Daytripper: Take kids back to nature

Today’s kids are totally wired — plugged into their iPods, iPads and Nintendos.

Conservationists worry that nature-deprived children won’t grow up to be careful stewards of our planet without enough exposure to its dwindling resources — the plants and animals that need to be saved from extinction. Studies have shown that children who have an immersive experience in nature between the ages of 5 and 10 foster a deep love of the environment that they carry with them their entire lives.

Exposure to nature also has a restorative effect on both kids and their parents. Hanging out with mom and dad at a nature center could provide the perfect antidote to your child’s highly-structured, overscheduled life. And what a stress-buster for burned-out parents to take some time out to “smell the roses!”

Speaking of sniffing flowers, the Ernie Miller Nature Center, 909 North Highway 7 in Olathe, is fully abloom with olfactory delights right now.

Among other plants, the Nature Center, part of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, abundantly features amaryllis (“Yellow Star Grass”), arum (“Jack-in-the-Pulpit”), barberry (“May Apple”), honeysuckle (“Bald”) and lilies (“Dogtooth Violet” and “Wild Hyacinth”).

Many bird species can be sighted this spring, too, including red-winged blackbirds, Eastern bluebirds, indigo buntings, Northern cardinals and black-capped chickadees.

Trails are open from dawn until dusk. Check their website,, for environmental programming details.

Powell Gardens, located just east of Kansas City in Kingsville, Mo., is set on more than 915 acres of lush, rolling hills and meadows. Their new Heartland Harvest Garden, a 12-acre expansion, is the nation’s largest “edible landscape.” You can learn about the journey of food from seed to plate as you discover everything from pomegranates to peaches and soybeans to sweet corn.

If exploring the Gardens makes you feel a bit peckish, then sample the fresh, local and seasonal fare at Cafe Thyme, under the director of Chef Michael Foust of The Farmhouse.

If your kids are more interested in fauna than flora, visit Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead, 13800 Switzer Road in Overland Park.

Designed to depict a turn-of-the-century family farm, the 12-acre Farmstead has almost 200 animals and birds of prey, vegetable and flower gardens, a one-room country schoolhouse, a dairy barn and a fishing pond. Your city kids will enjoy such enchanting experiences as bottle-feeding baby goats, milking cows and petting the horses after taking a horse-drawn wagon ride through the woods.

The Farmstead is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 1 through Oct. 31, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer, when it stays open until 8 p.m.

Vic’s General Store sells old-time candy and fudge, and hand-dipped ice cream is featured at Alex & Emily’s Ice Cream Parlor. But don’t be surprised if your child’s favorite activity there is rubbing the belly of one of the cows.

To get acquainted with animals that live in the water instead of on land, just head to the newly-opened Kansas City SEA LIFE Aquarium at Crown Center, 2405 Grand Blvd., which contains more than 5,000 sea creatures, including sharks, starfish, seahorses and rays. To get any closer to fish, you’d have to get wet!

Merlin Entertainments, the parent company of the SEA LIFE brand, has an excellent reputation for the ethical and responsible care, preservation and conservation of the marine environment. In many of their aquariums worldwide, they rescue, rehabilitate and release marine animals in distress, and their Save Our Seals program successfully cares for more than 150 injured and sick seals per year from all over Europe until they can be returned to the wild.

Signs throughout the Kansas City SEA LIFE aquarium attempt to get environmentally-conscious messages across to visitors, and the gift shop sells reusable cloth bags, suitable for using at the grocery store, with the caption: “Plastic ain’t fintastic!”

After three visits to this aquarium, I can definitely see two real superstars emerging: an adorable and very sociable pufferfish (“He looks like he’s smiling all the time,” a staff member confided) who floats alongside the glass of his aquarium, appearing to be genuinely curious about all visitors, and an equally personality-laden scribbled filefish (with electric blue markings) who seems utterly focused on the people observing him, begging the question, Who’s watching whom?

Other noteworthy exhibits include an underwater tunnel where you can come nose-to-nose with sharks, an interactive touchpool experience where you can hold crabs and touch starfish and sea urchins, and an animated animal show, an interactive attraction that is startlingly similar to and uses the same technology as Walt Disney World Resort’s and Disneyland’s “Turtle Talk with Crush.”

With so many ways to get “back to nature” in your own backyard, your kid’s new Wii game won’t stand a chance.