Kids inspect the tree canopy with their Tacoma Nature Center guide on the Family Nature Experience. Credit: Devon Hammer
These days, I jump at any opportunity for hands-on learning — ideally outside of our home, with anyone but me as the educator. The virtual school experience has been a struggle for both my kindergartener and me, and unfortunately, some of the magic and fun of learning has been lost.
So I look for “field trips” to break up the monotony of online school and to reignite a love of learning in my son. Tacoma Nature Center’s new COVID-friendly private programs are the perfect antidote to virtual school burnout. Learning in person with an enthusiastic teacher was just what we needed. The kids learned a lot and we all had fun doing it.
Tacoma Nature Center
Tacoma Nature Center is a nature preserve run by Metro Parks Tacoma. The facility includes a learning center, a trail system, a lake and a play area. This spot has been an outing on my “need-to-go” list for quite a while, knowing my kids would love the nature-themed Discovery Pond play area.
Pre-COVID, TNC offered all sorts of fun nature-based events and programs. Like so many organizations, the staff have responded creatively and introduced two new private family experiences. These programs aim to serve area families and comply with current restrictions designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Recently my kids and I attended both new programs, Family Nature Experience and Turtle Time. The Turtle Time program is an indoor experience so it was suspended during the last shutdown. With the recent ease on COVID restrictions, it has opened back up! We did both programs back-to-back which I recommend!
Nature walk experience
Along with another mom in our pod and our crew of kids, ages 2–5, we showed up excited to learn at Tacoma Nature Center at our appointment time. All wearing our masks, of course, we began by meeting our educator, Lauren, who read us a story about the animals we hoped to encounter on our walk. (For us this was indoors, but for future bookings, this part may take place outside.)
Then, armed with laminated field guides, one of which was ours to keep, we set off toward Snake Lake, hoping to see or hear all the animals listed on the cards.
We rolled over logs, stopped to listen to sounds, looked up in the trees and checked out plants and organisms we may not have otherwise noticed. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and answered any questions — even tougher ones posed by the moms.
Our guide also brought lots of fun and energy. Our kids loved her awesome trail games. These games helped keep our group of young kids engaged the whole time. (I also noted them for use on future hikes!) The highlight for everyone was spotting a wild turtle in the pond. Lucky us.
Discovery Pond play area
We made sure to save time to explore TNC's Discovery Pond natural play area, and the kids absolutely loved it. I found the natural elements of the play area to be unique among the playgrounds on our usual route, typically featuring large plastic climbing structures. Those are good, too, but Discovery Pond presents a refreshing alternative.
Kids can climb on logs, crawl through a hollowed-out tree tunnel, cross a pond and more.
Turtle Time was previously suspended due to COVID restrictions but it is back! Families can book either field trip experience or both together.
After a snack break, we got to meet Ella the Box turtle, a Tacoma Nature Center resident. We watched her eat a snack and try to crawl away, and we all had a chance to give her a pet. This was a huge highlight for everyone in our group!
We also got to meet and feed the small resident animals of the Nature Center. It was a real behind-the-scenes moment and the kids were delighted to help care for the animals. We ended the program with a fun turtle-themed craft the kids got to take home.
The bottom line
I was thrilled with both programs and so was my mom friend who accompanied us. We have plans to go back to the Nature Center soon. Each program ran about an hour.
At our booking, staff asked the ages of our kids and I found the material and pace of activities to be well-suited to our age group. COVID precautions in place were thorough and we felt very safe the whole time.
Our guide blew us away with her exuberance for teaching and her ability to keep all the kids engaged. It was so encouraging, but also a bit heartbreaking, to watch my kindergartener light up when engaging with a real-live teacher. This experience reminded me that my son isn’t struggling as a learner in general, he is only struggling as a virtual learner.
I left feeling so grateful for the experience and I hope more places follow Tacoma Nature Center’s lead and offer similar types of COVID-safe programs. Our kids need this now.
If you go...
Find it: Tacoma Nature Center is located at 1919 S. Tyler St. in Tacoma. On the grounds, you'll find the Tacoma Nature Center building (temporarily closed), Discovery Pond play area, Snake Lake and two miles of nature trails.
Hours: You need to book the Family Nature Experience and Turtle Time ahead of time. Available times are Monday–Friday at 3 or 4 p.m., plus additional times on Fridays of 9, 10 or 11 a.m. Book at least 48 hours in advance.
Cost: $35 for up to five people (max.) for each experience; discount available for TNC members.
Group size: Maximum group size is five people from the same family or pod.
Safety protocols: Masks are required for the duration of the program. Temperatures are taken upon arrival, hand sanitizer is readily available and your info will be taken for potential contact tracing, if needed. (And it's worth noting that protocols could change again.)
Parking: There is a large lot directly outside of the Tacoma Nature Center building and playground.
Restrooms: If you've booked the Family Nature Experience or Turtle Time, you will be able to use the onsite restrooms. Note that if you're just visiting the play area or trails on your own, there is no restroom available.
What to bring: Pack a water bottle and a snack for younger kids and dress for the weather.
More ways to visit Tacoma Nature Center: