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From something as simple as chasing fireflies or hiking a trail to bigger adventures like camping and skiing, there are lots of ways to get kids outdoors in Iowa. Use this as a checklist through the rest of the year to guide your outdoor explorations! Be sure, too, to help your kids make a connection between the activity and protecting Iowa’s natural resources. For example, explain how clean water helps the fish when you’re angling. Talk about habitat when chasing butterflies or frogs. Creating these connections now will help your child to grow up with a healthy appreciation and respect for nature and a desire to help protect the outdoors.
1. Catch Fireflies This doesn’t take a lot of effort, and it’s a great way to get kids interested in bugs and other small wildlife. Remind kids to be gentle to avoid crushing the beetles, and if you want to collect them be sure your container has air holes. Take care not to handle fireflies if you’ve applied bug spray to you and your child, as the chemicals in the spray can kill the insects you touch.
2. See a Goldfinch Our state bird lives just about everywhere in the state, and their bright yellow plumage makes them easy to spot. Need the birds to come to you? Put thistle seeds or black oil sunflower seeds in a finch feeder and wait. Goldfinches are social, so when they come you’ll see plenty.
3. Skip Rocks Skipping rocks is a great way to relax and catch up with your family members. Throwing with the current of a river will help you get more skips, making it easier for young arms with less throwing power to achieve success. Feel free to make it into a friendly competition; trying to skip the farthest, get to the other bank, skip the largest rock, etc.
4. Make a S’more Over a Campfire This sticky dessert can’t be beat. The process of finding a suitable roasting stick, burning a marshmallow or two, and finally getting a golden gem is rewarding, and the satisfying snack will fill you up. Don’t like marshmallows? Try fire-roasted Starburst for a fruity twist. Find more creative recipes on our Outdoor and Wild Recipes board on Pinterest.
5. Pick Wild Raspberries One of Iowa’s tasty treasures, black raspberries can be found in many public parks throughout the state in late June and early July. That sun-ripened taste can’t be beat, and deft little hands can easily avoid thorns with practice. Take the time to show your child how to pick berries without hurting themselves or the plant, and point out the differences between berries that are safe to eat versus poisonous ones like honeysuckle. Check out our 6 tips for foraging for wild berries before you go.
6. Learn to Fish With Iowa’s abundant lakes and streams, every kid needs to try fishing at least once. Depending on your location and preference, you can catch-and-release or fry your prizes up for dinner. Or stop by a local fishing clinic put on by the DNR or your county conservation board. Put a piece of cork on fishing hooks that could catch on your child during transit and storage, and remember to update your license and buy one for your child (if 16 or older) before your outing. To commemorate the first time your child catches a fish, take a picture to upload onto a congratulatory certificate you can find at www.iowadnr.gov/firstfish.
7. Swim in a Lake On a related note, taking a dip with the fish is a great way to cool off. Kids can build sand castles and look for shells on shore when they’re done making a splash. Make sure to stay in designated swimming areas, and consider bringing water shoes to protect your feet from debris. Get current beach reports before you go.
8. Go Stream Walking This is a great activity for really hot days. Iowa streams and creeks tend to run cool, and walking in the middle of them wicks away body heat with continual water movement. Take into consideration how deep the stream you want to walk in is beforehand, as kids can tire quickly from slogging through deep water. Wear sturdy footwear that can protect you from debris. Check our tips for creek walking before you head out.
9. Catch a Frog Frogs of all types and sizes live in Iowa, but leopard frogs are particularly fun to chase. Their tremendous jumping ability keeps you on the move, but distinctive dark markings and bright gold eyes help you keep track of them. When catching any frog, remind your child to be gentle, as the soft amphibians can be easily hurt by excited fingers. Consider any chemicals you may have on your hands before trying to catch a frog too: they breathe through their membranous skin, so chemicals from hand sanitizer, bug spray, etc. can terminally poison them on contact.
10. Chase Butterflies Whether you want to plant a butterfly garden in your yard or let your child track down a treasure in the park, catching butterflies can be a great way to get kids excited about insects. However, their fragility can make this difficult to do without hurting the animal. Demonstrate catching the butterfly and holding it gently for your child, ideally by carefully pinching all four wing segments between the sides of your fingers. Holding it this way allows you to examine the butterfly without the animal being able to flap its wings, thus preventing damage to the tiny scales that help it fly. If you want to see monarch butterflies specifically, plant milkweeds and other native flowering plants in your flower beds. Monarch populations have dropped drastically in recent years, and this species needs all the help it can get to avoid extinction. Monarch tags can be purchased online relatively inexpensively, and if you upload the tag numbers to the Monarch Watch website you can see if any of the butterflies you tagged are recovered in Mexico after the migration.
11. Visit a Fen or Marsh These wetland habitats are home to an entirely different set of organisms than we usually see. Take some binoculars and watch a heron stalk the water for frogs and fish, or look for other animals like ducks, geese, muskrat, cranes, egrets, and shorebirds. Don’t forget the plants; you could find Iowa’s endangered pale green orchids right under your feet. Remember not to pick anything, as these habitats are very ecologically fragile and many of the plants there are protected by federal law. Make a bingo card with your child of different species you want to find, and fill it out over the course of your day. If you specifically visit a fen, you’ll see one of the rarest wetlands in Iowa. Few are owned publically though, so be careful not to trespass and always ask private owners’ permission before exploring on their land. Once you get there, try bouncing gently on a solid patch of ground: it should feel like a trampoline. However, take great care to watch your (and your children’s) steps, as some of the unassuming puddles you see can actually be holes into the aquifer below, which are commonly extremely deep. These ecosystems are beautiful but again, very fragile, so remember to take everything you brought with you back home, and to leave what you see as it is.
12. Go Hiking Iowa’s parks and forests collectively boast over 600 miles of hiking trails, with more being added every year. Go for a stroll or a more difficult excursion, and take plenty of snack and water breaks to enjoy the nature around you. (Here's a list of 7 of Iowa's best hikes to get you started.)
13. Try Geocaching or Orienteering If a competitive stroll is more your style, take a day to try both of these sports. For geocaching you need a GPS and a list of coordinates, which will take you to sites where you can search for a small container. Geocaching coordinates can be found online for free. The containers at the sites usually contain a notebook with the names of those who have already found the container and a pencil to write your own name with. Some caches have little trinkets inside, but geocaching etiquette says to only take the trinket if you have something of equal or greater value to leave in its place. Orienteering is a race, with multiple people trying to get to a sequence of locations as fast as possible. Each person uses a GPS and a map, and the first person to reach the last destination is declared the winner. If you're a first-time geocacher, read up on our 6 tips for geocaching newbies.
14. Go Camping The quintessential outdoor activity, camping gives kids the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. This can be a little overwhelming, so bring children’s creature comforts from home (like blankets from their bed or a favorite stuffed animal) to help them get comfortable with the new environment. Remember, kids are more likely to enjoy the experience if their parents seem happy and comfortable outside too, so don’t forgo the fun yourself! For the most stress-free trip, reserve your site ahead of time!
15. Observe Educational Conservation Presentations Iowa hosts excellent educational nature programs, with many parks and preserves having informational displays and presentations. One of the best educational events to visit is the annual Loess Hills Prairie Seminar: three days of programs and activities specifically geared towards applied science and kid-friendliness.
16. Look for Fossils and Geodes A very long time ago, Iowa was part of the ocean floor. Over time, sediment built up and created the limestone we now use for making concrete. This type of rock is excellent at preserving fossils, and at multiple sites collectors can look for and keep their finds. Particularly good specimens have been found in the Mason City area, and visitors can learn more at the Floyd County Conservation Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve and Center.
17. Visit State Preserves and Parks With 72 state parks and 95 preserves, Iowa has a rich diversity of public lands available for exploration. Seven sites were developed and planned as recreation areas, and offer extensive options for all sorts of activities. Most state parks also have camping options, ranging from rustic to the occasional glamourous cabin. Make sure your kids see more than just their home corner of the state to learn what Iowa is all about.
18. Go on a Bike Ride Iowa is one of the nation’s leaders in cycling, with nearly 700 miles of paved bike trails. Specific mountain biking trails are also available, with more information and maps at iowadnr.gov. Even if the whole family isn’t feeling up for joining RAGBRAI, biking in Iowa is a great way to see the state and get exercise while taking it easy on your joints. The High Trestle Trail is a popular favorite, stretching 25 miles through five towns and featuring a 13-story-high trail bridge over the Des Moines River.
19. Go Ice Skating Whether you go to an ice rink or backyard pond, ice skating is an awesome thing to learn as a kid. Little ones take little tumbles as they learn, and are less likely to get hurt due to their low center of gravity and light weight. If you’re going out on natural ice, make sure it’s thick enough first, and that skating is allowed.
20. Blow Freezing Bubbles The colder the weather, the better (this trick works especially well around -15 degrees F). Bundle up and take a regular bottle of commercial bubble solution to an area with a hard surface, like a driveway. The bubbles you blow will freeze in midair and shatter when they hit the ground, making a soft tinkling noise.
21. Cross country ski Despite the gorgeous rolling hills and river valleys throughout the state, Iowa gets some flak for being flat. That’s actually what you want for cross country skiing. With 26 groomed trails throughout the state, bring your skis or rent a few pairs and bring the family out for a surprisingly brisk excursion. More experienced skiers may instead opt for cutting their own trails on ski-friendly golf courses, which are likely to have more hills.
For more ideas, try our Take It Outside, In Your Own Backyard and Outdoor Kids and Education boards on Pinterest.