How very typical of you, Minnesota. Last week you have the kids in short sleeves begging to hit the playground after school and a few days later the same kids will be heading to the bus stop bundled from head to toe. Fortunately, our Twin Cities-area nature centers are well-equipped when it comes to our state’s wacky weather ways. These places are packed with ways to stay entertained and cozy inside when the temps are cold — and when the sun decides to make an appearance, there are countless ways to enjoy the natural world outside. Read on for a look at three nature centers located in the northeast metro. And, did I mention, all this fun is to be had only at the cost of the gas to get you there?
Maplewood Nature Center
2659 East 7th St., Maplewood, MN 55119
Visitor Center hours: Tuesday – Saturday • 8:30am – 4:30pm
Indoor fun: With cutouts of trees on the walls, birds perched on the tree branches, and a sunken part of the floor made to resemble a pond, it’s easy to pretend you’re outdoors when, in reality, you’re stuck inside on a dreary day. My toddler loved the miniature animal set and the crawl-through log draped with animal pelts. Maplewood Nature Center often offers reasonably-priced ($5/kid) indoor family nature programs, usually combined with an outdoor activity. For a list of upcoming March & April events, click here.
Outdoor fun: The Nature Play Yard was a big hit with all four of my kids (ages 2-9). Who says a playground has to have elaborate equipment to be fun? This one has a ginormous tree trunk to climb on, sand for digging, hedges to hide in, materials to build a fort, and much more to spark creative nature play. If you can coax the kids out of the yard, there are hiking trails and a floating boardwalk from which to spot wildlife.
Harriet Alexander Nature Center
2520 North Dale St., Roseville, MN, 55113
Visitor Center hours: Tuesday – Saturday • 10am – 4pm
Indoor fun: An impressively realistic floor-to-ceiling “tree” now dominates the entrance to the nature center’s indoor exhibits. I don’t think my preschooler was as impressed as I was; she headed for a doctor’s kit and could have played veterinarian all day with stuffed forest friends. There’s also a library nook with children’s nature books, a back room crammed with tanks of turtles to observe, and a seasonal bee exhibit.
Outdoor fun: Harriet Alexander offers Sprouts, a great preschool program for kids ages 1-5 and their caregivers. You can enroll for a single day class ($14/first child, $7/additional children) or in a series of three ($36/first child, $18/additional). The classes combine indoor fun such as a make-and-take projects and games with outdoor exploration that encourages young children to connect with nature. Find out more about the classes here.
Tamarack Nature Center
5287 Otter Lake Rd., White Bear Township, MN 55110
Visitor Center hours: Monday – Friday • 8am – 4:30pm, Sat. 10am – 4:30pm, Sun. noon – 4:30pm
Discovery Hollow hours: Monday-Friday • 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., Saturday • 10 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Sunday • Noon – 4:30 p.m.
Indoor fun: To tell you the truth, I don’t recall much about the indoor exhibits at Tamarack because the kids were so eager to play outside. But here’s an idea for the first Saturday of the month through May (and then every Saturday June – September): Tamarack hosts Drop-In Discovery Days at the interpretive center that are free, family-friendly, and based around nature and animals. To see examples of upcoming programs, click here.
Outdoor fun: What really shines at Tamarack is its glorious outdoor Discovery Hollow and Garden. Two things you really must know before you go: 1) bring a change of clothes for your kiddos unless you want a sopping wet drive home! As evidenced above, there are wonderful opportunities for them to dig in sand, mud and to get completely soaked. (Don’t worry, there are plenty of dry activities as well — beautifully-engineered rocks to clamber on, a garden to harvest vegetables from, logs to balance on, and sticks to build shelters with.) The second thing you should be aware of: plan to spend hours in Discovery Hollow.