After two years of living in a global pandemic, we are still searching for the best ways to protect our families. And one thing that everyone agrees on is that outdoor activities are safest (besides movie night on your couch). Families in Eugene and Springfield are lucky to have an organization like Nearby Nature right in our backyard, which offers loads of affordable outdoor programming year-round.

They are based in Alton Baker park, and I will link their website below because I simply don’t have the space to cover everything they do – summer camps, field trip programs, and even their famous Halloween Haunted Hike are among the offerings. I discovered Nearby Nature through a friend. She began taking my then 3-year-old, Lydi, to “Green Start Play Days,” which happen on the second Tuesday each month to get Lydi out of the house after the baby was born. (Mom friends are the best, man.)

Green Start Play Days are designed to get the smallest adventurers among us (up to age five) outside and exploring nature. They happen rain or shine. After several months of Lydi coming home bursting with stories, I joined them one Tuesday morning, baby in tow. I loved the self-guided, unstructured format. And also, if anyone has a tantrum, you’re really just in the woods, and the squirrels don’t judge you. At least not openly.

You arrive at a designated time and are treated to three different self-guided activities that share a theme. Your family gets fifteen minutes at each little station, and you can use that time however you (or your kiddo) sees fit. Which I think is brilliant for this age group. Nearby Nature leaves you a detailed whiteboard with all the instructions necessary to complete the activity or craft. Along with all the supplies you could possibly need. From there, your family takes the lead.

So if your child thrives on completing tasks, you can follow the directions and easily meet with success together. Or if you have a child who enjoys going rogue and uses the supplies as a jumping-off point for a completely different way to play – that is also accepted and encouraged. A good example of this is five minutes into our gnome scavenger hunt last week; the kids decided to pretend to be kitties running through the forest together for a while.

This brings us to our visit last Tuesday. The first activity was “Find that Gnome!”. We were given a laminated sheet that helped us find different gnomes and fairies on the trail while teaching us the names of various local plants. As I just said, the kids stayed on track for a little while, then pretended to be kitties, and then one of them had a meltdown and needed to go to the bathroom. But in this unstructured setting – all of this is okay. Parents and kids alike feel very comfortable here.

The next activity was “Create Earth Art,” and huge boxes of natural materials were left out. The kids were encouraged to build sculptures, swellings, or abstract art with huge pieces of driftwood, shells, pine cones, rocks, and lichen. The family before us left a beautiful mandala-looking creation on the ground made out of rocks, pine cones, and shells. This family was clearly more skilled than our crew, and we enjoyed the inspiration. Lydi was delighted that the large pieces of driftwood were much lighter than she thought. She spent lots of time holding them over her head and laughing. And Lily made a shell creation and used a small piece of driftwood to dig all around it.

Around this time, Grace, the Garden and Program Manager, stopped by to see how we were doing. She was delightful—precisely the type of person you’d imagine who would manage a garden and nature programming. We chatted about how Nearby Nature, like the rest of society, has remained flexible during Covid. And how so many families depend on them for an interactive learning experience in a screen-filled educational landscape.

Oh! And then we spotted a Stellar’s jay hopping around under a pine tree looking for food. I was thrilled. They’re so cool! The kids did not share my enthusiasm (maybe one day) and were eager to begin to keep going.

Our last activity was “Make a Forest Fairy or a Gnome.” We were provided with bins full of natural materials such as pine cones, walnut shells, and corn husks, as well as less natural materials like pipe cleaners and googly eyes. One of the kids tried her best to copy the example provided, and the other made a huge stack of walnut shells dripping with glue. Both kids were proud of their creations.

It was an enjoyable morning. So fun, in fact, that we had one more tantrum for the road because Lydi didn’t want to leave. Why not?

What I appreciate the most about this program is how accessible it makes to experience nature. Listen, I love nature. I have a degree in wildlife conservation. I met my husband in a class called “Ecosystem Management.” That being said: venturing into the woods with children can be a bit much. It takes planning and snacks, and patience. And I don’t do it enough. Okay, ever. So I am very grateful to Nearby Nature for creating programming that helps my kids appreciate the natural world without stressing me out. I don’t think you can ask for more.

Green Start Play Days happen the first Tuesday of every month. It’s $7 per family and free for members. Register in advance here. And you should check out all the other programming Nearby Nature offers. There is something for everyone.