Friday, November 30, 2012

Cut Your Own Christmas Tree in a National Forest

Ready to get a Christmas tree? The national forests are full of them—and you’re invited to hike in and cut your own.

Tree-cutting permits cost just $5; in the Northeast, they are available for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. In addition to cash or a check, you will need a handsaw or ax, warm clothes and other essentials for a winter hike, and a family patient enough to spend some time looking for the right tree and then working together to bring it out. (You have to select a tree that’s at least 100 feet from a state highway, and not in or near a campground, picnic area, Wilderness, or other off-limits area.)

You can buy tree-cutting permits at White Mountain National Forest offices in Gorham, Conway, Campton, and Lincoln, New Hampshire; and at Green Mountain National Forest offices in Rutland, Middlebury, Manchester, and Rochester, Vermont. Before driving to the region to cut a tree, make sure the nearest office will be open.

Once in the woods, you may want to look for fragrant balsam firs, which retain their needles well, or spruce, with their full branches and classic shape. Or maybe a tiny, somewhat misshapen “Charlie Brown” tree will tug at your family’s heart. In any case, you will be building outdoor memories to last a lifetime.

Learn More
Not sure how to distinguish between a fir and a spruce? Read some tips from AMC.

Photo by Christian Schwier -

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Outdoor Gifts for Kids and Families

While walking in Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on Thanksgiving, my 3-year-old spotted some birds that neither my husband nor I could identify. To my delight, she responded to our ignorance by asking for a bird book for Christmas.

I spent much of Black Friday walking in another local conservation area, rather than starting my holiday shopping. Even so, my daughter’s request got me thinking about gifts that encourage a love of nature and active time outdoors.

Here are a few ideas.

It’s challenging to wrap, but top of my list for any gift-giving occasion is more time with my family and friends, preferably outdoors. Here are some ways to make this gift more tangible:
  • Pair a book about the constellations with some hot chocolate and set a date to go star-gazing with your child.
  • Do something similar with binoculars and a bird book, or a tree book or bug book, or whatever else inspires you and your child.
  • Book a trip to a campground, lodge, or other destination where you know your family will enjoy hiking, skiing, swimming, or other outdoor activities.
Clothes and Gear
In a wonderful article called “Gift Ideas for Outdoor Families,” AMC staff and authors offer their suggestions, many of which involve clothes and gear.

These gifts make sense, since a good raincoat or warm snowpants and parka can make a big difference in how kids experience the outdoors. Maybe this is the time for you to invest in such items—or to ask relatives to chip in for something you’d like your child to have (or that you would like yourself).

Consider options like these:
  • Raincoats and umbrellas
  • Snow gear (including hats, mittens, and gloves)
  • Sunglasses and sun hats
  • Wool socks
  • Flashlights and/or headlamps
  • Sleds and snow tubes
  • Kids’ snowshoes or skis
  • Bicycles and helmets
  • Water bottles or hydration systems
  • Child carriers
Another way to encourage children to explore is to give them a few key tools that help them examine their surroundings, like these:
  • Binoculars
  • Hand lens/magnifying glass (and for older enthusiasts, perhaps a microscope)
  • Butterfly net
  • Bug box
  • Shovels and buckets
  • Sketch pad and watercolors
  • Field guides (books or apps)
Whatever material gifts you might give, though, I think the most important one is your time and enthusiasm. So go ahead and schedule some days outdoors with your family and friends, or just grab an hour the next time you can. Even without a bird book, a place like Great Meadows always makes me thankful.

Learn More
For more ideas, check out the Go Explore Nature blog post on “Gift Ideas for Backyard Nature Fun,” which includes links to 15 more nature-themed gift lists.

Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

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

For six weeks this fall, my husband and I wrangled our just-turned-3-year-old to “soccer class” in the local park each Saturday morning.

When we signed up, I thought we had appropriately low expectations. We wanted a structured reason to get our girl outdoors and active on a morning when errands often intrude. We pictured her kicking and throwing a pint-size ball, meeting some neighborhood kids, and running around enough that she would be tuckered out by naptime.

But we encountered resistance from the get-go. Our daughter has loved splashing in swim lessons and often pretends she is going to dance class, yoga, or gymnastics. But soccer? With actual coaches asking her to do things? When we arrived at the park, she didn’t want to get out of her stroller, not even to do warm-up stretches that she could see were just like yoga.

Each Saturday that I was the soccer parent, I found myself coaxing my daughter into participating on the sidelines of the actual class. And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of moms and dads were playing one-on-one with their 2-and 3-year-olds, while the teachers worked with the kids who were more ready (many of them probably closer to 4). The children’s reactions ranged from enthusiasm to obliviousness to outright defiance. When kids were handed colored pinnies, the mesh shirts that would identify their teams, some loved them, but others—my girl included—refused to let them over their heads. If the coaches had offered her one in sparkly purple, perhaps she would have been won over, but plain red didn’t do it.

Maybe the resistance is related to her current “fairy princess ballerina” phase, which I name after her self-described Halloween costume this year. (It included a velvet dress, pink purse, and wand.) But I think it’s more about her age and her idea of play. She enjoys cranking up the music in our kitchen and calling our goofy moves ballet more than sitting still and listening to a stranger explain cleats or goalkeeping. Playing ball works better when it’s with people she already knows and the skill-building is unconscious. Dance does too: When a friend studying salsa tried to teach a simple step to my daughter last week, she responded, “I want to do my own moves.”

Still, the class wasn’t a total loss. My daughter and I kicked and dribbled and chased. One morning, I got her to participate in bits and pieces by declaring that each of us could choose what to do for five minutes at a time: five minutes on the swing, followed by five minutes with a soccer ball, then five minutes of pretending to visit the library or cook breakfast, and five minutes of running.

Now when we go to the park, we spend more time running and chasing each other on the green field instead of just sticking to the slides and swings. I think we would have made the switch anyway, but I’m willing to credit those Saturday morning soccer sessions with helping to broaden our outdoor play.

Who knows, maybe my daughter will be interested in trying soccer again when she’s a little older. But I’m in no rush to push organized sports. They may help teach teamwork or discipline or other skills. But our experiment this fall reminded me that my daughter—like all kids—also needs unstructured time to explore and create, free from adult rules.

So we still keep heading outside, but I’m letting her take the lead in inventing games. The other day, we had a grand time playing in a pile of leaves. And last week, she tried to climb a tree, sparkly dress and all.

Photo by iStock.

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Wild Turkeys: A Conservation Success You Can See

Last summer, my daughter and I spotted a flock of wild turkeys at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, Mass. The Mass Audubon property includes exhibits of rescued wild animals, such as owls and foxes, in addition to farm animals like chickens and pigs. So when we noticed the big brown birds in a fenced field, it took me a moment to realize that they were not part of the educational programming. As my daughter and I watched, one turkey flapped right out of the enclosure, proving that they were visitors just like us.

Wild turkeys haven't always been so abundant in this area. In fact, these glorious birds were on the verge of extinction in the early 1900s. But thanks to conservation and re-introduction efforts, they have rebounded and even expanded their range.

Since that chance encounter last summer, I’ve studied up a bit on wild turkeys, and learned that the habitat around Drumlin Farm is just what they like: hardwood forests with scattered openings. According to the All About Birds website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the birds typically forage on forest floors, eating acorns, other nuts and seeds, fruits, bugs, and salamanders. They can also be found in grasslands and swamps. In mating season (February through April), they build nests in depressions on the ground, hidden by leaves and other vegetation. Adults roost in trees at night.

As any schoolchild might tell you, wild turkeys were an important food source for indigenous people in what became the Americas. But hunting and the development of previously wooded habitat eliminated the wild turkey from most of its range by the early 20th century.

Early re-introduction efforts using game farm turkeys failed. Starting in the 1940s, wild turkeys were caught and relocated to areas where previous populations had been decimated but woodlands were recovering. The transplantations worked so well that wild turkeys now live in areas where they may not have when Europeans first reached the Americas. Alaska is now the only state in the United States that does not host wild turkeys. (Yes, that means Hawaii has them.)

The numbers speak volumes for this conservation success: According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit that promotes conservation and hunting of the birds, the wild turkey population in the United States skyrocketed from a low of 30,000 in the early 1900s to more than 7 million today.

What to Look For
When you or your child pictures a stereotypical turkey, the image is probably that of a male. The males display the blue-gray head and neck with pink wattles, the leg spurs, and the bright “beard” of modified chest feathers. They strut with their tails fanned to get attention during mating season, and they “gobble,” making a distinctive sound that is meant to attract females and that can be heard a mile away. Females have more subtle brown coloring and sometimes have small beards. The birds are large, up to about 3 and a half feet, and can weigh more than 18 pounds. I think it was the size that caught our eyes when we were at Drumlin Farm; these birds are huge!

What to Listen For
The wild turkeys we saw were quietly scratching for food. But you can listen to wild turkeys gobble, hiss, and cluck in recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then head out and listen for them in the wild.

Learn More
As Thanksgiving and other holidays approach, consider creating your own outdoor holiday traditions.

Read more about wild turkeys in this Junior Naturalist post.

Photo by Istock.

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

12 Great Outdoor Winter Activities for Kids

Are you trying to get your kids outdoors and active in the winter? Here are a dozen fun ideas to keep them moving and connect them with the natural world, recommended by AMC experts. All these activities can be done in the backyard or around the neighborhood.

1. Make snow angels and snowmen. If snow falls in abundance, bundle your kids and have them lie down and wave their arms and legs to make snow angels. Or try rolling balls of snow to build snowmen and snowwomen. “I like to get creative with the whole snowmen idea and create snow animals, snow families, and so on,” says Yemaya Maurer, co-author with her husband, Lucas St. Clair, of AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping. She also recommends leaving the heads off your creations, so kids can stand behind them and add their own faces.

2. Build snow forts and their variations: snow mazes and more serious snow shelters. Maurer and St. Clair describe how to make a snow shelter in this short video and give tips in the article, “Home Sweet Dome.” For simpler mazes and forts, you can make snow “bricks” by packing snow into plastic bins or wastebaskets, then letting it air-harden before building. Decorate your creations with food coloring, pine cones, or other flourishes.

3. Try tracking. Kim Foley MacKinnon, author of Outdoors with Kids Boston and mother to Sadie, 13, recommends exploring the untrampled edges of local parks after a snowfall to look for animal tracks. For more tips on tracking, see “Stories in the Snow: Tracking for kids.”

4. Break out the binoculars. MacKinnon suggests making a simple pine cone birdfeeder (just add peanut butter and birdseed), setting it out in the backyard, and observing the birds (or other critters) that come to visit. Cheryl de Jong-Lambert, co-author of Outdoors with Kids New York City with her husband William, and mother to 9-year-old Riley and 6-year-old Halina, points out that many birds are easier to spot in winter, because leaves have fallen from the trees. Various owls, certain ducks, snow buntings, red-tailed hawks, and other species are visible primarily in winter. De Jong-Lambert recommends keeping a running log of the birds you see, and where and when you see them, and comparing it to what you find in warm-weather months. 

5. Play winter “horseshoes.” Maurer plays this game on winter camping trips, burying a wide-mouthed water bottle in the snow so that the mouth is flush with the snow’s surface, then gathering sticks or small stones to toss into it from a few yards back. You can create your own version with a can or bowl in a backyard or park.

6. Establish snowball-throwing or sled-pulling contests. Try aiming snowballs at tree trunks. When pulling sleds, see who can pull faster, and try variations with different things on the sleds. You can also see who can roll the biggest snowball or successfully form a mound of snow into a shape other than the traditional ball.

7. Create a treasure hunt. This year-round favorite can be tailored to the season, with clues that refer to icicles and items hidden in snowbanks. Similarly, you can set children off in search of the longest or fattest icicle they can find. Bring a cloth or vinyl measuring tape to keep track. 

8. Make ice art. Freeze water colored with food coloring into blocks and other shapes, using ice cube trays, muffin tins, Jell-O molds, and old yogurt containers. (This step is more easily done in your freezer, but you can also try it outdoors.) Then bring your colorful ice blocks outside, along with any natural ice and snow you can collect, to create your own ice sculptures. In sub-freezing temperatures, you can stick the pieces together by dribbling water on them—it should quickly freeze them in place.

9. Catalog conifers. How many different kinds of evergreens can you identify in your neighborhood or around town? If small branches or needles have blown to the ground, de Jong-Lambert suggests collecting them to start a species library at home. Are the needles long, short, pliable, brittle, thick, or fine? The differences are surprisingly many. You can also see how many different kinds of pine cones you can find or identify. 

10. Head to the playground. “Your child’s favorite summer space will be transformed by snow and ice, and more likely than not, you’ll have it all to yourselves,” says MacKinnon.

11. Make s’mores. These camping classics aren’t just for summer, MacKinnon reminds families. Build a fire in an appropriate place and roast marshmallows or sip hot chocolate outside.

12. Skate, sled, swirl on a saucer, snowboard, or ski. Get out there and dive into the white stuff! Older kids in particular may need to burn some energy if they’ve been indoors watching the snow come down—or if they woke up to find a blanket of white already there. If you don’t have the equipment, or need to get bigger sizes, look for ski swaps and other community sales for used gear. No matter the steepness of the slope, it is a good idea to bring a bike helmet in case conditions turn quickly slick.

Learn More
For more ideas to help kids enjoy winter outdoors, see “Snow Days: How to make winter cool for kids.”

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