Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Kids listen attentively as Amy, an instructor with Mount Rainier Institute, explains how to make a playdough spider from a laminated model. Photos by Natasha Dillinger

Mount Rainier Institute nature programs cover all seasons, fit all ages

Enthusiastic teachers and interesting subjects make these outdoor classes a huge hit.

When I picture a perfect outdoor adventure day with my kids, it looks something like this: a forest hike that’s not too strenuous, hands-on learning opportunities that are accessible to a wide age range (in case we bring along friends) and a location that feels like a destination but doesn’t require a full day of driving. Sounds like a unicorn, doesn’t it? Luckily, after participating in several of the Mount Rainier Institute’s programs, I think we’ve found something that checks all those boxes. 

Pack up for the Pack Forest

The Mount Rainier Institute is a partnership between the University of Washington and Mount Rainier National Park. Most programs take place at the Pack Forest near Eatonville. This research forest, which sits on the ancestral homelands of the Nisqually people, was donated to the university to foster the study of sustainable forestry and inspire future forest stewards. 

Using a hand drill to see how syrup taps are placed in maple trees

Our introduction to the institute’s classes came in February when we attended the Bigleaf Maple Syrup program. I was a little hesitant about attending at first. The curriculum is geared toward elementary schoolers (roughly 8 years old and up), and my kids were almost 5 and 2 years old. But after hearing about another parent’s amazing experience that included young kids, I decided to sign up, pack our warmest layers and snacks and ditch the group if needed. 

We ended up having a great time, largely due to Amy Wilson, the program coordinator. Amy has a background in environmental education and it shows. They never seemed bothered by the endless questions posed by our group (or occasional tantrums), stopping to encourage curious kids and flexing the level of activities to keep young ones engaged. The small group size allows lots of time to stop for breaks when needed or to dive deeper into activities. 

Mount Rainier Institute: programs for all seasons

Each program offers unique opportunities to enhance learning. During the maple syrup program, we operated a mock traditional harvest operation using water as a less-sticky stand-in. In addition, we tasted different types of syrup to determine our favorites and observed the modern harvest system that uses pumps and plastic tubing. Both of my kids loved the activities! While they got restless here and there, the advantage to the outdoor location was that they could play with natural materials along the trail while I listened to the information and debriefed them later.

Looking for native plants with Teacher Amy in Mount Rainier National Park.

Since our first class, we’ve also attended a native plants and wildflowers program over the summer (I even joined in on an adults-only version) as well as a recent “spider science” day. During the wildflowers class, activities included a flower scavenger hunt at multiple locations in Mount Rainier National Park and using a thermometer gun to compare the temperatures of snow, trees and pavement on the Nisqually Vista trail. When learning about spiders, we used tally counters to count evidence of spiders along the trail (this was a huge hit with my kids!), molded a spider’s body out of playdough and examined temporarily captured spiders under a microscope. 

Most of our tours have included only one or two other families. The spider science program had five families (including ours) with varied ages. Surprisingly, the mixed age group was a great fit. The older kids asked thoughtful questions and helped set good examples for the younger ones, while the expressions of wonder and enthusiasm on the young kids’ faces reminded everyone how amazing our arachnid friends are. 

Getting a closer look at a temporarily captured spider.

Mount Rainier Institute: upcoming programs, attendance tips

Upcoming fall programs include one more opportunity to learn about spiders (scheduled for Friday, October 22, so sign up quickly!). In addition, there will be night hikes that cover nocturnal animals like owls and bats, old-growth forest ecology and tree identification and wreath making. The crowd-favorite Bigleaf Maple Syrup course should return in January. Programs are competitively priced for the content and value. While exact costs vary, expect to pay about $20-30 per student and $10-20 per accompanying adult (kids 2 and under are free) for a four-hour class. 

Many of the programs are targeted toward homeschool groups or school field trips, so they often take place on weekdays. However, some weekend and holiday programs are in the works (our spider day took place on the Seattle Public School District’s inservice day, for example).

The institute operates with a tiny staff, and I get the sense that their talents are focused on creating amazing programs more than a flashy website. Don’t let that dissuade you from joining in! You’ll have to do a little digging around the website for upcoming event dates. I periodically keep an eye on their Instagram account and then check the homeschool page first (programs aren’t limited to homeschoolers) before popping over to the families section.

Using playdough to construct a spider anatomy.

Mount Rainier Institute: make the most of it 

  1. Not sure if the program fits your family’s age range? Just ask! I’d describe the curriculum as “low floor, high ceiling,” meaning that while it’s geared toward ages 8+ it’s really accessible for my young kids and older kids who want to dive deeper into the material. 
  2. List alternate dates if they work for your family. Sometimes the scheduled program dates don’t fit with our schedule. I always list an alternate date or two — adding some flexibility can help the staff know when there’s more demand and group similar ages together when possible. 
  3. Pack layers! The outdoor nature of the programs makes them all very pandemic-friendly, but also means it can get chilly when you’re paused to participate in an activity. We make sure to layer up (including gloves and hats) and stash a change of clothes in the car just in case. 
  4. Consider making a getaway out of the adventure. It’s about 90 minutes from Seattle to Pack Forest, so it’s definitely day-trip worthy. That said, we’ve also stayed overnight nearby to add a visit to Mount Rainier National Park. Northwest Trek Wildlife park is also just down the road. 

More in Seattle’s Child:

Missed the spider science class signup? Check out these tips for learning about spiders

My family is outside three hours a day, and we love it

5 hands-on ways to play outside in fall and winter

About the Author

Natasha Dillinger

Natasha Dillinger is a Seattle mom who paused a career in accounting and finance to focus on showing her two young children around the Pacific Northwest. Follow their adventures near and far at suitcasesinseattle.wordpress.com and on Instagram (@suitcasesinseattle)