It’s another April day in Minnesota where we just can’t quite get spring weather to commit. Regardless, we are itching to get outside in nature. Several years ago, I hit up a trio of Twin Cities Southwest Metro nature centers that I believe you and your young ones would enjoy. I found Westwood Hills Nature Center, Richardson Nature Center and Wood Lake Nature Center to be exceptionally family-friendly and great for a day destined to be spent either indoors or out.
Southwest Metro Nature Centers
8300 W Franklin Ave, St Louis Park, MN 55426
Visitor Center hours: Weekdays: 8:30am-4:30pm • Weekends: 12pm-5pm
Indoor fun: The indoor portion of the nature center is on the small side, very appealing to kids. One colorful corner is stocked with books, puzzles, games and stuffed animals; other areas have drawers to pull out containing natural objects to touch (beware the compost drawer if you’re squeamish about vermiculture!). An on-hand naturalist engaged my kids in a game of I-Spy with wildlife around the room and gave me the scoop on preschool and family programs available throughout the year at Westwood Hills. Get a sampling of those, including the Nature For the Very Young drop-in preschool programs open to the public here.
Outdoor fun: Weather permitting, bring a picnic and spend some time in the outdoor play area. There are both a traditional playground climbing structure and a small nature play yard containing stumps, logs, shelters and one really cool work of art (see collage above). Within a stone’s throw of a suburban neighborhood is a lake, winding trails, a beautiful observation deck, and a landscaped habitat for Westwood Hill’s resident Barred owl.
8737 East Bush Lake Road, Bloomington, MN 55438
Visitor Center hours: Monday-Saturday: 9am-5pm • Sunday: 12pm-5pm
Indoor fun: Colorful, eye-popping relief murals decorate many of the walls of Richardson Nature Center. Grab a scavenger hunt card and see if you can pick out the wildlife in the detailed scenes. My oldest child did this while his preschool-aged sister explored the book nook, stacks of puzzles, a crawl-through coyote den, and other hands-on exhibits. Then, the two collaborated on a predator-prey puppet show for my viewing pleasure.
Outdoor fun: Sheltered within the Hyland Lake Park Reserve, Richardson Nature Center is the starting point for many trails and a Nature Exploration Area where kids can putter around with natural building materials. Check out a bird, bug or frog kit from the front desk to explore the prairie and wetlands. Close to the indoor exhibits is an outdoor raptor viewing area.
6710 Lake Shore Drive, Richfield 55423
Visitor Center hours: Monday-Saturday: 8:30am-5pm • Sunday: 12pm-5pm
Indoor fun: Again, I was pleasantly surprised and appreciative of how many interactive exhibits there were for kids at my third stop of the day – Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, a little preserve of land sandwiched between city and first-ring suburbia. The preschooler is always content with a set of miniature animals no matter where she goes; my 9-year-old prefers activities that involve a touch screen. Wood Lake has both — simple toys and books for younger visitors and some creative exhibits that older kids will enjoy operating. We especially enjoyed matching sounds in nature with the creatures who make them.
Outdoor fun: When the weather warms up, it will be great fun to spend time in the Wood Lake Nature Play Area, watching the kids interact not with screens, but with logs, boulders, sticks and other natural materials. The play yard is fenced in and completely conducive to creative play.
- A Comprehensive Guide to Nature Play for Kids: 65+ Kids & Nature Ideas
- Nature Playgrounds in the Twin Cities: Get Back to Green
Yes, we visited all three of these Southwest Metro Nature Centers in one day. Though we had a great time, I don’t advise trying to fit so many in. Pick one, slow down, explore and enjoy. Stay tuned this spring for the next installment of FFTC’s Guide to Twin Cities-area Nature Centers!