We want our kids to be outside kids. It seems natural, healthy, and generally like it would be a good thing for them in the long term. The thing is, we aren’t overly outside adults. I mean, we’ve always enjoyed a hike, we used to cycle a fair bit, and since the boys could walk we’ve made our rounds of the city playgrounds for sure… but we aren’t ‘outdoorsy’ the way that some families are. I admire these families and at times I wonder if their kids will get a fuller childhood from their closer connection to the outdoors. I don’t know much about tree species, or animals, or how weather actually works really. Most of my outdoor knowledge comes from watching Bear Grylls do things outside while I watch on tv from inside. So how do you pass on something to your children, that you don’t quite have to pass?
Well, first you take the kids outside. That part seems obvious, easy, and free. And we’ve done this plenty. Peppa Pig has taught us the joys of jumping up and down in muddy puddles. We’ve wandered riversides, we’ve watched the ducks, we’ve hiked many a trail, and it is all good. It’s all a step in the right direction. Yet it doesn’t feel like enough; it’s not the immersive, formative influence I’m yearning for. Not that a wander in the forest is ever a letdown by any means, but I still wanted to take things further.
So this spring Jessica and I got an annual day use permit for all Ontario Provincial Parks. It grants you, and those in your vehicle, daily entrance to all the province parks for the entire year. With over 330 Provincial Parks (Ontario is a big place – I just read somewhere that the province of Ontario is larger than countries of France and Germany combined! Who knew?) throughout the province we will spend years exploring and while we only made it to a handful with the boys this summer, we loved all the parks we visited.
But do you know what I really loved? The Ontario Parks Discovery Program. I feel like this program was specifically made for my family. Now I also happened to read at a park this summer that the Discovery Program traces it’s roots to back to 1944 when staff at Algonquin Park hired someone to guide a hike for visitors… so with 75 years of history, I’m probably wrong about it being specifically designed for us, but it sure feels like it was.
The Discovery Program was exactly what I was looking for for our boys. A full schedule of events and experiences planned and presented by a dedicated team of outdoor professionals that know their stuff and know how to get anyone engaged and involved. See, Jessica and are such newbs when it comes to outdoors stuff, that it can all seem a little overwhelming. We’ve got our pass, and we’ve gotten ourselves to a park, but now what? I still don’t really have a clue as to what I’m doing, you know? Well, the Discovery staff have got your back!
Case in point, this August, we booked a camp cabin at Pinery Provincial Park near Grand Bend. For those unfamiliar with what a camp cabin is, check out our post from Arrowhead Provincial Park last winter; our cabin at the Pinery was very similar. The cabin is key for novices like us because it lets you focus on your time at the park, instead of facing the reality that you have no idea how to actually camp. The cabin has comfy beds, a screened porch, a fridge, a bbq, electricity, and bathrooms nearby. I’m really glad that is how we stayed too, because it turned out, there was plenty to do at the park over the few days we were there.
The first morning of our stay a naturalist gave a chat aimed for little ones called “Eagles, Lizards and Snakes, Oh My!” in the kid’s program area of the park. This kind of thing is just what I was looking for for the boys. Now at 18 months, Tom is still on the small side for this, but at 3 1/2, Henry is just soaking it up, and Jessica and I can too, right alongside him. That same night another naturalist gave another talk about all the species of animals that have thrived in the park since the age of dinosaurs. Pro tip here, if you want to make anything more interesting to children like our Henry, include dinosaurs! Again, the combination of knowledge and toddler-engagement skills of the speakers here is really impressive.
Now, engaging chats aside, the real highlight for our gang was the next afternoon – “Ooze and Gooze”! Even just hearing the name you know it’s going to be good, right? Park staff were on hand at the edge of Old Ausable Channel, pants rolled up, ready to get into the mud with us as they told us all about the aquatic life and history of the river. Talk about getting that immersive experience I was looking for! A new experience? Check. Muddy fun? Check. Lasting memories? Check!!
See, after giving it some thought on the drive home, the thing I most love about the Discovery Program is that you really just need to show up. The rest is taken care of. The staff is great, the content is engaging (for grown ups and kids) and it feels communal. There are other families right there too, some more outdoorsy than us, but plenty of fellow novices too. It’s a place to get comfortable outside and to know that you are giving your kids something more than you could on your own. That makes me really happy.
Since returning home, I looked more into the Discovery Program and found that while we focused on what was best suited for our young kids, the program has a ridiculously wide range of options aside from the children’s programs, including canoe hikes, staff-led guided hikes, theatrical evening programs, and bioblitzes… sounds like as the boys continue to grow, there will always be plenty to discover on our next visit.
*This time around, our stay at Pinery was part of a partnership with Ontario Parks, but my thoughts regarding their amazing Discovery Program are completely mine!