Tacoma Nature Center
April is Earth Month! To celebrate and entice families to learn about our planet, Tacoma Nature Center has unveiled a fun and free new program called Agents of Discovery. It's an app designed to encourage families to get out into nature. Download the Agents of Discovery app to your phone and let it guide you on a nature "mission" around Tacoma Nature Center's trails and grounds.
To see what it's all about, I took my 10-year-old son and his friend to try out a recent mission called "Wake Up Winter." As we walked the trails around the center, an animated animal character called a Field Guide prompted us to complete up to 20 challenges.
The Agents of Discovery app can be downloaded to your device before you arrive at the Nature Center, or you can get the wifi code to use if you prefer to install the app on the spot. Note: it's pretty sizable so you'll need space on your phone.
Once the app is downloaded, you will no longer need data or wifi. Bonus: If you don't have a smart phone or don't want to download the app, there are six smartphones available to check out for free — though these are only available during the center's open hours (see below), whereas you can download the app and do the mission on your own phone outside of open hours.
To orient you, the app offers a “training camp” that is fun to do, but not necessary before hitting the trail. If you use your own device, I recommend doing the training on the way in or beforehand at home as it takes a few minutes.
To begin, just start walking! Our mission included 19 challenges and took us through the lower and upper bridge loop trails. Every few minutes, the app beeped, signalling us to stop and do a challenge. Challenges included a variety of activities such as multiple choice nature questions, an audio clip of birdsong for matching a picture of a bird to its call, spotting salamander eggs in the lake from the bridge and even a game in which we swiped the phone screen to “catch” bees.
Once we answered a challenge correctly (you can try more than once), an arrow in the app indicated where to go next. Once we'd answered several questions correctly, we earned "USBees," the game’s currency, which can be used to “buy” fun add-ons. For example, we got a soundboard we used to listen to a variety of animal sounds. When you finish the whole mission, return to the front desk and collect a prize.
In completing the mission, we walked about a mile and a half total and the trail was easy to navigate with almost no elevation change. Although trails around the center are not paved, they're well groomed and would accommodate an all-terrain stroller.
Overall, I felt this activity was a great way to keep kids going on a nature walk. Having a screen involved may work well to entice reluctant explorers out onto the trails. The 10-year-old boys who accompanied me felt the challenges were too easy; ideal ages for this activitiy are probably about 3 to 8, depending on your kids. If you can prevent fighting over the phone (or bring more than one?), an Agents of Discovery mission could be a good fit for a family or group with a variety of ages of kids.
Tips for parents
- Make sure that your phone’s GPS is turned on.
- A few times the app's arrow pointed us toward the lake or toward what was obviously not a trail. When I asked the staff about this, I was told that occasionally the app will detect a challenge on the other side of the lake. Just ignore these as there are no challenges off of the main trail.
- At one point, we crossed over a short section we had already walked to get to the next loop of the trail. Two questions we had already answered popped up, making us worried that we were headed the wrong way. But as we moved forward, the new ones came up and we were able to do the rest of the challenges and finish all 19.
- No pets or bicycles are allowed on the trails.
- After we finished the hike, my kids loved the Discovery Pond Play Area right in front of the Nature Center building. The play structures are natural and unconventional, including a slide made from a hollow log, a treehouse and log bridge over the pond among others.
Current and upcoming missions
A new mission is unveiled every other month and each mission features a new theme, a new Field Agent character and a different collectable prize.
- Through April 30: “Earth Day Special Mission at the Tacoma Nature Center.” Learn about the origins of Earth Day and about nature’s Superheros. Also get tips on how to make a difference for our planet.
- May 1–June 30: “Sense the Spring”
- July 1–Aug. 31: “Savor the Summer”
- Sept. 1–Nov. 30: “Fly into Fall”
If you go...
Hours: The Center is open Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m., if you want to borrow a phone, ask questions or use the restroom. Trails around the center are open daily 8 a.m. until 30 minutes after sunset so you can try out a mission on a Sunday or when the Center is closed.
Cost: The Agents of Discovery app is free to download and there is no admission fee to the Center, though a suggested donation of $3 per family or $10/large group is greatly appreciated.
Parking: Parking at the Center is very limited; try to carpool.
Contact: Call the Center with questions about using the app at 253-404-3930.
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