I am so good at taking my kids on nature walks. That is, until they’re about 2 years old, at which point my fluency with such nature terms as “tree,” “bush” and “flower” is no longer adequate. “What’s that?” my 2-year-old will ask. “Oh, a bug,” I will confidently say. “What kind bug?” And then unless it’s a ladybug, I’m out of luck.
Luckily, the Portland area is teeming not only with bugs, but also with people who are knowledgeable about them. So I decided to take my bug-crazy son on one of Portland Parks and Recreation’s Ladybug Walks.
The location of the walks — which run from March to November — change weekly. The week we went, we toured Columbia Children’s Arboretum in Northeast Portland. We had never been, and my 2-year-old and I were eager to explore the small pond, tall trees and meandering dirt paths.
We were met at the entrance to the park by two trained preschool naturalists. After signing us in, the guides quickly set about equipping the children with their very own ladybug backpacks. Inside was everything your child could need for a morning of exploration, including a magnifying glass, a spoon for digging, a paint brush for more careful excavation, a magnifying glass and a small box with a magnifying glass lid to more carefully examine collected treasures.
Thus equipped, we split into two groups and headed out for a slow tour of the park. And I do mean slow. The deliberate pace is meant to keep the target audience (ages 2 to 5) engaged, but not too worn out. I would estimate that we walked about a half mile during our hour-long visit.
During our meandering, we stopped frequently. We observed acorns strewn across the grass, collecting them and exploring their textures through magnifying glasses. We watched dandelion spores soar through the air. We spent long stretches digging in the dirt, looking to see what might lie underneath.
Everyday objects in nature suddenly became fascinating. “Look!” a girl cried. “A worm!” Everyone swarmed, eager to catch a look. “Look at this leaf!” cried another girl, viewing the intricate webbing through her magnifying glass for the first time.
As we went along, the children’s questions were often directed back to them by our guide. “What do we need our paint brushes for?” One boy asked. “I wonder,” the naturalist replied. “What do you think you could do with a paintbrush here?” “Maybe we could paint with water!” a girl replied. “That’s an interesting idea! Let’s look for some water,” the naturalist responded. Though the intended purpose was more likely to brush dirt off of a delicate item, that didn’t matter. The kids made the rules here.
For more straightforward questions, our guide was quick with answers. She knew the bird we heard based only on its call (osprey) and even the type of nest perched in the tree (bald-faced hornet). And yes, we even saw a ladybug. (Though I knew that one.)
Given our slow pace, our tour ending up going a bit over the hour mark. Families who needed to leave were welcome to head back on their own. As we walked back toward the car, I asked my son what his favorite part was. “Ladybug backpack!” he replied without hesitation.
The backpack was pretty cool, but it wasn’t my favorite part. For me, it was seeing the joy and excitement on my son’s face as he was given the time to take in the world around him on his own terms. It was a lovely way to spend an hour, disconnected from my phone and connected to my son and the natural world.
The Ladybug Walks are offered every Friday from mid-February until November at parks across Portland. You can check out their schedule here.
Recommended ages are 2 to 5.
The cost is $4 per child. Adults are free.
Pro tips: Although the walks are only an hour, your kids will still likely work up an appetite. Snacks and drinks are welcome. Dress your child and yourself to get dirty!
Looking for more nature walks? Check these out:
- Friends of Tryon Creek: tryonfriends.org/calendar
- Tillamook Forest Center: tillamookforestcenter.org/calendar
- Forest Park Conservancy: forestparkconservancy.org
- Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District: cdn1.thprd.org/activities/nature/guided-group-activities
- Friends of the Columbia Gorge: gorgefriends.nonprofitsoapbox.com/hikes
- Metro: oregonmetro.gov/parks/nature-education
Many walks are accessible by public transportation. These walks are clearly marked on the Ladybug Walk homepage with the word “BUS,” with the bus lines listed. You may need to walk a few blocks from the stop to reach the destination — think of it as your warm-up!