We recently visited Teatown as a family and had a wonderful time there. Teatown is a little less than a 1.5 hour drive from Brooklyn. We drove and parked in their parking lot for a $5 charge as non-members.
First, we visited their nature center which had some local animals on display: turtles, snakes and a salamander.
We tried one of their easier hikes first, the Twin Lakes Loop to the Waterfall Trail and arrived at a beautiful waterfall where we enjoyed our picnic lunch. We hiked back via a different trail, the Hilltop Trail. The first two trails were quite easy hikes, perfect for young children. The hike back via the Hilltop Trail was more challenging but we made it! All in all the hiking time was 3.5 hours. Ethan, 5.5 years old was great on the trail and completed the full hike happily! I carried, Lillian who will be 4 next month, in the toddler carrier for about 30-40 minutes along the Hilltop Trail. Other than that she hiked along happily. I’d definitely recommend this hike for families with young children!
Something that I think helped keep the crankies away on this long hike was this book…
The kids each had a copy and LOVED it! I thought we’d pick one page to focus on such as “leaves” or “insects” but they seriously found every single nature item in the book. This is probably why the hike took so long, since we stopped to check our book and identify mushrooms, leaves, insects, frogs and tracks. But it was wonderful to watch them be such careful observers of nature.
Ethan’s favorite part was finding a frog and climbing near the waterfall area!
Lillian loved finding lily pads and lillies floating in the water!
I recently purchased this book, Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World by Christy Hale, after seeing it on Instagram. It’s a beautiful, simple book which very creatively makes comparisons between water and landforms. It was an instant hit with Ethan who is 5.5.
Ethan is very interested in maps, different landforms and any kind of water so I thought this book would be a jumping off point for a more in-depth study. I purchased the following books to help our study along:
The farm is open to the public from April to November. This urban farm provides thousands of pounds of produce to local elementary schools and local homeless shelters. The mission of the farm is “to engage students, residents, and visitors in sustainable farming techniques, the joys of tasting new foods, and the value of urban farming in the evolving story of this historic public park.”
It was truly amazing to see a functioning farm in the middle of our big, bustling city!
Their field trip was so well organized. From the ease of the online registration, to the friendliness of the staff, to the multiple hands-on experiences the kids rotated through, the entire day was full of learning and fun. We even got to taste some of the vegetables they grow!
While you are there you can also check out the Sea Glass Carousel, a very beautiful and unique carousel. You can also spend time near the water watching the boats or hop on the Staten Island Ferry. There are many beautiful gardens to stroll through, bike paths to ride, and even a labyrinth to walk through. There is so much for kids to enjoy in this small area of NYC.
Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi – This one is my favorite. It’s fun to read out loud and the pictures are great.
This year, Ethan (5.5) has loved The Fly Guy Series by Tedd Arnold. He finds it so funny!
We have also been enjoying the hands-on experience of having insects in our home to observe. This is our second year with both the Inset Lore Deluxe Butterfly Garden and the Insect Lore Ladybug Land from Amazon. The caterpillars and ladybugs are currently in pupa stage so I cannot comment on our success rate this year but we had a 100% success rate last year!
Here’s a few pictures of our Insect studies throughout the last few years. Even though we use the same insect kits and the same books, I find the kids learn more and more each year.
I feel like a lot of parents in NYC have most likely been to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). But have you checked out the Discovery Room? I hadn’t until I organized a homeschool field trip there last year. This year I learned anyone can visit the Discovery Room, even if you are not part of an organized group with a scheduled time. Apologies if this is common knowledge. It was news to me! My kids visited again recently with their grandparents and had an awesome time!
Setting up the field trip was very easy, I simply sent an email and then got a response rather quickly. While I thought the room might be booked through the school year, it was not and I got our first choice of dates.
First, the staff who was working the day of our trip was just FANTASTIC. Not only were they knowledgeable and had planned an interesting schedule for our time there but it was obvious they really loved children. Sadly, this is not always the case when visiting places, even places intended for children. They moved our group of 4 year olds through several hands-on and engaging activities.
My son’s favorite part of the field trip and his recent trip there was their “paleontology field site.” The museum fills a pit with plaster every so often to cover up dinosaur bones on the bottom. Kids use real archaeological tools to uncover the bones.
He also loved the magnetic dinosaur bones which you can attach to a frame to recreate a dinosaur skeleton.
There are also live animals in the room along with several other artifacts and specimens to explore.
The field trip was very inexpensive as far as NYC field trips go, $75 for your group which includes museum admission for the kids and chaperones. The museum had no problem with a large number of chaperones as each child’s mom accompanied them. I’ve organized other homeschool field trips where places have not been able to accommodate that many adults. The discovery room is a large and homeschool friendly place!
But again, even if you’re not part of a group, you can head to the Discovery Room while you are visiting the museum. You will either be allowed to enter right then or invited back at later time the same day if if’s too crowded at the moment. It’s worth the wait.
The kids have requested I read the book Mud, several times a day. I don’t mind at all because the pictures are great and the language is really beautiful.
My Books of Rocks and Minerals was great to help us identify the minerals we found when we broke open real geodes. We used this kit, Break Your Own Geodes, which was a lot of fun! The geodes were not easy to open and required a lot of patience and perseverance from the kids. When they finally smashed them, they were so excited!
Any other junior geologists out there? Let me know in the comments!
The Alley Pond Environmental Center (APEC) is an environmental educational center in Queens, NYC dedicated to preserving nature in an urban setting. At APEC there are nature trails, salt marshes, forests and meadows. APEC is open to the public and also offers weekly classes, a nursery school program, after school care, vacation programs, family and adult programs as well as teacher trainings.
APEC also hosts amazing homeschool classes for kids age 4 and up!Ethan took a class here in the fall.We drove from Brooklyn and depending on the NYC traffic, it was anywhere from a 35 minute to 2 hour commute.Most often 35 minutes though!When we arrived on the first day, we were greeted by this sign…
I almost cried.Never, have I ever, seen a sign like that anywhere in NYC!It was so exciting.And were we ever welcome! Each week Ethan spent an hour with his class of other 4 and 5 year olds.The teacher read books, sang songs and led the kids through hands-on experiments and games. Each week they learned about another animal that lives at Alley Pond and they got to meet a live animal right in the classroom!At the end of each class, the kids took a hike with their teacher around the nature preserve.It was a great class and I’d highly recommend it!Ethan’s teacher was warm, friendly and knowledgeable (about children and nature).He really liked her.
While Ethan was in class, Lillian and I were free to explore APEC or spend time in one of the classrooms that was not in use.She really loved this.She got to play with the toys, look at the books and at the end we were careful to put everything back right where we found it.There are also lots of live animals inside the class building at APEC that Lillian loved to visit.
Definitely consider APEC if you are a homeschooler in NYC!
One of our favorite places to visit in Prospect Park is the Zucker Natural Exploration Area. It is often referred to as “the natural playground.”
The Prospect Park Alliance created this space using trees from the park that were downed during Hurricane Sandy. These trees and other other elements of nature such as a large sand area, tree stumps of varying heights and a water pump feature form a natural playground for children.
walking on the tree stump path
large, natural sand pit
playing in a downed tree
My kids can spend hours there. We usually only bring a bucket and shovel and the rest of the time they play only with the natural materials in the area. While there, my kids are immersed in sensory, imaginative and unstructured play, all outside. What a gift for city kids!
I think it is interesting to note that there are many, many traditional playgrounds in NYC. We have been to a lot of them! My kids do not have as much fun and do not have lengthy sustained play sessions like they do at the natural playground. My kids, like others, definitely prefer to interact with nature.
My kids love Zucker because they have so much fun there. I love Zucker for many other reasons! There are so many opportunities for my children’s health and development simply by being at a natural playground. I feel lucky that we have this amazing place to play, so close to home.
At a natural playground like Zucker, children have the opportunity for risky play; something that has been all but eliminated from traditional playgrounds which are covered in rubber padding and where jumping off the swings or climbing up the slides is prohibited.
Wait, isn’t risky play dangerous? Yes, but it is also vitally important to a child’s development and it is sadly being eliminated from modern day playtime. How can anyone begin to know their own limits if they haven’t been allowed to independently test them?
Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist, forest school owner and author of the book Balanced and Barefoot, explains that a child’s neurological system was designed to “seek out the sensory input it needs on its own in order to reach the next developmental level.” Whether it’s rules on the playground, the disappearance of recess or overly anxious helicopter parenting, you can see how modern times are getting in the way of natural human development. Risky play is an important part of building confidence and self-esteem. It allows a child to experience frustration and learn coping skills.
Below is a picture of my son, perched atop a rather large log, really wanting to jump, but not sure if he should. He is practicing self-reflection and regulation all in this peaceful pause. He may or may not have started to scream in frustration because he really wanted to jump but he was scared. He’s learning his own physical limits and how to accept them. He didn’t jump, for the record. Maybe one day in the future, he will.
There is also much more room for creativity in a natural playground than in a traditional playground. The logs can quickly become sharks or ships, or anything children can pretend. At a traditional playground, the structures are more fixed, making this type of imaginative and dramatic play more difficult.
There is also far more physical activity and exertion happening at a natural playground. At a natural playground kids can climb trees and logs, carry buckets full of sand and water, move heavy logs and rocks, roll down hills and run in green space. At a traditional playground, these opportunities are simply not present. A natural playground provides greater opportunities to expand gross motor skills.
Lillian lifting a heavy branch
At a natural playground, children are immersed in natural sensory experiences. They can take off their shoes to feel the grass, sand and mud between their toes, hear the leaves rustling, cover themselves in mud, “cook” with dirt, splash in water and smell flowers. While they are surrounded by sensory input, none of it is overwhelming as it is all naturally created. There are no overstimulating colors, bright lights, loud music or voices reverberating against the walls that you might find at an indoor playspace.
Another aspect unique to a natural playground are loose parts. Loose parts have been popularized as part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education. This term was coined by the architect, Simon Nicholson, who observed that when children have access to loose parts (simply materials that can be moved around), there are more opportunities for interaction, engagement and tinkering. When children have access to loose parts, their creativity can really take flight! They also create natural learning opportunities for counting, pattern making, geometry, problem solving and fine motor skills. Loose parts abound at Zucker in the form of rocks, sticks, leaves and flowers.
While at Zucker (or I imagine, another natural playground), children have the opportunity to engineer and build. My children have moved huge sticks around both independently and cooperatively with friends to build a wigwam and to create an imaginary bonfire. Again, these incredible opportunities are unique to natural playgrounds.
As an added bonus, in the summer, the Prospect Park Alliance brings in goats to eat the invasive plant species that grow near Zucker. The goats are kept in a fenced in area but are clearly visible to the kids. My kids love to watch the goats!
Do you still need more reasons to believe why natural playgrounds like Zucker are better than traditional ones? In How to Raise a Wild Child, author Scott D. Sampson cites studies which prove that bullying and aggressive behavior are greatly decreased at a natural playground vs. a traditional. He details that real estate prices in one neighborhood spiked by 20% one year after the city of Toronto’s first natural playground was installed there. The incidence of broken bones at a natural playground are a fraction of what they are at traditional playgrounds. I could go on and on!
Do you have a natural playground in your area? Have you been to Zucker? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!