In an age of smartphones, social media and streaming videos, getting kids — and their parents — outside and exploring can be a challenge. But organizations exist to help families find the motivation to put down their devices and head outdoors.
Judith Joyce is executive director of Take a Kid Outdoors (TAKO), an Iowa-based nonprofit dedicated to just that. It holds monthly free outdoor activities for families in Johnson and Fayette counties. Fayette County farmer Dick Jensen founded the organization in 2006.
“He had always done events with kids, bringing them out to his farm,” Joyce said. “He started noticing, as the years went on, more and more kids were disconnected from nature. They were uncomfortable working with dirt, they were afraid of worms.”
Parents go first
Joyce said in her experience, kids are eager to explore nature; it’s often the parents who are holding them back.
“What we’ve found is one of the main reasons kids aren’t going outdoors is due to adult fears that letting kids outdoors is a dangerous activity,” she said. “Adults and parents are keeping kids ‘safe’ by keeping them indoors.”
TAKO’s monthly events range from fishing to sledding to pumpkin carving to hiking. The goal is to get not just the kids outside, but the parents as well, with the hope they’ll overcome some of their hesitations.
“Even though it’s called Take a Kid Outdoors, it’s really about adults coming to our events, overcoming their fears of letting their kids be free,” Joyce said. “A thing we’ve found is if you want kids to engage in the outdoors, their parents have to be comfortable engaging in the outdoors.”
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Bridging the digital divide
Devices don’t have to be the enemy. Joyce recalled a stargazing event where a group of teens were on their phones and seemed bored. She showed them the Google Sky Map, an app they could download to help identify the constellations they were seeing. Soon the group was engaged, and eventually they put their phones down and started using the telescopes.
Apps also can help find biking and hiking trails — try Iowa By Trail — or information on state parks — try the PocketRanger app from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Others might help budding naturalists identify plants (try Leafsnap) and birds (Birds PRO), or send kids and adults alike out exploring on behalf of citizen scientist efforts (Project Noah). There are a plethora of apps out there with a simple search through the app store. Some are free, some cost money, but all will help phone addicts connect the virtual world with the outdoors.
Hike It Baby, a national organization with eight branches in Iowa, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Quad Cities, coordinates hikes and outdoor meetups for parents and children.
Johanna Tomlinson is a branch ambassador for Hike It Baby Cedar Rapids. She lives in Fairfax and has three kids under age 5.
“I hiked as a kid with my family, but it wasn’t something I’d kept up with as an adult,” she said. “I had never been on the trails at Hickory Hill Park or Lake Macbride or Palisades-Kepler State Park or anywhere. I had no idea how beautiful Iowa could be.”
That changed when she joined Hike It Baby. Local chapter members organize group hikes, and members can show up as they are able. Difficulty levels range from toddler-paced walks in the woods to adult-paced hikes where babies are carried.
“I would never have hit a dirt trail with my kids on my own,” she said. “Knowing I had a support system made the difference — someone who could grab a kid’s hand, hand me a wipe, things like that. When your child has a meltdown on the trail and is just sobbing hysterically, there is no judgment. It gave me a level of confidence I might not have had on my own.”
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For parents unsure if they’re ready to take their little ones into the woods, she offered some simple advice.
“Start small, find someplace outdoors where you can go and explore where your car is not that far away, so you can build your confidence,” she said.
It will almost certainly be worth it, she added.
“We have to ‘go outside,’ whereas for most of human history we were just outside; that’s what we did,” she said. “My kids and myself, we can be going really stir crazy inside. But we get outside, and suddenly there’s imaginative play, there’s jumping, playing with leaves, climbing. We’re all happy.”
Upcoming Take A Kid Outdoors events:
Shed Hunt! Find Antler & Take Them Home
- When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 28
- Where: Houge Educational Farm, corner of Hornet and Hazel roads between West Union and Elgin
- Details: Welcome spring while looking for shed antlers
Free fishing weekend
- When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 2
- Where: Gilbertson Nature Center, 22580 A Ave., Elgin
- Details: June 1 to 3 are free fishing days in Iowa this year, meaning fishing licenses aren’t required. Bring a fishing pole if you have one, or borrow one there. If the fish aren’t biting, take a spin in a kayak.
Rockin’ Rocks and Fossils
- When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- WHERE: Gouldsburg County Park, 18649 Sunset Rd., Hawkeye
- Details: Be ready to wade the river while hunting for rocks and fossils. Leaders will bring some interesting specimens, and participants can bring their own to be identified.
Shed Hunt Earth Day Celebration
- When: 10 a.m. to noon April 20
- Where: Creekside Commons Park, 2901 Front St. NE, North Liberty
- Details: Explore the park on this hike and hunt for shed deer antlers
Seize the Carp
- When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 5
- WHERE: Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, 4213 SE Sand Rd., Iowa City
- Details: Planned activities include fishing, raptors, forest bathing, canoeing, kayaking, learning about carp and other outdoor fun
- When: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. June 2
- Where: Liberty Centre Pond, 650 W. Cherry St., North Liberty
- Details: Learn what to keep in your tackle box, how to tie knots, select bait, prepare a hook and more. There will be live fish, experts from Scheels, food and prize drawings.
Rockin’ Rocks and Fossils
- When: 9 a.m. to noon July 14
- Where: Klein Quarry, 3445 Deer Creek Rd. SE, Coralville
- Details: Collect rocks or fossils and learn from experts, who will be on hand to help with identification. Have some rocks at home you’re wondering about? Bring them along to learn more about them.
MORE OPTIONS TO START EXPLORING:
There are plenty of groups, organizations and camps ready to help families get outside and exploring. Here are just a few.
Hike it Baby
- Where: Eight chapters across Iowa, including in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Quad Cities
- Details: Join a chapter and find group hikes and outdoor meetups. Annual membership is $10, but scholarships are available.
- Learn more: hikeitbaby.com
Junior Ranger program
- Where: Effigy Mounds National Monument, 151 Highway 76, Harpers Ferry
- Details: Junior Ranger talks, guided tours and hands-on activities are offered throughout the summer; watch the website for updates. There is always a park ranger on duty to answer questions and give tours. Rangers demonstrate how to use an atlatl or spear thrower, give talks about the Late Woodland Period peoples who built the mounds or fur trading between French trappers and indigenous groups. Daily ranger-guided walks through the park begin at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ADA-accessible presentations about the Three Mounds group begin at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily.
- Learn more: (563) 873-3491 Ext. 123, nps.gov/efmo/index.htm
Indian Creek Nature Center
- Where: 5300 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids
- Details: Camps for kids from preschool to junior high cover everything from finding frogs to outdoor survival skills. Or stop by the Amazing Space throughout the year to watch wildlife from the bird-viewing room, walk on the trails or visit the outdoor classroom.
- Learn more: (319) 362-0664, indiancreeknaturecenter.org
Wickiup Hill Learning Area
- Where: 10260 Morris Hills Rd., Toddville
- Details: The exhibit stations at Wickiup Hill are designed around a story of a school-aged boy and girl who follow a magical dragonfly on a learning adventure related to Native American history, nature and watersheds. Explore both inside and outside, from the wetland boardwalk to the three-sisters garden to the research fort. Watch the website for programming and activities throughout the year.
- Learn more: mycountyparks.com/county/linn/Park/Wickiup-Hill-Learning-Center.aspx
University of Iowa Wildlife Camps
- Where: Primarily at Lake Macbride Recreation Area, as well as state parks across Iowa
- Details: The University of Iowa Wildlife Camps began in the summer of 1991 with a mission to awaken an awareness and appreciation of the natural world in children, as well as to inspire campers to action through developing a sound “land ethic, in the words of native Iowan Aldo Leopold. In 2017, the camps expanded to six Iowa state parks. Check the website for 2018 camp themes and dates.
- Learn more: recserv.uiowa.edu/summer-camps
- Where: 2363 305th St., North English
- Details: Taproot works to inspire children and adults to explore the outdoors, with special events, summer camps and educational programs.
- Learn more: (319) 325-0695, taprootnatureexperience.org
- Where: Across the country; local classes are held at Thomas Park, 343 Marion Blvd., Marion
- Details: Tinkergarten holds classes in parks across the country to encourage learning through outdoor play. Find classes near you on its website.
- Learn more: tinkergarten.com
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