Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix is a beautifully-written investigation into nature’s restorative benefits for children and adults alike. Accessible, at times funny, science-writing combined with both history and hope for the future make this a must-read.
For our children, who are, in William’s words, “by nature, exploratory, kinetic and full of wonder, all qualities enhanced by time outside,” the advice to get out in nature is at once timely and urgent: for our children’s brains, their developing eye sight, their development of empathy, their sense of self, their emotional well-being, even their creativity.
In one chapter, Williams interviews Park Bum-Jin, professor at the Lab of Forest Environment and Human Health at Chungnam National University in Korea, who compares nature time to eating healthy foods, when compared to the addictive screens to which children are glued hour upon hour every day; “… time spent in the forest is not more interesting than video games, like fruit is not more delicious than junk food. We cannot make them stop playing games. As we get older, we have a tipping point in judgment that we need more fruits than junk food. As far as some time in forest, they can’t play games during that time. As long as playing in forest is just fun itself, it can make that tipping point come earlier.”
While we certainly can (and should) limit our children’s access to screens during the day, the view of balance is perhaps more important; making time for nature now can develop good habits, memories, and feelings that will keep our children coming back again and again throughout their lives, in turn making them healthier and happier.
Below are some wonderful nature areas to explore around St. Louis. So grab your water bottle and a comfortable pair of walking shoes, and hit the trails with your children!
Photo credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Lone Elk Park
This 546-acre wildlife management area is home to elk, bison, deer, wild turkey, and water fowl. There is a driving route that allows visitors to enjoy the view from their vehicles, but get out and try the 3.2-mile hike around the main lake, where you are sure to spot plenty of animals. Just be aware that no domestic animals are allowed, not even if confined to the car. One down side: if you hike during the winter and spring months when the leaves have not yet filled in the woods, you can spot the parking lot and roads from the trails – which sometimes makes you feel like you’re not truly out in nature. Also, be prepared for some very steep climbs, as the trail ventures up and down consistently throughout!
Powder Valley Nature Center and Conservation
Located in Kirkwood, this 112-acre conservation of oak hickory forest is perfect for all abilities, and is a great way to introduce hiking to little ones. The longest trail is a 1.2-mile loop, and all trails are paved. Their indoor nature center is amazing, so be sure to check it out, especially on a rainy day!
Elephant Rocks State Park
This impressive, easy hike boasts a visual feast for the eyes. Giant, elephant-shaped granite boulders that were formed from 1.5 billion year old granite are a wonderful novelty for children to climb on and around. The park itself is situated on 7.5 acres. On the uppermost boulders (shown above), children can often find tadpoles in the small rainwater pools. The views from the top are amazing, and there is a picnic area and swings near the parking area. Plan to spend the entire morning exploring!
A true St. Louis gem and voted by many as the “Best City Park in America,” Forest Park makes up 1,300 acres and includes five major cultural institutions, including St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Science Center, the MUNY, the Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Zoo. But don’t forget that there is also plenty of nature and wildlife to enjoy, so be sure to drop by for a leisurely walk around the ponds, fields, and woods!
Laumeier Sculpture Park
This special gem is not only for the art-minded (but it certainly doesn’t hurt)! The many outdoor sculptures and exhibits line a nice easy 1.4-mile hike though the woods and grounds. There’s even a little creek meandering through, which children will love to toss stones into!
Photo credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge
Located across the Missouri River in Calhoun County, this 9,225-acre refuge is a stopping place for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, and encompasses wetlands, open water, bottomland forests, and prairies. Choose from four different hiking trails, and check out the opportunities for canoeing and kayaking on Swan Lake. Bring your binoculars and reference this bird siting map. Enter 1 Hagen Road, Brussels, IL to find driving directions.
Photo credit: Gateway Off-Road Cyclists
Castlewood State Park
This large, 1,818-acre plot of land has hiking and biking trails throughout, in proximity to the Meramec River. It is considered one of the best mountain-biking locations in St. Louis. Be aware that if you go to hike, you will most likely be sharing the trail with bikes!
Shaw Nature Reserve
Located on 2,400 acres in Gray Summit, MO, Shaw Nature Reserve boasts prairie, woodland, wetland, and trails, and even has a “Nature Classroom,” which consists of play structures, open-parts play, climbing structures, and even musical instruments made from natural materials for children of all ages. It’s also a great place to meet up for an off-campus play date!
Last, but not least, don’t forget that a little dirt (or a lot of dirt, in this case) doesn’t hurt!