Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Hurray for spring! Spring is the season of the new, and it shines in the Bay Area with tender green hills and explosions of wildflowers. The best way to show children that spring is here is to take them outside and let them explore nature. Singing birds, blooming trees, swaying grasses — you can get it all within an hour of your house. Embrace the season with this list of 10 activities that will delight even the most outdoor averse child.
Head to a local park or open space. Find a place with trees and grasses, spread your blanket, and sit down with your child. Now look around and try to spot obvious signs of spring. Are the ends of the trees and bushes a paler green? Do the branches carry buds?
This is an activity that might make more than one player sneeze, but it’s spring after all! In Woodside, Edgewood Natural Preserve is an outdoor temple of wildflowers. From March to June each year, docents lead free wildflower walks and point out the best of the season to visitors.
Spy a Bird
The Palo Alto Baylands Center is the largest tract of undisturbed marshland remaining in the San Francisco Bay and a choice spot to see local and migratory birds. Behind the Lucy Evans Nature Center, kids can walk on an elevated boardwalk and look for birds in the salt marshes. Before heading there, print this list of common birds found around the salt marsh so that you can play “I Spy” with your little one.
Follow a Snail
Why do snails and slugs like spring so much? It’s because the season can be wet, and moisture is what the slimy mollusks like most. To find snails, go to a forest and lift piles of dead leaves in moist areas. Because of their bright colors, banana slugs may be the easiest local slugs to spot. They love redwood forests. Once you find the snail or slug, retrace the animal’s itinerary by following its slimy trail. Did it come from far?
Blow on a Dandelion
Legend has it that the tallest dandelion a child can find will be equivalent to the number of inches that child will grow in the coming year. Ask your child to find the tallest dandelion in a field or garden, and measure it. Write down the measurement along with the date, and post it on the wall or refrigerator. As you track your child’s growth over the next year, compare the number of inches to the length of the dandelion. Is the legend true? To find a full dandelion globe, you will have to wait until the end of spring, but the wait is worth it. Imagine your child watching in wonder as the seeds fly away with the wind.
Say Hi to a Baby Animal
Baby animals are often born in the spring, and the best way to see them is to take your kids to a farm.
At Rancho San Antonio Preserve in Mountain View, you can follow the 1-mile trail (paved for wheels, dirt for feet) to Deer Hollow Farm. This working homestead and educational farm is open every day of the week for children to see their favorite farm animals, including lambs and kids, close at hand. For a learning day, check out the public tours offered on three spring Saturdays: March 17, April 21 and May 19 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
At Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, families can walk around the educational farm and participate in one of its activities, some of which are geared toward the preschool crowd. The farm is also unique in that it offers cooking classes with ingredients sourced directly from the farm.
Hike to a Waterfall
If the winter rains have been generous, Bay Area waterfalls are a seasonal wonder to behold. For the most spectacular display via a short 1-mile hike, head to Uvas Canyon County Park in Morgan Hill and hike the Waterfall Loop. You will be rewarded with at least three waterfalls, and the kids can play with rocks and the crystalline water of Swanson Creek.
For a longer waterfall hike that also includes a fern open cave, try Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Park at the visitor center, and then follow Sequoia Trail to Sempervirens Falls. Shaded by towering old-growth redwoods, these falls flow year-round and you can have a picnic on nearby Slippery Rock.
Crawl for Clover
Get ready for St Patrick’s Day by hunting for clover. Get on your hands and knees, and crawl to find this short green plant with heart-shaped leaves that grows close to the ground. What you find will usually have three leaves, but if you find a four-leaf clover, keep it as a memento and lucky charm. It might ward off leprechaun magic!
Flutter with Butterflies
The Bay Area is home to almost 150 species of butterflies, skippers and moths — as well as quite a few butterfly lovers. For butterfly watching, spring is high season; all you need to do is find host wildflowers (where the winged ones will stop to drink), and wait.
At Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, visit the Nectar Garden adjacent to the visitor center, and try to find examples of the stages of the butterfly’s life cycle, from chrysalis to full-grown winged insect.
To identify butterflies, bring a copy of Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions, or snap a quick photo and check the website Butterflies and Moths of North America to identify the mysterious flower visitor.
Dig for Worms
Last but not least are our friends the decomposers! Dress for mess as this one will not be a hands-off activity. The best time to find a wiggly creature is after a good rain, when earthworms “magically” appear on trails and roads. In between rain showers, you can try your luck next to ponds, lakes or creeks. Use a shovel and dig deep to find the worms. If your child is intrigued, ask him to wiggle like a worm. Why does he think worms move like that?
Before spring is over — and it goes by pretty quickly — try to check out all of these activities at least once. It’s a big nature treasure hunt!
This piece first appeared in the March 2012 Newsletter of the Palo Alto Menlo Park Parents Club. Hence the Peninsula focus for the examples. You can view it online at http://pampclub.org/site/2012/03/01/10-outdoor-activities-to-celebrate-spring/.