The Best Toys are Outside
Children need the outdoors in extremely heavy doses. That is my opinion anyway, one that has been supported by many studies showing that a child’s imagination, body, and sense of responsibility, place, and purpose all flourish when he or she is frequently exposed to the unfathomable logic and beauty of nature. Children with outdoor habits are less likely to develop other, less healthy habits. Ask any kid who loves being outside and he’ll tell you I’m right.
When it comes to getting their children outside for some good, wholesome fun, parents in northern New Mexico face the same challenges as elsewhere. They must keep their kids safe. To earn their children’s trust and approval, they must outcompete video-generated beings who, though not possessed of brains, can blast more ammo and do it faster than any mortal parent could ever dream of. And lest we forget, parents must accomplish these two tasks with enough money left over to do it all again the following weekend.
New Mexico also presents its own brand of obstacle to sparking a child’s interest in outdoor entertainment. This obstacle is our landscape. Our state is comprised of lots of open space and relatively few roads. Hiking is a great way to experience the vast New Mexican countryside, but it is difficult to convince an untrained teenager of that or, for that matter, a two year old whom you’ll be carrying most of the time anyway. Also, our arid climate has left our land bereft of the lakes and beaches that keep the rest of this nation’s youngsters so satisfied and worn out at the end of the day. It’s not fair, but so it goes. As a former New Mexico kid myself, all I can tell you is to take advantage of the outdoor blessings the Land of Enchantment does have, if only because so much off-the-charts fun awaits you if you do. Sample the following and see for yourself.
Located on the back road to Tesuque, Shidoni is a great place for infants and toddlers, since its objects of fascination are immobile, too big to swallow, and feature lots of animals that don’t stink, bite, or make scary noises. Pick a day in spring and bring your picnic basket and watch your babies go at it. Older kids will simply enjoy Shidoni’s high quality art and running around space.
This is another winner, especially for toddler ages and older during special events. El Rancho de las Golondrinas is a live depiction of life on an historic Spanish ranch, where kids can experience corn flour being ground, hides tanned, and the shearing of sheep. They’ll tour fully productive food gardens, enjoy feeding farm animals, and ride wagons as they learn the rigors that confronted Spanish settlers in the New World. El Rancho de las Golondrinas is southwest of the old Santa Fe Downs racetrack, approximately thirty minutes from most parts of Santa Fe.
We used to do this trip to O’Keefe country at least once a year when I was in grade school, and we loved it. The Piedra Lumbre Education & Visitor Center, formerly the Living Museum, is basically a zoo, but the only animals on display are those endemic to the red and orange semi-desert around Abiquiú. Rattlesnakes, roadrunners, cougars, and more make up the collection, very fun when viewed in the context of the terrain. After viewing the animals, head up the road a few miles to the Echo Canyon Ampitheatre on the left. A very short hike will bring you to a huge concave sandstone wall with a penchant for backtalk. Yell something at it and hear the truest, cleanest echoes you will ever hear.
Kids love sticks. They love string, tangling string and, boys in particular, things that are slimy. It is for these reasons that they love to fish. The Cowles ponds are located at the top of the Pecos canyon in Cowles, approximately 50 minutes from Santa Fe. Safety is easily managed here, where parents needn’t worry about river currents or streamside stumbling blocks, and there’s a pond especially for kids (as well as seniors and handicapped folks) that is well-stocked with trout. The kids’ pond provides opportunities for kids to learn how to bait a hook or cast a fly, the method that yields the highest catches. There is no better way to get kids of all ages into nature than fishing. If they keep a fish to eat, you can conduct an anatomy experiment when you clean the fish. Or you can show your child how to release a fish unharmed. Finally, you can teach stewardship to your child by helping them with the sad but necessary duty of picking up litter left by negligent fishermen.
Kids of all ages love horses, and Bishop’s Lodge can accommodate all of them on a walk-in basis. Whether it’s a ten minute supervised pony ride for a toddler or guided trail rides for the more adventurous older children, fun will be had by all, parents included. Call for current rates, and be warned that the longer rides may be out of your budget (though in my opinion, they’re worth it).
At all of New Mexico’s northern ski mountains (Sandia, Ski Santa Fe, Taos, Red River, Angel Fire), parents can feel comfortable going off by themselves, knowing that their brood is in the hands of expert instructors. Kids will learn to ski or snowboard in same-age groups in a fun and low-pressure setting. Toddlers will sled or just play in the snow under the watchful eyes of trained child care professionals.
The sledding hill at Hyde State Park on the way to Ski Santa Fe is another great winter option. My parents took me there when I was a tyke, and I’ll never forget it. They also took me up to U.S. Hill on the high road to Taos. About five miles north of Peñasco, you’ll find an unofficial parking spot on the meadowed south face of U.S. Hill, with tons of open sledding space, happy children and adults.
I have yet to meet a child that doesn’t thrive around a campsite, who isn’t fascinated by animals and birds in their home environments, who doesn’t feel more adult due to the simple act of cooking his or her own food over an open fire (I’m asking you to pretend that marshmallows and hot dogs are food). There are several excellent and safe campgrounds in the Jemez and Pecos areas with bathrooms, tables and fire pits.
Older kids will love backpacking too. There are several destinations, Mora Flats for example, that aren’t too strenuous for them and offer fishing, rock throwing and other activities. A wilderness trip is a great way to teach your kids valuable outdoor skills as well as responsibility and self sufficiency. Be warned, however; once they try it, they’ll want to do it again and again. So get in shape!