those connections: a road used by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War; Depression-era summer camps for city children that were segregated by race; cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). During WWII, members of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) trained in the park's dense forests, practicing their spy craft while living in CCC cabins. The park rents some of the same cabins used by the OSS and maintains two campgrounds.

4. Manassas National Battlefield Park, Manassas, Virginia
The first major land battle of the Civil War occurred here in the summer of 1861, 150 years ago. Soldiers from the newly formed Union and Confederate armies fought in the open fields and meadows around meandering Bull Run stream on a steamy July day. Both armies were inexperienced, but after a full day of fighting, a Union army withdrawal turned into a full-scale retreat. Some of the fleeing soldiers ran into the carriages of congressmen who had driven out to watch what they had expected to be a quick and easy win by the Union army. A second battle of Manassas a year later also ended in defeat on the federal side. Children under 16 are admitted free to the park. Tours, films, exhibits, and picnic areas easily make this a full-day visit. Special sesquicentennial events will be held at the park July 21 through 24.

Learn more
Homicz, who worked for many years as a licensed Washington, D.C., tour guide, offers the following suggestions for visitors:

Be prepared for changeable weather.
People often visit Washington, D.C., in the springtime to see the cherry trees. They expect the weather will be soft and warm. But in early April, the temperature can just as easily be 20 degrees, or 80." In every season, Homicz warns, "come prepared for anything in terms of weather.

Carry extra water. It can be easy for visitors to Washington, D.C., who aren't used to oppressive humidity and stifling heat to succumb to heat exhaustion or heat stroke in the warmer months. In such conditions, Homicz says, "the body's self-cooling functions can be severely challenged." Visitors should stay well hydrated, though Homicz cautions that extra cooling may be required. At least many of the capital's buildings are open to the public and air-conditioned.

Take security into account.
"The visitor experience in federal buildings may not be what you may remember," Homicz says. Museums, monuments, and the capital's other buildings have varying, and ever-changing, levels of security inspections. Some buildings don't allow any photography or chewing gum; others prohibit strollers or bottled water. Homicz recommends checking websites ahead of time to learn what restrictions are currently in effect.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.