Get the most out of a kid's outdoor trek

Editor's note: The "Hey Ranger" column written by employees of the Redwood National and State Parks will appear on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Today's column is by Susanna Ausema.

Working at the Wolf Creek Education Center in Redwood National and State Parks provides me with a unique perspective of our parks and their resources. I have the chance to see the redwoods through the eyes of elementary school students - a perspective that frequently differs from adults.

Take, for instance, the redwood forest. An adult may pause in wonder and awe, staring up into the canopy of an especially large tree. My students are equally impressed, often adding that the trees seem "magical" and make them feel "relaxed" and "peaceful." However, after dedicating a few moments of their attention skyward, children often begin to gaze just as intently at the ground.

Within the decomposing organic debris of the forest floor, animals

such as beetles, slugs, and worms devour their next meal, returning

nutrients to the soil. Discovering one of these critters in action is

equally as exciting to our younger visitors as the tall trees that

everyone comes to see.

Another difference in perspective can be witnessed along the parks'

rivers and streams. Adults tend to stand on bridges, admiring the flow

of water beneath, and perhaps commenting on salmon populations or

fishing regulations. Children's enthusiasm far exceeds this - they

cannot wait to physically experience the water, even if just squatting

at stream's edge and reaching in up to their elbows.

While the cold water may surprise them, it doesn't hold them back

from making fantastic discoveries such as a Caddisfly larva seemingly

glued to a rock, a cluster of translucent amphibian eggs floating in the

grasses, or - most exciting of all - a salmon fry. By the end of their

visit, they've carefully turned over dozens of rocks and paced back and

forth a dozen times, searching for just one more creature hiding in the


This excitement and enthusiasm for the outdoors, so eagerly

demonstrated by children, is what makes my job so fulfilling. How can

you and your children experience nature to its fullest? Just jump right


Of course, you'll want to be prepared with appropriate clothing and

plenty of water and snacks. Then, drop by any one of the parks' five

information centers for a visitor guide, self-guided Junior Ranger

activity booklet, or an updated listing of ranger-guided programs.

Whatever you and your family choose to do in the parks - hike, swim,

fish, bike, play in the sand, or something else - here are some tips to

make the most out of your experience:

andbull; Slow down. Instead of just glancing at the scenery, take a deeper

look. Choose one particular tree and get to know it better. Are there

smaller plants and animals living there that you didn't initially

notice? Do you see signs or clues (scratch marks, chewed leaves, webs)

that other animals visited the tree before you? Can you find seeds,

flowers, fruit, or cones produced by your chosen tree?

andbull; Focus on feeling. Rather than trying to identify all the plants and

animals by name, focus on developing a sense of appreciation for

nature. Touch the bark and the leaves of different trees. Are they soft,

smooth, or rough? Have your child close his/her eyes. Gently place

their hands on something that has an interesting texture, like moss, and

ask them to describe it. Then, with their eyes open, challenge them to

identify what they were touching.

andbull; Use your imagination. Ask children to imagine what it would be like

to live for a day as their favorite animal in the parks. What would

they eat? Where would they find water to drink? Would they sleep during

the day or night, and where would they find shelter? Lie down on the

ground and look up into the canopy of the trees; can you imagine

spending a night up there in a flying squirrel's nest?

andbull; Be artistic. Encourage children to write a poem about, or draw a

picture of, the natural object that they find most interesting. Ask what

their favorite color is, and then have them search for all the

variations of that color in nature. Or, try to search for the letters of

the alphabet as represented by objects in nature; a round rock, for

example, could represent the letter "o," while a blade of grass swaying

in the wind might look like the letter "s."

andbull; Leave technology behind. It's easy to be distracted by electronic

gadgets and miss out on everything else around you. Nature can be way

more exciting and fun than a video game! Just give it a chance.

Fortunately, children in Del Norte, Humboldt, and surrounding

counties have plenty of opportunities to learn in "outdoor classrooms."

Redwood National and State Parks is home to two outdoor schools, each of

which provides standards-based programming to local school groups.

The Wolf Creek Education Center, located just north of Orick,

primarily serves fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students during a three

day/two night adventure. The Howland Hill Outdoor School, located near

Crescent City, provides both day and overnight programs to visiting

classes from preschool to sixth grade. Students and teachers take part

in hands-on, standards-based field studies focused on concepts such as

adaptations, habitats, water quality, and environmental stewardship.

After hiking through the old-growth redwood forest, several young

visitors left these written comments: "Keep your hopes up, but your

voice low" while in a wild place; "Feel nature breathe in time with

you"; and "Love the world as it loves you." It fills me with hope and

inspiration to know that our children are growing intimately

knowledgeable about, and compassionate toward, our planet. I feel

confident that our treasured parks will be well-protected by the

generation to come.

Susanna Ausema has been working as a ranger for the National Park

Service for more than 10 years.