At the risk of sounding like the grumpy old lady at the grocery store with her uninvited sermon “back in my day we made toys from sticks and mud,” there really is nothing like outdoor play. Not only does the natural world provide a free and open place for all ages and all abilities, studies also show being outside actually grows our brains.
But I don’t need a study to tell me that. I notice it every time we go camping, visit our cabin, or make a trek to my sister’s farm house in rural Wisconsin. The kids will play hours in the stream and the woods, creating elaborate games, coming home only to refuel before heading back on an adventure, ending the day tucked in their beds smelling like bug spray and lake water and earthworms. It’s peak childhood. And it costs us nothing.
The problem is, many of us in the Twin Cities Area live in the reality of city and suburban life. The opportunity to explore the wild is limited. Aside from spending every day on vacation or uprooting our lives to country life, how can we give our kids this wild life at a more convenient drive?
This is what makes nature centers of our local park districts such a gift. And there’s no better place to live that wild explorer’s life than the Tamarack Nature Center of Ramsey County near White Bear Lake.
Tamarack Nature Center is a full center location with trails, guided wildflower walks, day camps, nature preschool, and a hands-on nature center with great opportunities to learn about the ecosystem of Minnesota. But Tamarack also recognizes the best way to explore nature is through play. This is what makes their Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area the greatest feature of the park.
Discovery Hollow has something for every explorer of every age. The architects can build their own fort inside the forest with logs and sticks. The archeologists can dig in the sand and look for treasure. The spelunkers can climb through caves or scale rocks taking in a stunning view of the park. Water explorers can splash and play in any of the gentle water features around the park, making it a great way to cool off on these warm summer days. But my kids favorite character of all to embody when visiting the park is that of the engineer. With multiple water features controlled by the tap of a button, little engineers can guide water flowing down rocks and over sandy banks. On a recent visit my two kids ages four and seven joined forces with other engineers to build a dam to create a wading pool. As I sat under the shade of the vines pergola, coffee and book in hand, I marveled at my kids play. And it wasn’t just that they were having fun, and leaving me alone, although that last part was pretty fantastic.
What was most amazing to observe was all the other skills they were practicing in disguise of fun. Social skills were required to meet new friends and practice communicating with each other. They stretched their problem solving strategies as challenges came up in building their water structure. I even observed some great negotiation skills being implemented as each kid had different ideas for how to solve that problem. The entire activity was a master class in science and technology and peer mediation and social development. And they were none the wiser. All they knew was they were having fun.That’s the beauty of nature play. Learning will happen. But it looks a whole lot like fun–the kind of fun they are sad to leave and beg to return.
It’s also the kind of fun I am happy to return to again and again.
Join us next time, won’t you? The Discovery Hollow is open 9 AM to Dusk every day. Although in the summer months when day camp dominates the nature space, the best days to come are Friday-Sunday. Bring a swimsuit, sand toys, sunscreen, snacks, and an attitude for exploration. See you there!
5287 Otter Lake Road – White Bear Township, MN
Tamarack Nature Center Building
Monday- Saturday 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Sunday Noon – 4 p.m.
The nature center building is closed during all Ramsey County holidays. Trails and Discovery Hollow remain open to the public.
Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area
Open daily: 9 a.m. – dusk.
Opening in May. When open, the garden hours will be 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Trails are open 5 a.m. – 11 p.m., daily.
Visit the Tamarack Nature Center website of Ramsey County for full details of free and fee based activities as well as any changes to hours.