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Children attending a day camp climb a huge willow tree at Hartley Park recently. At right Caleb Bastien, 8, clambers down the trunk to look for a different limb to hang from. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Ideas for getting kids outside to explore the outdoors

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Now that we’re in the heart of summer, this is a perfect time to get kids connected with the outdoors. Sometimes, the simplest interaction with the natural world can unlock a child’s curiosity and unleash a lifetime of outside exploration.

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We called on some outdoorsy folks for ideas on getting kids into the wild. Here’s what they shared with us.

Climb a tree

There are some graceful old willow trees at Hartley Park in Duluth that are perfect for climbing, said Kaitlin Erpestad of the Hartley Nature Center Preschool.

“Some families come to Hartley Park solely to climb the willows near the Nature Center,” Erpestad said. “The willows — large, sprawling trees with sturdy branches at a variety of heights — are a favorite attraction for kids to climb and explore. As kids climb, they gain skills in balance, coordination and appropriate risk-taking. Your family can find the willows just outside the fence near the Nature Center’s butterfly garden.”

Prime time for fireflies

Eric Chandler of Duluth has an idea whose time is now.

“Eat spaghetti. Save the spaghetti-sauce jar. Remove the label. Punch some holes in the lid with a nail. Send your kids into a field after sunset. Do this around the Fourth of July. Have the kids catch fireflies and put them in the now-breathable jar.

“If the catching is slow, when they’re looking up at the dimming sky, they’ll probably see some bats. Remind them that bats catch mosquitoes. Bats good, mosquitoes bad. Send the kids to sleep in some sleeping bags with their firefly lantern-jar nearby. Let the fireflies go in the morning and marvel at how they look in the daylight.”

Tadpoles and beetles and snails — oh, yeah

Naturalist and father Sparky Stensaas of Duluth suggests an activity that can entertain your junior naturalists for weeks on end.

“And you don’t need any expensive equipment,” Stensaas says. “If you have an unused aquarium, great, but if not, any glass, Plexiglas or plastic container will do. Simply cover the bottom with sand and small rocks. Add a larger rock on top of some smaller ones to create a sheltering underwater ‘cave.’

“Go to any area pond (from tiny to large) and scoop up some pond water and fill your mini aquarium. The water will be very cloudy at first, but don’t worry, the silt will settle in a few minutes. Now add more aquatic critters by scooping in the pond with a small dip net or even a kitchen strainer.

“Tadpoles are really fun for kids to watch develop. Everyone can participate in guessing which species you’ve raised as they lose their tails, form legs and become adults. A few snails will help keep the container clean. Keep your mini-aquarium outside on a porch and regularly replenish with more pond water. Later in the summer, simply return your critters to the same pond you got them from.”

Play on the water

“Paddling is one of life’s great pleasures,” say Matti and Kaitlin Erpestad and Jake Boyce, who operate a guiding service called Day Tripper of Duluth. “Introduce your children to paddling this summer by taking them out in a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddle board. Young children can accompany an adult in the boat or on the board while older children can paddle the boats/boards alone or with an adult.

“Try paddling on Lake Superior on a very calm day when the water is like glass. Brighton Beach and Park Point are both good places to launch. Inland lakes offer warmer water for beginning paddlers. A variety of local businesses rent out stand-up paddle boards. Safety note: Be sure young children wear a properly fitting life jacket at all times.”

There’s an app for that

“Here is a counter-intuitive idea for you,” says Bill Hansen, who owns Sawbill Canoe Outfitters north of Tofte. “My niece is 6, and she loves to be in the woods because she knows every bird call in North America. She got a bird call game app for her iPad when she was 5, and it became her favorite game.

“As young kids do, she played it over and over and over. Now, she can’t wait to get in the woods to hear all the bird calls that she memorized. It’s educational for me to walk with her, and she gets a big kick out of teaching adults, too.”

Walk the Western Waterfront Trail

This easy walk on a gravel path can be a lot of fun for kids, says Duluth birder and birding author Laura Erickson. The five-mile trail follows bays along the St. Louis River in West Duluth.

“Sometimes, you spot a woodchuck, deer or fox,” Erickson said. “There are always exciting insects, including butterflies and dragonflies. And of course, there are lots of birds.”

Access to the trail is at 7300 Grand Avenue. Look for signs.

Make some pretend binoculars

Here’s an idea to help kids spy birds and critters, says Duluth birder Laura Erickson.

“Kids under 5 or 6 get better views of all kinds of things through homemade toilet-paper-roll binoculars,” Erickson said. “These do everything real binoculars do except magnify. They block out peripheral light and help a child focus on one thing at a time, which really does give a clearer view than the eyes alone. (Try it if you don’t believe me!) You can duct tape them together and use a shoe lace as a neck strap.”

Climb on!

Steph Love and Blake Cazier direct the nonprofit Positive Energy Outdoors, and one of the activities they lead is rock climbing.

“Our son, Ansel, age 5, has been climbing (or around climbing) since birth,” Steph says, “and Blake and I love climbing with our friends and their kids in Duluth and up the North Shore. While Duluth has many indoor climbing walls, there is nothing that compares to climbing outside on the real thing.

“We are lucky to have friendly, fun climbing sites like the Whoopie Wall in West Duluth, where we take many families with children as young as 4, and Ely’s Peak near Spirit Mountain, where you can spend the day hiking, climbing and enjoying the views. An experienced guide who knows the ins and outs of setting up these fun top-rope sites is essential if you are new to outdoor climbing. Be ready for your kids to amaze you!”

For more on Positive Energy Outdoors, go to outdooredventures.org.

It’s called ‘mothing’

“Kids naturally love insects,” says Duluth naturalist Sparky Stensaas. “On a warm summer evening, flip on your garage (or porch) lights. Leave them on all night. Then get up early, rouse the kids and see what moths were attracted to your lights. You need to get outside before the day warms up and the moths fly off.

“If you are lucky, you may have attracted some big and showy species such as the Big Poplar Sphinx Moth, Polyphemus or an Underwing. If you are really lucky, maybe a Cecropia or Luna will be waiting for you. But the small moths can be spectacularly patterned, too. Get up close and really study them.

Here are two good moth guides to help you identify the moths you find: ‘Moths of the North Woods’ by Jim Sogaard and the ‘Peterson Field Guide to Moths’ by Beadle and Leckie.”

Try nature play

Let them just play, says Laura Whittaker, who owns Wind Ridge Schoolhouse, a nature-based preschool program in Duluth opening this fall.

“Often, when we think of getting kids outside, we think of structured activities like fishing, hiking or sledding,” Whittaker says. “But one of the most beneficial ways kids can engage with the outdoors is through old-fashioned, unstructured nature play. Nature play is open-ended, child-directed play using natural materials.

“Children who have not grown up with nature play may need some guidance. … I have had success developing a child’s engagement in nature play by connecting the play with something they are interested in. For example, if a child is interested in fire trucks, a log becomes the fire truck and sticks become the hoses. The goal is to introduce a theme that allows for adaptation through several different scenarios to extend the child’s engagement and imagination. … As your child and his or her playmates become more accustomed to nature play, they can create whatever scenario they can imagine, and your role as the play-guide becomes less and less.”

Look up

Eric Chandler of Duluth takes his kids outside in all seasons to check out the sky. Here’s his advice:

“Look at the sky. Read everything (blogger) Astro Bob writes about in the Duluth News Tribune (website). Then, take your kids out on the roof during the Geminid meteor shower in the middle of the winter. When your neighbors ask you why you’re on the roof, you can ask them why they’re shoveling the driveway in the dark. Your kids may thank you for this when they’re older. Or they may thank you when you wake them up to see the northern lights waving green and purple in the night. Or they may remember the time when you used the Skyview app on your iPhone and you saw the International Space Station fly over your front porch. ... Even without the app, if you sit still after sunset and look up, you’ll see satellites.”

Start those campers young

“Camping with children can be a ton of fun — or it can be a disaster,” says Tim Bates, associate director of UMD’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program. “Start when they are young — 2 to 4 years old — and keep it simple. Try camping at a state park or other campground that has somewhat private campsites as well as amenities like restrooms, swimming areas and hiking trails.

“If you have a quiet, somewhat wild backyard, you could even start there. Go when the bugs are low and the weather forecast is good. It’s most fun when you have one big tent for the family. Set it up with sleeping pads and make sure you bring along the items that are parts of night rituals at home, like books to read, a couple of toys to play with and their favorite stuffed animals.”

“Leave the electronics off as much as possible. This goes for parents or for the children as they get older. You’ll be able to focus on your family and the place where you are instead of something or someone that is elsewhere.”

Let ’em dig in the dirt

Duluth’s Joel Hoffman is the father of children ages 2, 4 and 6.

“For activities close to home, gardening is great for young kids,” Hoffman says. “We get them involved at all stages. In the late winter, they help plant the starters. They like to watch the seeds germinate and then start to grow. In the spring, they love digging in the dirt and planting the seeds. They probably enjoy the digging more than the planting. Through the summer, they help water the garden, weed and thin the plants. Of course, the big reward is harvest time. They love eating the peas and carrots right out of the garden. Along the way, there are plentiful opportunities to see and learn about garden life and the local wildlife that comes to check out the garden.”

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