Play rather than "plug in" at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

by Jennie Vasarhelyi | Cuyahoga Valley National Park Published:

During my childhood in the 1970s, summer offered endless hours of free time for unstructured play and exploration. I did not live near a park, let alone a national park, but loved following the local creek through my neighborhood. It wasn't a very natural creek; concrete channels and culverts made up much of its length. Yet, it was a place for discovery, where I could hunt for minnows, tadpoles, and other creatures.

I have fond memories of my childhood and want my children to have similar experiences. It has become harder. Children can make playing with electronics their go-to activity. Parents are less comfortable letting their children wander too far. Yet, we can still find opportunities to play outside, while taking a break from plugging in. This article offers suggestions for connecting to nature and your family in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

1. Play in a field. Many of the field experiences that children have today involve organized sports. In contrast, the grassy fields in Cuyahoga Valley National Park invite unstructured play. The Civilian Conservation Corps built large fields -- which they called "playfields"­ -- in Virginia Kendall Park in the 1930s. The playfields offer plenty of space to fly a kite and play tag.

Playfields are adjacent to the Ledges and Octagon parking lots. While there, pause to notice how the playfields used picturesque design principles popular at the time when they were built. The principles included curved lines (such as along the tree line at the edge of the playfield), untrimmed vegetation, and rolling terrain. These design elements come across as natural, but are very much a human creation.

2. Host a picnic. As a parent, I find that some of the best free play happens when my family just takes time to linger without trying to follow a strict schedule. A picnic can get the entire family outside together with time to spare while charcoal heats up. The Ledges and Octagon playfields are anchored by picnic shelters constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. They can which can be rented for a fee through www.recreation.gov. Individual picnic tables with grills are also available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. The park website has a list of picnic tables by location at www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/picnicking-in-the-park.

3. Enjoy a concert at Music in the Meadow. Howe Meadow, the park's special events site, is another grassy field that invites play while enjoying events that occur there. The park offers Music in the Meadow as a free concert series on six Wednesdays in the summer. Concerts start at 6:30 p.m., but we encourage people to arrive at 5:30 p.m. to play lawn games (equipment provided) and make a musical craft. Our 2014 series includes:

• June 25 -- Carlos Jones & the PLUS Band, reggae

• July 9 -- Pitch the Peat, Celtic

• July 23 -- Mo'Mojo, Cajun

• Aug. 6 -- Cletus Black Revue, blend of rock, blues, jazz, and pop

• Aug. 13 -- Tylan & Ingrid and The Laura Love Duo, Americana and a blend of funk, folk, pop, bluegrass, jazz, and country

4. Bicycle to the Village of Boston. A bicycle ride along the Towpath Trail can be playful, especially if you take the time to watch for wildlife along the way. Counting turtles sunning themselves on the logs or listening for frogs is certainly fun. As with picnicking, taking time to relax and linger makes the day even more pleasurable. The Village of Boston is a wonderful destination for doing so. Boston Store Visitor Center is a place to get park information. You can also just hang out, playing checkers or sitting in a rocking chair on the shady wrap-around porch. Trail Mix in Boston, operated by the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, sells ice cream, snacks, and light meals. Local artists display their work through the Art @ M.D. Garage on weekends.

5. Earn a Junior Ranger Badge. The park offers numerous ways for children to earn a Junior Ranger Badge through playful, hands-on exploration of nature and other interesting aspects of the park. We offer a series of ranger-led programs and self-guided activities, described online at www.nps.gov/cuva/forkids/beajuniorranger. One of my favorite aspects of the Junior Ranger Program is our Junior Ranger, Jr. cards for pre-readers. They provide tips for parents to prompt their kids to try playful activities. For example, a card about coyotes suggests that kids practice howling and yipping like a coyote, look for coyote scat (i.e. poop), and imagine hunting for mice and rabbits. The cards are available for free at Boston Store Visitor Center.

If you need assistance on getting started with any of these ideas, staff and volunteers are ready to help at Boston Store Visitor Center (1550 Boston Mills Road, east of Riverview Road in Peninsula). It is open daily during summer from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also call 330-657-2752.

Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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