Kids Learn About the Great Outdoors

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By Jennifer Lehner You and the kids may be dyed-in-the-wool urbanites, but come summer, that doesn't mean that you don't crave cooling ocean breezes and sand between your toes, yearn for the chance to break out binoculars (you just have to find them first) and gaze up at the stars, and desperately want to set up a tent somewhere other than your coop's living room. Here's how you can get out of your walk-up and into the New York City "wilderness" as soon as the weather warms. CAMPING COOLEST CAMPING FOR KIDS Fridays and Saturdays in July and August, families can join the Urban Park Rangers ( for an overnight camping experience in New York City. The night includes a cookout and other evening activities like stargazing, nocturnal walks, orienteering, nature crafts, campfires, fishing and bird-watching. The program is free, but registration is required and campers are chosen by a lottery system. Participating locations include: Van Cortlandt Park | Bronx Marine Park | Brooklyn Central Park | Manhattan Alley Pond Park | Queens High Rock Park | Staten Island MOST MAGICAL STARGAZING The city that never sleeps is not the ideal venue for aspiring astronomers, but there are still a couple of places that offer the least light pollution-perfect for spotting shooting stars. Floyd Bennett Field | Gateway NationalRecreation Center | Brooklyn Great Kills Park | Staten Island BEST PLACE TO SNOOZE WITH ANIMALS Family Overnight Safari | Bronx Zoo This popular family event books up early and features a picnic dinner, hands-on animal experiences, scavenger hunts, games, sing-alongs, guided walks and a sea lion wake-up call. NATURE BEST FOR BIRD-WATCHING Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Gateway National Recreation Area | Queens Look for long-legged waders like egrets, herons and ibises; shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers; and a variety of songbirds such as olive-sided flycatchers and blue grosbeaks at this bird sanctuary-one of the largest in the northeastern United States. MOST MAGNIFICENT TREE Magnolia Tree Earth Center | Brooklyn The 40-foot Magnolia grandiflora at this nature center was declared a living landmark in 1970 and is an excellent way to teach your kids about the importance of trees (and sadly, their rarity) in urban landscapes. PERFECT RAINY DAY ACTIVITY IN CENTRAL PARK Charles A. Dana Discovery CenterCentral Park | Manhattan The kids had their heart set on exploring Central Park, but it's raining cats and dogs. Now what? Dash between the raindrops to the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center for a perfect (not to mention, dry) view of the 11-acre Harlem Meer and learn all about the wildlife found there, including great egrets, cormorants and bullfrogs. BEST NATURE CENTER IN DISGUISE The Henry Luce Nature Observatory atBelvedere Castle, Central Park | Manhattan From this vantage point, you can view migrating hawks and monarch butterflies, turtles sunning themselves on pond rocks and birds flitting about the Ramble. Plus, there's plenty to see inside the Woodlands and Water Discovery Room. OLDIE BUT A GOODIE Alley Pond EnvironmentalCenter, Alley Pond Park | Queens Tucked inside the 635-acre Alley Pond Park, this nature center-which opened in the '70s- was one of the city's first of its kind. Its Animal Room lets kids get up close and personal with the likes of Bernie the Corn Snake, Loke the Prairie Dog and Henry the Ring-Necked Dove. It boasts a myriad of family programs, including nature walks on the Alley Pond Nature Trail, nature photography classes, animal care training and stargazing workshops. GREAT FOR BAT-WATCHING Bats abound in the city, but during the day they stay tucked away, hanging upside down and hiding from predators. The best time to see them is in the summertime at dusk, especially on humid evenings. Here's where to go to catch a glimpse of these furry, flying creatures: The Gerritsen Creek Nature Trail Marine Park | Brooklyn The Great Hill, Central Park | Manhattan Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Gateway National Recreational Area | Queens Spring Pond, Blue Heron Park | Staten Island THE BEST OF BOTANICAL GARDENS New York Botanical Garden | Bronx Oh, the many reasons to visit this massive, gorgeous garden this summer: the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the country's largest Victorian glasshouse; the Everett Children's Adventure Garden featuring a boulder maze, hedge maze, a natural wetland and Discovery Center; and the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden-where kids can dig, plant and grow in one of the many hands-on gardening activities on offer. Brooklyn Botanic Garden | Brooklyn This oasis is home to the country's longest operating children's garden (it opened in 1914), and its 52 acres are the perfect size to explore with young ones. Go in June, when the Cranford Rose Garden's blooms are at their most magnificent. Queens Botanical Garden | Queens The Bee Garden houses plants and trees that attract bees or flavor honey-if nothing else, it provides an ample opportunity to have that proverbial talk with your kids (wink, nudge). The shady Woodland Garden, with its woodchip-covered walking trails and streams, will make the whole fam forget that you're actually smack dab in the middle of Flushing. Snug Harbor Cultural Center andBotanical Garden | Staten Island Children will love the Connie Gretz Secret Garden, a charming space inspired by the 1911 children's classic of the same name featuring a turreted castle and a hedge maze leading to its very own secret, brick-walled garden of dogwoods, roses, and other blooming trees and flowers. MOST ECLECTIC COMMUNITY GARDEN Liz Christy Garden, Lower East Side | Manhattan Located on the northeast corner of Bowery and Houston Streets, the city's oldest community garden houses: a pond home to fish and red-eared slider turtles, a wildflower habitat, wooden furniture perfect for afternoon storytime, a grape arbor, a grove of weeping birch trees, fruit trees, a dawn redwood, vegetable gardens, berries, herbs and hundreds of flowers. After racking up 20 hours volunteering, your family is granted a key.

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