By Katie Riley
Don’t underestimate how a visit to a nature center might affect your child’s future.
When Ben Gardner, 16, of Millersville, first visited Jug Bay Wetlands Nature Center with his first-grade class 10 years ago, it confirmed his lifelong passion for ecology.
“I had always been interested in nature since I was really little,” he says. “But going there and experiencing it firsthand, rather than reading about it in a book, was life-changing for me.”
Now a volunteer with the internship program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Gardner plans to study ecology in college. And he still enjoys visits to Jug Bay whenever he can get there.
“It’s just an all-around cool place to go,” he says. “The water, trails and wildlife are incredible.”
The Chesapeake region boasts many nature centers ideal for families who want to get in touch with their natural surroundings. Check out our list below for an experience only Mother Nature can offer. Click through to the end of the story for specifics on each center.
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
With 2,000 acres of tidal freshwater wetlands, forest, meadows and fields along the Patuxent River, Jug Bay is a nature-lovers paradise.
Start your journey at the Nature Play Space outside of the Visitor’s Center, where kids can delight in the sunken canoe, musical instruments made from natural materials and a cave made entirely from sticks. Head to the neighboring Glendening Preserve and walk the 460-foot boardwalk that leads to the Pine Barrens sandy area, where families can view unusual ground-dwelling insects that populate this rare terrain.
The miles of trails and boardwalks at Jug Bay are home to inhabitants of many species, and families can learn about them inside the Visitor’s Center through hands-on games and activities. There are also box turtles and stream fish that live in the center. Jug Bay offers a variety of public programs and field trips that promote environmental investigation.
Jug Bay has also been designated a “Nationally Important Birding Area” by the National Audubon Society, and the Saturday morning bird walk is a popular attraction for families who want to see feathered friends up close. First Saturday of the month.
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC)
There is a reason teacher Amy Santini has taken her fourth-grade students to SERC annually for the past 10 years.
“Kids have an inherent understanding that they need to take care of the world,” she says. “Getting out in nature allows them to see how they impact the environment firsthand.”
At SERC, families can explore this idea on land or water. Three trails span meadows, swamps and the riverfront for families looking to hike. History buffs should check out the Contees Wharf trail that crosses through the ruins of the 16th-century Contees Wharf Farm. Keep the kids engaged by geocaching — using cellphones or GPS to find “treasure” boxes hidden along the trails. Kayaking and canoeing are popular attractions.
At the Reed Education Center kids can visit with “Dinky” the Maryland Diamondback Terrapin and view the fish and Maryland Blue Crabs caught from the shores outside the center.
SERC periodically offers classes and programs for kids, including Citizen Science activities for older children. There are also summer programs and activities.
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center
A visit to The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Grasonville offers families more than 600 acres of unspoiled wetlands to play and discover.
Surrounded by water on all sides, the center allows families to rent kayaks and encourages exploration of the many water trails throughout the property. Hike the 10 different trails across boardwalks and beaches, or opt for one of the many birding classes that search for local osprey and owls.
The center offers weekly classes for young visitors, such as the Preschool Gardening series that gives kids a chance to dig in the gardens. The weekly Creepy Crawlers series lets kids interact with live animals and learn about nature, and both educational offerings include a hike, story time and snack.
Young explorers will want to take advantage of the center’s geocaching coordinates to find the 20 caches hidden throughout the property.
Irvine Nature Center
At Irvine in Owings Mills, nature nuts can get their fix on the private center’s 210-plus acres of meadowlands.
Something different is offered nearly every day for families, like the Tales & Tails which introduces toddlers to the real-live animals from stories or the Junior Naturalist program that helps kids keep nature journals. Visit the exhibit hall to view more than 30 animals, a hive of bees that helps pollinate the outdoor flower gardens, and Irvine’s rotating art exhibitions that highlight artists who love nature.
Outside, hikers and runners can tackle 6 miles of trails.
For parents who want a school experience focusing on the environment, Irvine’s Nature Preschool has a curriculum that encourages young students to get outside. Members also have access to an outdoor classroom with natural things to climb on, play music on and natural slate easels to draw on.
Beth Lacey Gill, Irvine’s director of marketing, says that Irvine’s activities go beyond the typical nature center. “From our summer campfires, family camp-outs and educational programs, we are trying to encourage people to get outside as much as possible, all year long,” she says.
Robinson Nature Center
Kids can get a good look at the stars at Robinson Nature Center’s NatureSphere, a digital planetarium and dome-style theater inside this Howard County nature center.
At regular Family Friday nights, families can hear a planetarium presentation before settling beneath the stars for a full-dome movie every other Friday night. Lil Stars, a program for kids ages 3 to 8, meets every other Saturday and teaches kids about the night sky with a craft.
The center is brimming with interactive exhibits, such as the helicopter video game tour of the Chesapeake Bay or ViewSpace, a multimedia astronomy display. A visit to the Children’s Discovery Room will appeal to young children who want to explore the books, games, costumes and aquariums filled with fish.
Outside, visit the center’s wildflower gardens or see a show at the outdoor amphitheater. The mile-long hiking trail that snakes alongside the Middle Patuxent River is perfect for kids looking to splash in the streams along the way.
Watkins Park and Nature Center
An entire day may not be enough to explore everything at Watkins Regional Park and Nature Center in Upper Marlboro. The expansive grounds offer everything from a hands-on nature center to a working farm.
Start your visit at the Nature Center to meet animal residents before hiking the 6 miles of wooded trails, such as The Beaver Pond Trail where you may spot kingfishers, great blue herons and beavers who live in the pond at the end of trail. From there, cross to the Overlook Trail following the ridge and catch panoramic views of the Western Branch.
Even more animal attractions are at Old Maryland Farm within Watkins Park. With more than 100 animals on the farm, daily farm activities including seasonal hayrides and animal care demonstrations for all ages.
After a visit to the farm, enjoy a relaxing ride on the miniature train that winds through the farm and woodlands. Younger visitors can take a spin on the restored turn-of-the-century carousel that operates seasonally in the park.
Flag Ponds Nature Park
Looking for some natural inspiration near the water? Flag Ponds Nature Park offers one of the most spectacular beaches in Southern Maryland with a 1-mile expanse of white sand fronting the Chesapeake Bay.
Start your journey at the Visitor’s Center to check out the fossil cases displaying sharks teeth, porpoise bones and scallop shell fossils found in the park. Test your beachcombing skills by searching for Miocene fossils on Flag Ponds’ beach, where visitors are encouraged to take home their fossil treasures.
A hike on the Duncan’s Pond Trail will lead families over boardwalks to the naturally formed ponds that give Flag Ponds its name. Climb the observation platforms to view the turtles, muskrats and great blue herons that call the park home.
Fishing is a popular pastime at Flag Ponds, and the park’s 100-foot fishing pier offers kids the chance to reel in some stripers or bluefish straight from the Chesapeake Bay. Swimming is permitted on the beach but no lifeguard is on duty. This nature park is friendly for Fido, too, and leashed dogs are welcome on all the center’s beaches and trails.