By Tracy Riekenberg
Since you are reading this blog, I can guess that nature play is important to you and your children. Afterall, you either currently attend All Seasons Preschool, or your children have graduated from All Seasons, or you know someone who goes to All Seasons, or you are considering All Seasons for your children. And since nature play is an important part of our day at All Seasons, I can conclude that it must be important to you.
But what about when you are not at All Seasons? After your children have graduated or on those long summer breaks or even during a weekend, you and your family can engage in nature play. And don’t worry! There’s nature play available right here in the Twin Cities that matches your comfort level, whether it’s hiking-on-paved-paths comfort or drop-me-in-the-woods-with-a-compass comfort.
I know this because my own children did not attend All Seasons Preschool. I sent them to a very lovely, very peaceful, very play-based preschool in St Paul that we loved dearly, but where they never went outside. When I came to work at All Seasons, I found a huge gap in my children’s comfort with nature. They were 7- or 8-years old and had never really climbed trees or hiked in the snow. We had been playing outside all those years, of course, but it was more prescribed, playground play. We hadn’t spent a lot of time in a nature setting with no agenda other than to explore.
But once I started working at All Seasons and seeing the amazing things kids learn in nature and how much they grow their confidence and play skills, I began searching out places where we could be with nature right here in the Twin Cities. We live in St Paul, so we don’t have the luxury of acres of woods and pines out our back door, but we have a van and a plan to find where to go. We are also grateful that so many nature areas are right near us in the city! They offer the perfect amount of nature for us “beginners” — paved paths, bathrooms, shelters, and just enough explorations to last an hour or a whole day.
Here are some of our favorite places so far. This is just a beginning list, so let me know if you have more ideas for places for us to explore! Where have you found near by to be with nature?
Hidden Falls Regional Park
We are very grateful that our favorite nature space is less than a mile from our house! Hidden Falls has actually been a favorite of ours for years and years. It is where my children can throw rocks in the river for hours, climb weird trees with their roots exposed (when the water is low) and “hike” along a paved trail. We watch boats go by and wave to dogs and their owners at the Minnehaha Off Leash Dog Park across the river. This is a definite favorite of my own dad, who loves to come to the park with my children.
Crosby Farm Park
Just a bit farther down the Mississippi River from Hidden Falls is Crosby Farm Park. This park has many paved trails for hiking and biking as well as water access. The sand banks are a lovely place to sit and watch water traffic, and fallen trees are great for climbing! A picnic shelter and modern bathrooms make it a great spot to spend a day. You can hike or bike from Hidden Falls to Crosby Farm (and even keep going to get to downtown St Paul!).
Fort Snelling State Park
I am a bit biased, but aI am grateful that the parks I have mentioned so far are all within a mile of my house. But Fort Snelling State Park shouldn’t be missed! With a swimming beach, visitor center, hiking paths, park rangers, picnic areas, and scheduled programs and equipment to rent, this is a really good “I am new to nature” nature place. My family participated in an “I Can Fish” program here where rangers provided poles, bait, and instruction for fishing. We have also gone on a candlelight hike on New Year’s Eve. I have done training runs on Pike Island, and we swam at Snelling Lake and watched planes land. There is fee to get in to the park (or an annual state park pass), and it was closed all summer because of flooding. But it is open now, thank goodness!
Patrick Eagan Park
This park is a dream come true for anyone not comfortable with extreme nature play. It has a zipline, trees to climb, built structures to climb, and a sandbox. There are also woods, hiking trails, and acres to explore so you can really do what you are comfortable with at this site. My kids love to meet up with their best friend and climb up a structure and chat for an hour.
Nokomis NatureScape Garden, Park, and Lake
Another really good area for families just beginning to venture out in nature is Lake Nokomis. The NatureScape Garden offers walking paths and foliage to explore. Swimming at the lake was a new experience for my kids, who had only ever swam in a pool. (We aren’t fortunate enough to have a family cabin up north). There are also trees to climb, a walking path around the lake, boats to watch, and a restaurant on site! It is the perfect nature escape in the city.
We can’t talk about nature exploration in the Twin Cities without talking about Minnehaha Falls. Of course, there’s the falls to look at — from above or below! Have you ever been there in the winter? It is a sight to behold! There are also walking paths along the creek and fun bridges to cross. Picnic areas, gardens, playgrounds, a restaurant, modern bathrooms, and more make this a great place to spend the day. Our favorite thing to do at Minnehaha Falls is to go to a wading area by Bridge 2 and explore. I have found crawdads there, and my children find rocks, “body surf,” and climb trees.
The nature centers & regional parks in the area are also a fun way to safely explore nature. We love Tamarack Nature Center, but others include Lebanon Hills Regional Park, Wood Lake Nature Center, Hyland Lake Park Reserve, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and Como Regional Park, just to name a few. Many state parks are a short drive away, too, and we especially love Nerstrand Big Woods State Park with its short, paved hike to a beautiful waterfall.
And even with all these wonderful nature spaces nearby – remember that to a child, an empty lot can be a wide open field, a couple of trees can be a forest, and a stream can be a rushing river. Don’t forget to engage in the small nature spaces at your home and in your neighborhood. We live across the street from a city park that is a large grassy area with pine trees and maple trees. My kids love to look for pinecones there, climb the trees, and run through the grass. And the St Kate’s Duck Pond isn’t too far away, and nothing is more fun than feeding the ducks! Large snow piles and ice skating rinks and sledding in your backyard are easy nature play areas, too! Maybe you have a space near your home that is inviting for your child to engage in nature in an easy, stress-free way. After all, the whole point is to love being in nature where you are!
After compiling this list and thinking about how my family plays in nature, I can say my children have more nature experience than I thought they did! It is easy to get in the mindset that the only genuine nature play is camping, roughing it, backpacking, and wide open spaces. But all variations of nature play is available in the Cities, probably closer to you than you thought.