Western Washingtonians have a certain love affair with the environment, and the budding flowers and lush green of springtime gets us excited for the warm days ahead. Spring also kick starts our desire to get the kids out to enjoy nature, but the weather doesn't always want to cooperate.
Luckily for us, there are several environmental learning centers in our area that not only offer an ecological experience indoors, but also help us make important connections for our children. These centers introduce kids to the wonders of our natural areas so that they can learn to respect and appreciate them, nurturing their sense of stewardship of the environment.
"Environmental learning centers are really fun for us because of how much they get our daughter talking about the environment as a whole," said Seattle mom Rachel VanDeMark. "It is a great jumping-off point for more science, and it's nice to do something different."
If the weather is nice, most learning centers offer excellent outdoor activities to accompany your visit, such as guided nature walks, tot programs and season-themed workshops. My family recently dropped in on three locations – all free – and learned more about birds, soil, wetlands and how our drinking water comes to be.
Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center in Seattle
The Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center is operated by the National Audubon Society, in partnership with Seattle Parks and Recreation. My family spent an afternoon there on a "Super Saturday." These events occur every other weekend and offer themed activities, coloring and crafts for children. While it may not sound all that glorious, "Decomposition Rots!" was thoroughly interesting for my kids, who are 3 and 5. Of course, who wouldn't delight in making edible soil out of pudding, candy corn, crushed Oreos and gummy centipedes? They also enjoyed making ants out of egg cartons, watching worms wiggle around in the dirt under a microscope, and other activities that taught them about the splendor of decay.
We headed upstairs and were happily surprised to encounter Lumpy, an African Sulcata Tortoise, who comes out from the lab to greet guests if there is lettuce involved. The kids took a rest in the library – a lovely spot for a rainy afternoon, with mushroom stools and plenty of nature-themed books.
The Seattle Audubon Society happened to be on site during our visit for a bird-banding demonstration. We had an opportunity to examine different species of birds and learn about the chickadees and woodpeckers we see at home.
The center also offers birding classes and guided nature walks each month, including a special walk for toddlers with accompanying story time, where families learn about the flora and fauna of the 277-acre park.
The Details: The center is located at 5902 Lake Washington Blvd. S. in Seattle and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Contact: 206-652-2444; http://sewardpark.audubon.org.
Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center in Bellevue
A collaboration between Pacific Science Center and the City of Bellevue, this education center hosts a variety of programs for families and schoolchildren. Its Visitor Center, open daily, is the gateway to the 320-acre Mercer Slough Nature Park. My family arrived at the center 30 minutes before the daily nature walk, which was the perfect amount of time to take in the activities. The kids worked on a floor puzzle, looked at books and enjoyed figuring out which animals belonged with the molded animal footprints. My husband and I read the displays about the history and ecology of the area. We all ventured outside to the scenic overlook, an interesting juxtaposition of park and cityscape views. This winter, a few lucky people saw a coyote playing on the iced-over creek below.
Our one-hour nature walk was led by Assistant Park Ranger Melani Baker, who guided us through forest, meadow and marsh to the slough. She spoke of the habitat and the way the ecosystem functions together, stopping to point out details or to make a demonstration. We saw woodpecker holes, watched a dive-bombing hummingbird and even witnessed otters frolicking in the distance in the slough.
Regular programming at the education center includes nature movies the last Friday of each month and ranger-led discovery programs the first Sunday of each month. On any given day, families can enjoy a self-guided tour through the park with the Visitor Center's scavenger hunt and Discovery Backpack, complete with activity cards, binoculars and magnifying lens (suggested donation $5). There is fun to be had at the park in warmer weather as well; canoe rides get underway in May and U-pick blueberries start up in July.
The Details: The Visitor Center, located at 1625 118th Ave. S.E. in Bellevue, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Contact: 425-452-2565; www.pacificsciencecenter.org/Mercer-Slough/slough.
Cedar River Watershed Education Center in North Bend
There isn't a more picturesque setting for an education center than the Cedar River Watershed area, nestled in the tranquil Snoqualmie National Forest. Visitors to the education center are greeted with pleasing rhythms from the Rain Drum Courtyard, where water drips on 19 drums to create different melodies. Inside, a number of interpretive exhibits help people understand the amazing journey rain and snow undergo to become drinking water. The Cedar River Watershed, managed by Seattle Public Utilities, provides the majority of our area's drinking water.
My three-year-old busied herself with the part of the exhibit that demonstrates the water cycle, with balls and an intricate pipe system. Older kids will be drawn to the touch-screen computer game "Do you have what it takes to be a water manager?" that works like a choose-your-own-adventure story.
Be sure to leave time for a walk or hike after your visit. Right outside the doors is the pleasant Rattlesnake Lake trail, with places to stop for lunch and rock throwing.
The Details: The center is located at 19901 Cedar Falls Road S.E. in North Bend and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (April through Oct.) and Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Nov. through March).
Contact: 206-733-9421; www.seattle.gov.
Here are a few more places to check out; good starting points for kids' exploration of nature. Admission is free unless otherwise noted.
Seattle Parks and Recreation Environmental Learning Centers: These centers are within major Seattle parks and most have beach or water access via park trails. All offer regular family activities, including guided nature walks, education workshops, volunteer opportunities and special programs for tots. Check out their Web sites for more information.
Camp Long Environmental Learning Center: The learning center at Camp Long is currently closed for renovations and is slated to reopen in June. Outdoor programming is still in full swing, however, which utilizes Camp Long's trails, open grassy play area and climbing rock. 5200 35th Ave. S.W., Seattle; 206-684-7434. www.cityofseattle.net/parks.
Carkeek Park Environmental Learning Center: The outdoor activities at Carkeek Park reign, but the learning center offers a small library, lobby display and space for education programs. Carkeek Park has a play area for kids, complete with its own salmon slide, and offers sweeping views of the sound, hiking trails and access to the beach. Center hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 950 N.W. Carkeek Park Road, Seattle; 206-684-0877. www.seattle.gov/parks.
Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center: Discovery Park is the largest park in Seattle, with 534 acres and over 11 miles of trails. The learning center features an activity room for kids with puppets, books and several interactive displays about the forest and environment. Center hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 3801 W. Government Way, Seattle; 206-386-4236. www.seattle.gov/parks.
Lewis Creek Park Visitor Center: This interactive center provides visitors with Bellevue Parks information, family programs and recreational opportunities. Grab a book from the library and relax in the seating area or stop in to check out a pair of binoculars before your walk in the park, which offers boardwalks and soft-surface trails, a play area and sport courts. The visitor center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 5808 Lakemont Blvd. S.E., Bellevue; 425-452-4195.www.ci.bellevue.wa.us.
Issaquah Salmon Hatchery: The most visited of all the state's hatcheries, this facility offers information about Pacific salmon, watershed stewardship and hatchery operations. The adult salmon spawn in the fall, but there are juvenile salmon and rainbow trout in the aquariums and ponds to see in other months. The hatchery is open daily, during daylight hours. 125 Sunset Way, Issaquah; 425-427-0259. www.issaquahfish.org.
Breazeale Padilla Bay Interpretive Center: Located in the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, this center features an entire room of kid-friendly, science and animal-related activities. Finish your visit with a walk around the reserve. The interpretive center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 10441 Bayview Edison Road, Mount Vernon; 360-428-1558. www.padillabay.gov.
Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center: The center provides ideas for good eagle-watching sites, informational handouts, souvenirs, guided interpretive walks, slideshows and tours. The center is open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Howard Miller Steelhead Park, 52809 Rockport Park Road, Rockport; 360-853-7626. www.skagiteagle.org.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: The visitor center includes interpretive exhibits and a view of the freshwater marsh. Outdoor activities include a boardwalk and hiking trails through the marshes, grasslands and forest habitats that provide nesting areas for migratory waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. There is an entrance fee of $3 per family. The visitor center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 100 Brown Farm Road, Olympia; 360-753-9467.www.fws.gov/nisqually.
Tacoma Nature Center: The center's exhibits include live reptiles and amphibians and a children's play area with slide, puppets and animal costumes. Pick up an interpretive trail guide and discovery backpack before you hit the trails of this 70-acre wetland habitat. The center is open Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 1919 S. Tyler St., Tacoma; 253-591-6439. www.metroparkstacoma.org.
Taryn Zier is a freelance writer based in Lake Forest Park, nature-lover and mother of two children, ages 3 and 5.