Cool fun in the summertime

State, county parks, nature centers offer programs to get kids outdoors

By ANGIE HONG – Featured Columnist

"Whoa! It’s a turtle."


"There are, like, 10 turtles on that log!"

I just returned from Nature Trail Day, an annual event at O.H. Anderson Elementary School in Mahtomedi, and the sounds of free-range fourth graders are still ringing in my ears. I was stationed near a small pond in the woods, an ideal location for teaching the children about pond life, water quality and water monitoring techniques. Using simple tools – Tupperware containers and plastic spoons – we combed through pond water samples searching for macroinvertebrates, or little pond critters.

Based on the variety of leeches, snails, water bugs, and insect larva they found in the water, the students gave their pond a passing grade, noting that while it could be better, the water quality was pretty good for a little pond.

As much as we hear about "nature deficit disorder," with today’s kids spending more time inside in front of televisions and video games, I also see many great examples in our local east metro area of youth connecting with nature, learning and having fun.

There are three different private, non-profit nature centers in Washington County and each offers children and adults unique opportunities to get outside. This Saturday and Sunday, Wild Wings of Oneka in Hugo holds its third annual Minnesota Outdoor Youth Expo. It features geocaching, archery, scuba diving and nature walks and is designed to get kids and teen-agers outside and in contact with over 60 outdoor organizations, experts and educators from the area.

Other upcoming events are preschool "Digging in the Dirt" story time June 15 at Carpenter Nature Center in Denmark Township; a bison release June 16 at the Belwin Conservancy, and adult fly-fishing June 25, 27 and 29 at Warner Nature Center in May Township. In addition, we have William O’Brien, Afton State Park, and seven county parks, all in our backyard and all featuring excellent wildlife habitat, high-quality water resources and recreational opportunities for a variety of ages.

My favorite part of working with children outdoors is the wonder and excitement they bring to each new learning experience. After loudly counting the number of painted turtles in the O.H. Anderson pond, noting the green heron perched on a snag, the pair of mallards floating in the water and the long-legged spider crawling down a nearby tree, the Mahtomedi fourth-graders directed their attention to hunting for aquatic macroinvertebrates. Each new discovery, be it a lousy leech or a slimy snail, was met with squeals of delight.

Their curiosity piqued, some students wondered what they might find if they were looking in a stream by their house or their lake up north. I explained that macroinvertebrates are essential in aquatic food chains; they provide food for waterfowl, turtles and many species of fish. The children nodded, their attention diverted once again by the turtles sunning themselves in the pond.

"There goes one of the turtles," a little boy yelled.


"It swam away!"

Angie Hong is a water resource education specialist for the East Metro Water Resource Education Program with the Washington Conservation District. The WCD represents the Brown’s Creek, Carnelian-Marine on St. Croix, Comfort Lake-Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, Ramsey Washington-Metro, Rice Creek, South Washington and Valley Branch watersheds, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Forest Lake,Lake Elmo, Stillwater, Willernie, West Lakeland, Washington County and the WCD. Contact her at [email protected], 651-275-1136, ext. 35 or visit

For more information on local places to get outside this summer:

Belwin Conservancy:

Carpenter Nature Center:

Warner Nature Center:

Minnesota Outdoor Youth Expo:

Minnesota State Parks:

Washington County Parks: