Many young children have innate curiosity and wonder about the natural world. You may have noticed how they easily become engaged with a small insect or pile of leaves. Perhaps this is something you’ve wished to cultivate but don’t know how to do so. This article provides some tips about engaging young children in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The first ingredient of a successful park outing is a short trail compatible with little legs.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park has several options. Two favorites are Haskell Run and Forest Point trails, located in the Virginia Kendall area of the park. Both are ½-mile long. The trails give different views of valley woodlands.
Haskell Run heads down into a ravine and tests the strength of little legs with a steeper hill. The trail lets you explore the rich environment of a stream. In contrast, Forest Point Trail sits on the edge of the valley, providing views of the its carved landscape. This trail is relatively flat. The trees along it are larger and older than those sometimes found in the valley. They might seem like giants to small, wondering eyes.
The second ingredient of a successful park outing is age-appropriate activities. Young kids rarely like to just walk. Rather they like to explore, preferably at a pace driven by their curiosity. The park has developed Junior Ranger, Jr. Cards to help adults guide children ages 3-6 on a park exploration. These cards are a companion to our Junior Ranger Handbook, designed for readers ages 7-12.
The Junior Ranger, Jr. Cards are free and available at our pop-up visitor center that is temporarily located outside Boston Mill Visitor Center. The cards come in a set of six and feature coyotes, birds, insects, beavers, trees, and, bats. Each card suggests a place to go in the park for discovery and simple activities that encourage exploration.
The tree card is appropriate for the two trails that I suggested. Its first activity asks kids to look for clues that show how animals might use different layers of the forest. Through straightforward phrasing, we provide adults with information to make the exploration interesting and educational. In this case, we introduce a forest ecology concept, revealing how the different levels of the forest (forest floor, understory, and canopy) provide niches for different species.
Other activities are sensory. One asks kids to hunt for leaves and nuts to compare shapes, colors, and textures. Another asks an adult to hide a nut in a place where kids can touch but not see it.
Without looking, kids are asked to feel the nut and search for a matching nut. The final activity has kids use their bodies to measure trees, sticks, nuts, and logs. For all these activities, kids are asked to leave what they found on the trail to keep nature in its place.
I also recommend Haskell Run and Forest Point trails because their locations provide opportunities to extend your visit. Both are adjacent to large, grassy playfields that are fun for running and playing with balls or kites. Picnic tables are also available.
The last ingredient for a successful outing is basic safety knowledge. Right now, we are advising people to bring drinking water with them since water fountains are turned off due to COVID-19.
I also think that it is helpful to be able to identify poison ivy, since children can encounter it while exploring. This plant causes an itchy rash and avoidance is the best protection. It grows as either a small shrub or a vine. Its leaves are clusters of three leaflets that have irregular, jagged edges. Leaves are reddish when they first emerge in spring; green during summer; and various shades of red or yellow in autumn. Vines can grow as thick as an arm and are covered with fine hairs that tightly grip the climbing surface.
For days when you can’t get to the park, we also have online wildlife activities designed for young children. Each includes a wildlife craft, sound recording, animal behavior to act out, and an outdoor discovery challenge. Visit nps.gov/cuva and search for Junior Ranger, Jr. activities.
The trailhead for Haskell Run Trail is adjacent to Happy Days Lodge at 500 West Streetsboro Road (SR 303), 1 mile west of SR 8, Peninsula 44264. Forest Point Trail starts in the far corner of the field adjacent to Octagon Shelter, 801 Truxell Road, 1.5 miles west of Akron Cleveland Road, Peninsula 44264.
Boston Mill Visitor Center is located at 6947 Riverview Road, Peninsula, 44264. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/cuva or call 440-717-3890.
Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.