Getting up-close and personal with a snail

Getting up-close and personal with a snail

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Got your bag of tricks ready?

Not for Halloween but for getting everyone to put down their devices and head outdoors.

There’s no better time than autumn to get outdoors and get away, whether you have a day, a weekend or a week. The climate is ideal; there is the right ratio of visitors to locals and grandparents can savor their preschoolers without the crowds, whether you are in the northeast or northern California, the Midwest or the Rockies. In Aspen, Colorado, where those quaking Aspens have turned golden, and in Park City Utah, where kids can swing from ropes at the Utah Olympic Park, among other activities, prices can be as much as half off prime winter rates. See what I wrote about our stay at the conveniently located historic Hotel Jerome, which caters to kids — and dogs — in Aspen.

There are festivals everywhere, the chance to pick apples and pumpkins and chat up farmers at markets overflowing with seasonal produce. Fall is a great time to visit national parks, too, which offer so many ranger-led seasonal programs. The popular Every Kid in a Park initiative gives all fourth-graders and their family’s free access to all national parks where kids can complete requirements for a scout badge or become a Junior Ranger. There is a new activity book “Junior Ranger Let’s Go Fishing!” which you can download for kids to learn about aquatic habitats, fishing safety and how to protect native fish. Explore a park or monument you’ve always wanted to see and lesser known ones near your home.

For example, at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Long Island, President Theodore Roosevelt’s sprawling home and paradise for his six children who roamed scores of acres, there are new nature programs, including discovering Geocaching and birding for beginners.

At Acadia National Park in Maine, you can bike on miles of car-free carriage roads and set out on an Acadia Quest.

Check out Fairyland Point at Bryce Canyon in Utah and learn all about “hoodoos,” the huge, odd-shaped pillars of rock, or join a ranger guided walk!

Did you know there are 599 National Natural Landmarks that contain the best remaining examples of specific biological and geological features, everything from Cathedral Caverns with flowing underground streams to Beaverdam Creek Swamp in Alabama to the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon.

(Get more ideas in our Fabulous Fall Getaways section complied with our friends at Family Travel Forum.

As for your bag of tricks; besides raingear, extra layers, plenty of snacks (let the kids pick the power bars!), water and a first aid kit, environmental educators at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) suggest yours should contain small notebooks and pens for each child; a magnifying glass to look at things closely; binoculars; a bag to collect different colored leaves (if you are someplace where collecting leaves is permitted); crayons and paper to make leaf rubbing.

ACES should be on everyone’s list when they visit Aspen with its terrific in-town nature preserve, resident golden eagle and farm where kids can learn about sustainable agriculture. In summer, there are week-long camps; in winter ACES educators meet ski school kids on the mountains. There are guided hikes and programs for adults as well.

Identifying leaves in Aspen

Identifying leaves in Aspen

Making a leaf rubbing is easy, demonstrates ACES’ educators Denali Barron and Bowman Leigh: Put the leaves under the paper in any shape and then rub the crayon over the paper. Make a creature from different shaped leaves and then do a rubbing with a crayon! Presto! A masterpiece!

Barron and Leigh have a lot of experience engaging kids outdoors as ACES educators. They teach environmental education at three regional elementary schools and interact with kids on field trips from 60 other schools — some 125,000 educational contacts just last year.

That’s where the bag of tricks comes in, especially for kids who aren’t used to getting outside and exploring. The notebooks, pens and magnifying glasses enable kids to instantly become citizen scientists, recording their findings. Just heading outdoors in your neighborhood can be an adventure as the kids record what they see as the fall season progresses, suggest Barron and Leigh.

It always helps to play to the kids interests, whether art, music or fairies. How about building a fairy house? Can you find an app that will help you identify trees? Birds? (Try the eBird or the Audubon Bird Guide app.) The older kids can help navigate with the AllTrails app that lets you search for kid-friendly trails and more important, download maps so you aren’t stuck when there is no cell service.

Put a series of age-specific challenges in your bag of tricks:

— How many different shaped leaves can you find?

— How many different colored leaves?

— Turn over a rock and note three things you notice under the rock.

— Find four different textures.

For older kids:

— Draw a comic strip from the perspective of an ant.

— Find a place where you would hibernate.

— Design a video game from the perspective of an insect.

“The way a parent behaves has such a big impact,” says Leigh, who has been at ACES for eight years. “If the adults are immersed and excited, the kids will be too.”

Especially when you pull out your bag of tricks.