Are you vacationing in northeast Florida this season? This area contains some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, combined with great historical sites, recreational activities galore, and great places to stay for every budget. Come visit the most active eco-system on the planet, and help your children discover the wonder of nature all around them!
Before visiting the big amusement parks and other expensive venues, consider a family trip to the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine. Offering much, much more than its name suggests, this mini-zoo is one of the most incredible places you will ever see. If you visit between April and July, prepare yourself (with camera!) for the jaw-dropping spectacle of huge exotic birds -- spoonbills, ibis, wood storks, herons, and more -- nesting right at your eye level. You cross a wooden bridge above a swamp filled with alligators and find yourself in the midst of giant nests, often with young birds newly hatched from enormous eggs. These birds nest in ancient oak trees, the alligators protecting them from all creatures that might otherwise try to climb the trees.
While Mom and Dad might be even more awed by the rookery than their children, other exhibits at the Alligator Farm are tailored for the younger set. The 21-foot python, 18-foot crocodile, Komodo dragon, and Southern Cassowary ("the most dangerous bird in the world") appeal to the thrill-seekers; while the red ruffled lemurs, 5 species of monkeys, and talking macaw charm the soft-hearted. And everyone will enjoy the fossil exhibit, the Birds of Africa display, and the native Florida reptiles and amphibians.
When "museum fatigue" sets in, take the littler kids over to the playground and treat the bigger ones to a zip line ride. There are also shows and talks by the knowledgeable staff. All this, for about what your family would spend on a restaurant meal!
But what if your vacation budget for enjoying nature stands at about zero, and you still want to make this trip an unforgettable experience?
If you're staying on or near the beach (and how can you not be, on Florida's fabulous First Coast?!), Mother Nature has solved the problem for you. The seashore is an unending series of adventures and treasures, from shark's teeth buried in the sand to nesting turtles in the dunes. (Nesting sites are very protected, of course, but an early-morning walk on the beach often reveals tracks in the sand made by baby turtles going to the sea during the night!)
The Great Florida Birding Trail also runs along the coast, with migratory species as well as native birds. Even kids who have never given the sparrows and blue jays of home a second glance will notice the large, prehistoric-looking pelicans gliding overhead and dive-bombing into the waves to fish for their breakfast. And herons, egrets, and other larger species obligingly pose in quieter waters, so you don't even need binoculars.
Before you leave home, visit the library and check out a children's guide to wildlife identification. Many fine references are available, some with games and activities to make the process more fun. But you really don't need any "tools" beyond paper and crayons. For kids who love to count things, keep tallies of all the species you see. For young artists, plan drawing sessions around things you have seen, then display the pictures prominently -- on Facebook as well as "in person" in your vacation rental.
The digital camera is a fantastic tool for getting kids interested in the changes in the natural world. Give older kids the camera, set a kitchen timer or stopwatch, and have them take a picture of the sunset at regular intervals for 10 or 15 minutes. When they view the uploaded pictures in sequence, your kids can really see the subtle color changes. This is also fun to do with the coastline: mark a spot with a stick or rocks, then take a picture of the shore every day at the same time. Chances are your children will be able to spot many, many more differences from day to day than you will!
Tidepooling is another fun way to discover something about the ocean and have a great time doing it. At low tide, go down to the beach and explore the pools of water created by hollows and dips in the sand. Tiny fish are often to be found in these tidepools, as well as the occasional starfish, bits of seaweed, burrowing crabs, and more.
When your beach vacation comes to an end, let your children choose a few favorite artifacts to bring home with them. One or two spectacular shells, perhaps a crab claw or a few sea oats, an interesting stone, and a small sackful of beach sand are all easy to pack. And when you get home, find a pretty jar with a lid (or recycle one from the fridge!) and let your child arrange the treasures into a permanent memory of the Florida beach in all its natural beauty.