During my childhood in the 1970s, summer offered endless hours of free time for play and exploration. I did not live near a park, let alone a national park. However, I loved to follow the creek through my neighborhood. It wasn’t a very natural creek; concrete channels and culverts made up much of its length. Yet, it was a place for discovery where I could hunt for minnows and tadpoles.
I have fond memories of my childhood and want my children to have similar experiences. It has become harder. Children can make electronics their go-to activity. Parents are less comfortable letting their children wander too far. Yet, we can still find opportunities to play outside, while taking a break from plugging in. This article suggests opportunities in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Play in a field. Many of the field experiences that children have today involve organized sports. In contrast, grassy fields in Cuyahoga Valley National Park invite free play. The Civilian Conservation Corps built large fields — which they called "playfields" — in Virginia Kendall Park in the 1930s. The playfields offer plenty of space to fly a kite and play tag. Playfields are adjacent to the Ledges and Octagon shelters.
Host a picnic. As a parent, I find that some of the best free play happens when my family just takes time to linger without trying to follow a strict schedule. A picnic can get the entire family outside together with time to spare while charcoal heats up. The Ledges and Octagon playfields are anchored by picnic shelters constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They can be rented for a fee through www.recreation.gov. Individual picnic tables with grills are also available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. The park website has a list of picnic tables by location at www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/picnicking-in-the-park.htm.
Enjoy a Howe Meadow Concert, part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Concert Series. Howe Meadow, the park’s special events site, is another grassy field that invites play. The summer concerts are free and presented by the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Concerts start at 6:30 p.m., but we encourage people to arrive at 5:30 p.m. to play field games (equipment provided). Our 2018 series includes:
June 20 — Hillbilly IDOL, hybrid of country, swing, rock, and bluegrass
July 11 — David Mayfield Parade, bluegrass, folk, and country
July 18 — Funkyard Experiment, blend of jazz, gospel, funk, pop, and fusion
August 1 — Chris Allen and the Lonesome Stars, alt-country
August 15 — Cats on Holiday, Texas and Louisiana inspired music
Bicycle to the Village of Boston. A bicycle ride along the Towpath Trail can be playful, especially if you take the time to watch for wildlife along the way. Counting turtles sunning themselves on the logs or listening for frogs is certainly fun. Taking time to relax and linger makes the day even more pleasurable.
The Village of Boston is a wonderful destination for doing so. Boston Store Visitor Center is a place to get park information. You can also just sit in a rocking chair on the shady wrap-around porch. Trail Mix Boston, operated by the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, sells ice cream, snacks, and light meals. Local artists display their work through the Art @ M.D. Garage on weekends.
Earn a Junior Ranger Badge. The park offers numerous ways for children to earn a Junior Ranger Badge through hands-on exploration of the park. We offer a series of ranger-led programs and self-guided activities, described online at www.nps.gov/cuva/learn/kidsyouth/beajuniorranger.htm.
One of my favorite aspects of the Junior Ranger Program is our Junior Ranger, Jr. cards for pre-readers. They provide tips for parents to prompt their kids to try playful activities. For example, a card about coyotes suggests that kids practice howling and yipping like a coyote, look for coyote scat (i.e. poop), and imagine hunting for mice and rabbits. The cards are available for free at Boston Store Visitor Center.
Please consider sharing your experiences while pursuing these activities and contribute your own ideas. Around the National Park Service this June, we are celebrating the great outdoors by promoting the hashtags #FindYourPark and #GreatOutdoors. You can let people know that your experience took place in Cuyahoga Valley National Park with the hashtag #cvnp.
If you need assistance on getting started with any of these ideas, staff and volunteers are ready to help at Boston Store Visitor Center (1550 Boston Mills Road, east of Riverview Road in Peninsula). It is open daily during summer from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also call 330-657-2752.
Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park