Say what you will about 2016; it was a pretty good year for me. Early in the spring, I pitched a book idea to Adventure Publications about Michigan’s nature centers and preserves, and wouldn’t you know they liked it! So I spent the the spring and summer traveling around the state with my kids looking for the best nature centers and nature/wildlife preserves in Michigan to share with readers.

Nature is valued in Michigan, and the number of communities that support nature education and preservation is overwhelming. In the end, we whittled our favorites down to just over 50.

Some properties were nothing more than a sign indicating a trailhead; others have a robust community of supporters that can rightfully boast of museum-like exhibits, educational facilities, and calendars full of classes and events.

I was honestly surprised by how much we found. The idea for the book sprang from our attempts to find outdoorsy stuff to do and see with our kids. As we visited familiar vacation spots, we were surprised that there were nature centers everywhere—many we had never heard of.

In many cases, these sites are less that fully utilized resources. Most are free (and those that have fees are more than reasonable), and they all encourage families to be more engaged with the natural world.

This blog is meant to be a “universal” resource, so we’ve not focused too much on regional activities, but over the next couple months, I will share some of the more interesting places I talk about in the book. If you haven’t really embraced your local nature centers, maybe these posts will an inspiration.

In the meantime, Michigan’s Best Nature Centers and Wilderness Preserves will be available from booksellers in mid-April.

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Ash BorerYou can’t spend too much time outside before you realize that there’s a lot of death and dying sprinkled throughout nature’s celebration of life. That’s part of the deal, though, right? Living and dying? Growth and decay? To a point.

Unfortunately, a lot of the dying we see these days is not all that natural after all. Here in the Great Lakes, we have phragmites, oriental bittersweet, and mute swans. These species all come from somewhere else and are able to out compete native species because they’re playing by a difference set of rules. While they thrive, local flora and fauna suffer.

Last week we had the opportunity to see the evidence of one of these invaders up close. An ash tree just over on our neighbors yard gave in to a gentle breeze and crashed, spreading its disintegrating trunk and limbs across the entire street, leaving a hefty debris pile twenty feet across. Thankfully no one was driving by at the time.

After the neighbors all came out and we hauled the thing to the side of the road, I was able to show the kids what caused the tree to die in the first place. It was the emerald ash borer. This bug inserts its eggs under the tree’s bark and when the larvae hatch, they eat the cambium. You can see the tracks of their consumption when the bark eventually falls off.

Now that all the ash trees in the state are dead, I am not sure how the borer will survive, and what value there is in restrictions on the transportation of firewood. This event, in any case, was a nice illustration of how fragile the ecological web really is.

The challenge: Burn a mess season’s worth of fallen tree limbs in a backyard that has been drenched by one of the coldest, wettest Aprils on record.

The tools: One paper grocery bag and a box of the new 5-Minute Cricket Firestarters

CricketLike most dads, I like to consider myself an expert at starting fires. Start off with easy-to-light tinder, add thin dry sticks and twigs. From there you build it up, starting with the smallest material first, finishing with the largest of your logs. Of course you will want to make room for air with either the log cabin or a pyramid shaped pile of wood.

But even when you know what you’re doing, it’s not always easy to get a fire started, especially in the backyard after a month of rain and snow. The ground is wet; the wood is wet; and even the damp air seems against you. This was the situation last week when I headed outside to begin some spring yard work. Even with a paper grocery bag as tinder, I’ve gone through a half dozen matches before I can get a fire to catch. Either they get snuffed by a gust of wind, or smothered by the cold damp, or they light just fine, but then go out 30 seconds later.

This time out, I was kind of excited to be testing a new product: the 5-Minute Cricket Firestarter. Originally from Sweden, these handy “matches” have recently been introduced to the American market. Like wooden matches, they come in a cardboard box with a strike strip along the side. Like matches, you pull one out and strike it on the box to light it. But that’s where the similarities end. The Cricket Firestarter is much thicker than a match, with a larger head, and once it’s burning it doesn’t stop for five minutes. It’s a match and tinder all in one.

With crumpled paper for my base, I lit a Cricket and dropped it into a fold of the bag. With ordinary matches, this would have smothered the flame and I would have to light another. The Cricket just burned, and burned, and burned.

Couple things to note for parents: The thick firestarters are great for smaller hands. A kid can grab base in a tiny fist and strike away. If you are teaching your kids how to light a campfire, this will make it easier. They’ll also feel pretty successful right off the bat. And for those very same reasons, it’s sound advice to keep them out of reach of little hands. If they drop a lit match at home, there’s a good chance it will go right out. Drop a lit Cricket and you’re going to have a problem. (This reminds me that I need to follow up with my kids about fire safety, and this summer should be the year to start teaching them how to handle flames responsibly.)

Cricket Firestarters!Frankly, I like the idea of involving kids in the whole outdoorsy-build-a-campfire project, but the best thing I like about these 5-Minute Cricket Firestarters is that they help me maintain my cred as the “expert firestarter.” I am pretty sure much of my dad rep will erode as the kids get older, but hopefully I can keep this bit going a little longer.

(The firestarters will be available a retailers soon. When you look for these at your local grocery store ofrcamping outlet, look for the box with the cricket!)

Nature and Observations Notebook, collage, cattails, indian springsWhile a lot of folks look forward to this day after Thanksgiving, I am not that much into shopping for shopping’s sake (Go to Walmart at 5 a.m.? Isn’t that what the Internet’s for?). But November is a very full month for us. In addition to the usual full social calendar, school parties and activities, and church stuff, Grace’s birthday comes the week before Thanksgiving. So for us, the Thanksgiving weekend is three days of blessed rest.

Nature and Observations NotebookFor her birthday this year, we bought Grace a nature journal (The Nature and Observations Notebook, to be specific). Perhaps a bit girly in design, the notebook comes with pages for note taking (aka “observations”), rooms for sketching, envelopes for collecting specimens, and stationary for sending notes to your grandma.

I was under no illusions. The journal looks like a lot of fun, but kids are always missing the point of gifts—especially gifts we hope will deepen their understanding and lead to self-enrichment, etc. So I was actually surprised when Grace told us this was her favorite present. For two days she carried it with her wherever she went, even took it to bed at night.

A couple days later she had her first day off from school and she demanded we go to the nature center. Happy to oblige this surprise turn in our gift-giving experience, I took her to the nature center. There she sketched cattails, a garter snake, and a gray tree frog. The woman at the counter even came around to take a look at Grace’s notes. She practiced her spelling with CATTAILS and GARTER SNAKE, but I took dictation for the rest. I thought it would help her enjoy it a little more.

Since then I’ve had to stop the car to pick pine needle specimens, and stoop for any number of leaves and acorn caps. So as the whole country looks toward buying this holiday season, I will be humbly reconsidering all my expectations and keeping an eye out for a few more gifts that will open my daughter to the outdoors.

Fall at Indian Springs Metropark (White Lake, Michigan)

When Grace went back to school, Tater and I were at a loss. So much of his time is spent playing with his sister. Now that he was an “only child,” we had some retooling to do. This past summer I visited a lot of area parks doing research for a book. Many of them have nature centers, and I remembered all the time wishing my kids were with me.

So Tater and I decided we needed to check ‘em out. The big question for me was, Are nature centers any fun in the fall? (Heck, are they even open, or are they more seasonal then I imagine.)

Our first trek took us to the Indian Springs Metropark. The swampy sections of the park are the headwaters for the Huron River, which gains much in the way of volume and dignity between here and Lake Erie. The Environmental Discovery Center, as it’s called, overlooks a small pond.

Most of our time was spent outside, looking for snakes and frogs along the shore. Since this is classic massasauga rattler habitat, I was glad it was a cold day. A small brook connects the main pond with a smaller adjacent pond. Much time was spent watching the water flowing between the two.

One of the big attractions at Indian Springs (one surprisingly few people know about) is the Pond Room. The lower level (i.e. basement) of the nature center is below the level of the pond—roughly the same level as the pond floor. A clear tunnel leads out from the main building under the water to a circular domed room. From here you can watch fish swim by and get a close look at the habitat created by logs that have fallen to the bottom.

The Pond Room is my favorite part of the site, but, frankly, it kind of freaked Tater out. Confined underwater spaces, apparently, aren’t his thing. So after the Pond Room we went upstairs and looked at some of the animals on exhibit—a garter snake, salamander, turtles.

All in all a good visit, and Tater now tells his sister that the nature center is “his and daddy’s place,” which is kind of nice too.

Next week we’ll look for someone showing off animals. I think the boy is itching to hold a snake.

Amusement Parks

So, you have young kids and are heading out to the amusement park… What are you? Nuts?

This is what people asked me when we were planning to take our kids to Cedar Point in Ohio earlier this year.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Cedar Point. Last time I was there they had a whole Berenstain Bears theme for their kids area. It was close to the front and right on the main drag. Six years ago, a bunch of parks changed ownership, partnerships were hatched, and property merged. I am assuming this is when the bears were kicked to the curb in exchange for a Peanuts theme. But I digress.

I am writing to share what worked (and what didn’t work) when we took our two- and five-year-old kids to the amusement park.

My first bit of advice: Make a bee-line to the kids’ rides, preferably those in the back. The rides in the back make sense only if you can get to them in less than 15 minutes. If not, head for the closest. Interest wanes fast, and if you take your time (like we did) you get a lot of whining and complaining. Maybe it would have been better if we had ridden the easy-going drive-the-car ride before heading back. But instead, we jumped on the Sky Ride, and then leisurely walked around the back the park before coming up on the kids’ section. BIG MISTAKE. By the time we reached Jr Gemini Children’s Area, the fragile balance that is a functioning family unit was beginning to sway. It was only some amazing parenting that kept the kids pleasant enough to enjoy a few rides.

Of course, even kids get tired of the kids’ rides after awhile. That’s when they turn to Ferris wheels and carousels. So chose the timing of mainstream rides carefully. In most cases, the grown-up rides are simply off limits to the shorter set. But kids love merry-go-rounds. While there was hardly ever a line for the little kid rides, after noon we found the line for the Ferris wheel growing. Our two-year-old wasn’t going to wait 30 minutes in the hot sun for a ride he didn’t understand (why can’t they ever have shade?!), so that leads me to my third piece of advice:

Play in the fountain. Seriously. Why is it always 105 when you go to the amusement park? After a day of chasing shade, you will find you’re still sweating like a bear in a fur coat. And if you’re this hot, the kids are too. If you see running water they can play in, by all means stop. Their clothes will dry, and it’s really very likely to be the most fun they’ll have all day.

There are other tidbits that might make the visit easier: split the trip into two days, so you’re not fighting to “get your money’s worth” in one afternoon; spend the late afternoon at the beach; take a siesta and head back the hotel or campsite for naps. But we didn’t do any of these, so I will leave the dispensing of that wisdom to those wiser than me.

Kids love dinosaurs. I remember years back my friend’s five-year-old son reciting the names of what must have been a hundred dinosaurs. He had dino toys, posters, and place mats. He was even pointing out where lazy editors had misidentified dinosaurs in his books. I am not sure he still retains this info at 12, but it was fascinating to see his level of interest.

So that’s what we’re doing this week: exploring the world of dinosaurs.

  • Monday – Visit the library and get books on dinosaurs. Have a fun reading time, and then using our art supplies we’ll make our favorite dinosaurs
  • Tuesday – A trip to the museum. In our case Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado. Back in Michigan, a couple traveling exhibits have passed through. But you can find dino shows all over.
  • Wednesday – Freeze plastic dinosaurs (or, better yet, plastic bones) in large bowls of water. Using tools, “dig” for the “fossils.” Maybe grow dinosaurs (the rubber kind that grow after soaking a day in water).
  • Thursday – Talk about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs (you can find information on this online). Go outside and watch birds for awhile. Then we’ll cut feathers out of construction paper and glue them on a picture of a dinosaur.

Looking for Fossils

Glory, Monarch butterfly

Glory, Monarch butterfly“I can’t believe my mind! … It’s glorious!” Now, I don’t know about you, but these are not words I typically hear from my six-year-old. They were prompted by the “birth” of our Monarch butterfly, which she promptly named Glory.

It’s not that The Pretender (she wants to play make-believe ALL THE TIME) isn’t impressed by nature. I’ve written before on this website about her lifelong love of being outside. But this was by far the most emotional reaction I’ve heard.

Maybe this was a mini version of what we all went through when our children were born. It involved patience, and watching, and waiting, and wondering. When would it happen? What would it look like? Will it like me? And so when Glory finally arrived, it prompted a smaller version of the emotional catharsis that I, for one, experienced when The Pretender was born.

So how did we arrive at this emotional moment? And how can you do the same with your kids? That’s what I’m here to tell you about.

So, the first thing you need to make this happen is a milkweed plant. These are the plants you may remember from your childhood as having pods of seeds that resemble a fish when they’re cracked open. I was told something about baby Moses in a basket that I can’t fully remember. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go HERE.

Ideally, you’ll find a Monarch caterpillar on one of these plants. Or you can go to a mail-order place (teacher stores are good sources), but you’ll still need milkweed for the caterpillar to eat. And wow, do they! The Hungry Caterpillar book isn’t very far off the mark, lemme tell you. We’re talking about two or three leaves a day would be a good first guess. I brought home two whole plants and ours didn’t eat them all.

The fresher the leaves the better. My source said to wash the leaves but really, is the caterpillar going to do that in the wild? No. And try not to get the white “milk” on your skin—it’s sticky like pine sap and quite annoying.

We’ve looked for a long while, but it was Grandma that came through with our caterpillar.

We put ours in an unused fishbowl, but a large glass jar would be fine. It’s not like the caterpillar wants to do gymnastics. Just eat leaves. Just make it big enough that when it becomes a butterfly, there will be room to stretch out its wings to dry—and a clear way out. (This is why a soda bottle, etc. won’t work, although with plastic, you could just slice open the top when it’s time, so maybe it would work quite well!)

So, after a few days, which will depend on just how old she or he is when you acquire them, they will start to think about becoming a cocoon (aka chrysalis or pupa). How, you might be asking, do you know what they’re thinking? Well, they start to make a distinct “J” shape. I’m not sure why, but it’s a certain sign that they’re about to go into the cocoon. They’ll attach themselves to the side of whatever you’ve given them with a strand of … something, and then something happens that I didn’t see. I honestly don’t know where the cocoon comes from, but my unscientific observations suggest that it happened too fast and fit too tightly to be woven, like so many of us were taught. I think it’s a final layer of skin that comes from within the caterpillar. Whatever it is, you will be surprised by how pretty the cocoon is. Light green with brilliant gold highlights, and a shape somewhere between a pill capsule and sports car but unlike either one.

Ours greatly valued privacy and waited until we left to perform both this step and the next.

Now the waiting game begins. You will wonder if you’ve done something wrong. If that’s even possible once it is in this state. If it should be kept in sun, or shade, or … or … Deep breath. Relax. Everything is fine. You might want to make a note on your calendar when the little bugger makes the chrysalis, because it will be anywhere from 10 days to 2 weeks before you have a butterfly. Trust me—you’ll forget when it went in there. No matter how exciting it seems to you the day it happens, you’ll forget.

When the cocoon turns black, you are getting very close. It’s time to start thinking about cleaning out the jar, making sure there’s room to stretch wings, maybe stick some fresh flowers in there if you’ve got ’em.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see the butterfly emerge. But don’t plan on it. I’m tellin’ ya, they’re tricky, private little creatures!

Metaphorically, this process is so rich with meaning, and so often referenced, that your child will obviously gain an intimate interaction with nature, but it’s worth remembering that they will also be given a vivid mental picture that will likely stick with them for their whole life.

There’s no overstating the point: seeing a hungry, striped little fat worm turn into a flying stained glass window is amazing.

I love summer, but when it gets this hot, the risk of heat stroke is very real for me. After a long day, after I come home and wring the sweat from my shirt, I’ve just been too exhausted from the heat to sit at the computer and dream up posts. So I am cheating a bit with this one.

I’ve been doing a lot of hiking this summer, snapping away with the camera as I go. Here are a few of my favorites. (Normally I am not a big stickler on copyright and all that, but these will likely end up in my next book, so I want to make sure everyone knows these are protected and all that.)

Kids in a Wagon - Nikki MacLeay, all rights reserved

Going on a Bug Hunt with KidsI am without my kids for several weeks this summer. While I waste these gorgeous summer days inside, writing like a madman, Grace and Tater are in Colorado with their cousin, Amelia. To keep order, their Aunt Nikki scheduled daily outings and even went so far as to give each week a theme. Rock on!

This week is bug week, and the kids are having a blast. There have been bug hunts, plastic bugs, workbooks with math lessons (featuring bugs!), a visit to the butterfly pavilion, and notebooks in which each kid can draw a picture of their favorite bug. Yesterday Grace actually touched a tarantula. I couldn’t even get her to pet a hedgehog a couple months back.

Here’s her official schedule of activities:

  • Monday Pom Pom Critters from Jo-Ann Fabrics
  • Tuesday The Butterfly Pavilion, half-mile nature walk with journal to record observations, read Diary of a Spider
  • Wednesday Make rock bugs and nature bugs. These are craft projects using found materials like rocks, sticks, leaves, etc.
  • Thursday Make and wear bug masks. Watch bugs in a bug box using a magnifying glass and draw what you see.

I will be honest: Nothing like this has ever occurred to me. So I am sharing this here and thinking of themes for their return: Tree Week? Water Week? Bird Week? I am just getting started. And with the various resources available online, there are plenty of activities that will boost your efforts, such as adding math or reading into the mix.

I will share next week’s theme next week. In the meantime, what are your ideas?