Exploring nature with a little help

If your parents are always shooing you outside in nice weather, there’s more to it than “getting some fresh air.”

Young visitors exploring some fun outdoor spots had a few ideas.

“If kids learn about nature, they won’t be scared of things,” said Keira Slocum, 7, as she used a net to explore a pond. “Sometimes you get to get dirty, too.”

For Sasha Rosenbaum, 11, getting out in nature is simply “good exercise and loads of fun!”

Scientists have found that outdoor activities even help your decision-making, your self-confidence and your ability to observe things.

You can see goats walking across a high wooden bridge at the Voorhees Nature Preserve. (Ann Cameron Siegal/For The Washington Post)

Wow. And you thought you were just hunting for fireflies.

Where else can I go?

If you’re looking for places to explore beyond your neighborhood, the recently updated Nature Rocks Web site, www.naturerocks.org, will get you headed in the right direction. The site was designed by the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting important plant and animal habitats on land and in water.

Hiking? Fishing? Maybe you just want to find a waterside picnic spot. Your parents just type in a Zip code and — poof! — nearby choices are displayed.

Outings can be filtered by ages of participants, weather forecast, time available or type of activity sought.

What will I see and do?

It depends on how good a nature detective you are. You might see an eagle soaring overhead or a blue heron stalking fish. You might observe rabbits, foxes or beavers in the wild or catch a glimpse of an elusive salamander.

Enjoy some quiet time as you look closely at wildflowers or lichens (organisms made up of algae and fungi). Listen for singing birds or flowing water . . . or simply savor the sound of silence.

What will I find nearby?

The Nature Conservancy has many places worth visiting. Bill Kittrell of the Conservancy’s Virginia chapter calls them “a window to the magic of nature for kids who are curious about the world.”

Let’s peek at a few that you can find on the Web site.

It’s important to take a trail map with you on these hikes because there may be no one on-site to guide you. Your parents can find maps and directions for these and other sites by visiting: www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/index.htm.

Some places have downloadable “Naturalist in Your Pocket” podcasts to take with you.

Bear Island

(Maryland side of Great Falls; access is from the C&O Canal towpath)

Hiking this most challenging part of the Billy Goat Trail requires scrambling over huge rocks, but you’re rewarded with incredible views of the Potomac River Gorge and its 70-foot-tall cliffs.

Sasha Rosenbaum celebrated her birthday here recently on the rugged hike with family and friends. Sasha didn’t hesitate as she climbed up and over the rocky landscape, far above the river. She saw signs that her path was underwater millions of years ago. For example, the tremendous force of swirling water created “potholes” as small stones, acting like high-powered drills, bored holes in the huge boulders. Today those potholes provide homes for frogs and aquatic insects.

Fraser Preserve

(near Great Falls, Virginia)

This 220-acre site is perfect for viewing contrasts in nature. The peaceful woodland setting connects to a meandering riverside trail along a narrow, quiet section of the Potomac River. But along the way you’ll pass huge trees toppled by the derecho (that’s a major straight-line windstorm) that slammed this area last summer. Massive exposed root systems provide hundreds of niches where insects can live and birds can drop seeds. Definitely worth a close-up look!

Battle Creek Cypress Swamp

(near Prince Frederick, Maryland)

These trees have knees. A short boardwalk winds through the forested wetland for close-up views of bald cypress trees surrounded by small cone-shaped stumps (knees). Part of the root system, knees are thought to help anchor the trees in the soft muddy soil. Bald cypress are the oldest trees on the Atlantic Coast. If you go, look for one estimated to be more than 500 years old. Be sure to check out the nature center there to see an albino snapping turtle — one of only eight white-skinned, pink-eyed snappers known.

Voorhees Nature Preserve

(near Colonial Beach, Virginia)

Voorhees recently reopened after storm damage closed it in 2011. Located on the grounds of the Westmoreland Berry Farm, it offers a moderately steep, narrow dirt path that brings you to a view of the Rappahannock River. Take time to enjoy the farm’s grounds, or see goats walking across a high wooden bridge.

Furnace Town

(near Salisbury, Maryland)

Combine a bit of history with a nature hike at Furnace Town — a re-created 1820s iron-ore village near Snow Hill — and the adjacent Nassawango Creek Preserve, which is a great place for quiet canoeing or kayaking.

Ann Cameron Siegal

Navigating through nature

●Trail markers don’t just prevent you from getting lost. They are designed to show you things and help you avoid trampling over sensitive plant and animal habitats. So, act like a detective and follow the markers!

●Always carry water, and never hike alone.

●Pack binoculars and a magnifying glass to get close-up views of birds and insects.

●Bring a first-aid kit, just in case.

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