That being said, the Natural History Museum is not always convenient. We live quite close to the museum, but it can be a hassle to find a parking place. Clare use to push her toy cars around very slowly and tell me that her cars were looking for parking. This pretend play was completely inspired by our trips to the Smithsonian museums. Other times we just don't have the energy to walk through an enormous museum. We are fortunate to have a great alternative when we are looking for a quieter natural science experience. Arlington County has two fantastic nature centers: Long Branch Nature Center and Gulf Branch Nature Center.
Meg and Clare love both nature centers but we might have a slight preference for Gulf Branch. Clare began attending the toddler nature classes offered at Gulf Branch when Meg was at preschool. The class would include a discussion of a topic appropriate to the season, a craft that related to the topic, and then a walk through the woods at the nature center. Every class also had to include a visit to the owl, who lives in an enclosed area beside the nature center. Soon we began taking Meg to the nature center on weekends to walk on the path through the woods or to play in the discovery areas. The discovery room at the Long Branch Nature Center is more obviously equipped for entertaining kids, but Meg and Clare enjoy the animal dress up clothes, coloring pages and puzzles available at Gulf Branch. They also love the dugout canoe kept in the basement of Gulf Branch, which children are allowed to crawl into. At both nature centers, Meg and Clare love to look at the snakes, turtles and frogs. I've always had a paralyzing fear of snakes and this activity has been a challenge for me. Caution with snakes is appropriate, but I did not want to pass the irrational part of my fear to my children. So, I would look at the snakes with Meg and smile. In my head, I would tell myself, "The anxiety will pass. The anxiety will pass." And in about 10-15 seconds, all of my physical symptoms of panic (the flight part of the fight or flight instinct) did pass.
Now that both girls are in preschool, they look forward to going to the preschool nature classes together in the afternoons. They constantly ask me when the next class is schedule and, on the days we are attending the classes, that is all they can talk about.
The love of science may have been beaten out of me, as Carl Sagan says, but I'm happy to report that having toddlers and preschoolers quickly brings it back. I've enjoyed these trips to the nature centers as much as the girls. We've learned about owls, cicadas, pumpkins, bears, and so much more. We went to a bonfire at Gulf Branch, where the girls made and ate their first s'mores (see picture above). These trips have also added to our goal of making the most of every day. Learning about the changes in nature during each season has allowed us to observe those changes and recognize the different gifts that each season gives us.