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Educational Fun

by on June 27, 2014 4:17 PM

For kids, summer is all about having fun. That fun also can be educational — just don’t tell the kids! Here are five of our favorite local spots where the whole family can have a great time together on a summer day while also learning about nature, science, books, and more. The best part is that the kids will be too busy enjoying themselves to realize they’re learning.

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Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center

Which frog species can jump the farthest? Which bird is nicknamed the “tiger of the sky?” Which snake can climb the steepest trees without branches?

Find out at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, over the mountain and through the woods in Huntingdon County. Run by Penn State as a field lab for students, Shaver’s Creek is the perfect place to get close to nature. Admission is free.

Start your visit at the Discovery Room, open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Penn State students create new interactive exhibits each year, such as a light-up constellation “cave,” a “touch and feel” table, and a game where kids can try to catch “fireflies.” Young kids love the upstairs loft, where they can try on animal costumes and read books.

The Discovery Room also is home to a variety of live reptiles and amphibians. In- house educators help visitors learn more about “herps” (from “herpetology,” the study of reptiles and amphibians) such as the American toad, northern leopard frog, timber rattlesnake, and common musk “stinkpot” turtle.

Outside, visit more than 20 birds of prey at the Raptor Center. All the birds are unreleaseable, meaning they couldn’t survive in the wild, often because of injuries that took away their ability to fly or catch food. On summer Saturdays and Sundays between 1 and 3 p.m., “Meet the Birds of Prey” shows introduce visitors to resident raptors such as hawks, eagles, and owls.

Make a day of your visit to Shaver’s Creek with a hike through surrounding habitats. Trails range from the wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk path to the more adventurous 2.2-mile Lake Trail. Bring a lunch to enjoy at one of the picnic areas; try to pack your treats in reusable or recyclable containers, since Shaver’s Creek is trying to be a zero-waste facility. You’ll find lots of recycling and compost bins here — but no trash cans!

Oh, and if you want to impress your kids, know that the northern leopard frog is the longest jumper, the great horned owl is the “tiger of the sky,” and the black rat snake has special belly scales that allow it to climb steep trees without branches.

Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania

If your family has never been to Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania, summer is a great time to check out the children’s science museum in State College. On July 9 — Children and Youth Day at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts — admission is just $1, instead of the usual $6.

For the rest of Arts Festival (July 10 to 13) admission is $3 for an air-conditioned fun break at the museum. Again this summer, as a Blue Star Museum, Discovery Space offers free admission through Labor Day to all active-duty military personnel and their families. Children under 2 always get in free.

Don’t let the word “museum” fool you. At Discovery Space, kids have so much fun with the interactive hands-on exhibits that they don’t realize they’re also learning about science. For example, the gravity exhibit uses an Xbox Kinect to show kids how high their earthly jumping abilities would take them on different planets.

A kid also can be a paleontologist at the dinosaur dig, find their home on an aerial map of Centre County, experiment with shapes and colors at the light table, and star in a weather video. Your budding inventor can create a soundscape, and young geologists can check out formations and fluorescent rocks in the museum’s “cave.” New exhibits open periodically, thanks in part to Penn State education and mechanical-engineering students. The museum’s Kids Advisory Board, made up of elementary-school-age kids, gives feedback to help make sure exhibits offer the most fun.

Discovery Space is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. The museum stays open until 8 p.m. the last Thursday of every month. Annual memberships give your family unlimited admission for an entire year. The museum is on Foster Avenue in the building with the giant mural on the side facing Sidney Friedman Park and Memorial Field.

Penn’s Cave & Wildlife Park

Visitors of all ages have been touring Penn’s Cave since 1885, and learning about life beneath ground level. Centre County and Central Pennsylvania are home to numerous caves, thanks to the region’s karst geology, but Penn’s Cave is the only all- water commercial cave. That means you “see it by boat,” as billboards across the region promise. Since caves typically maintain a year-round temperature of about 52 degrees, this is a great way to learn something cool on a hot summer day. As you ride in a slow-moving flat-bottom boat, the tour guide points out stalactites, stalagmites, and other geologic features formed by water more than thousands and even millions of years. The 50-minute tour passes by formations with nicknames such as “Statue of Liberty” and “Garden of the Gods.”

You can combine your underground tour with the ground-level wildlife tour. This 90-minute bus trip travels through Penn’s Cave’s 1,600 acres of pastures and forests, where you’ll see animals that are native to North America — bears, wolves, elk, deer, bobcats, bison, mountain lion, and more. Along the way, the guide offers info about local biology and geology.

Perhaps not as educational but still plenty of fun are Penn’s Cave’s newer attractions, each available for an additional fee. Prospector Pete’s Miners Maze is a 4,800-square-foot labyrinth that takes the traditional corn maze to the next level. The by-reservation-only Cave Rock Mountain Tour is an off-road jeep adventure for adults and older kids. Outside the gift shop, kids of all ages can pan for gems, fossils, or arrowheads at Prospector Pete’s Sluice. Inside the gift shop, kids with allowance money burning holes in their pockets can spend quite a long time deciding between kitschy souvenirs such as a lucky rabbit’s foot, rubber snake, or old-fashioned candy.

During the summer, Penn’s Cave is open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with each day’s last tour departing at 7 p.m. The cave is located off Route 192 near Centre Hall.

Childhood’s Gate at the Arboretum at Penn State

At press time, the long-awaited children’s garden at the Penn State Arboretum was scheduled to open by late June or early July. Check the arboretum’s Web site for the current status of this new campus attraction.

Officially called Childhood’s Gate, the children’s garden targets kids ages 3 to 12 but also will give most adult visitors new insight into the plants, animals, and geography of Central Pennsylvania. Child-development experts worked together with arboretum leaders to design a garden that is both educational and fun.

Kids can explore the hidden passageways of a limestone cave, climb on a giant caterpillar statue, or sit on a “toadstool.” The Discovery Tree, which looks like a huge tree stump but is made of concrete, offers plenty of roots for climbing plus a tube that allows kids inside the stump to talk with family members outside.

To kids, the children’s garden may seem like a playground, but opportunities for learning about our natural region are everywhere. A sandstone ridge forms the backbone of the garden, and a dry limestone creek bed runs through the “valley.” Water drips in the manmade cave to show how rock features form over many, many years, and Fossil Gap features bronze fossils that trace geologic history. The “Up, Down, In, and Out Creek” water feature shows how water flows both above and below ground in the region’s limestone valleys.

As one would expect in a garden, there also are plenty of plants. Willows will grow over metal frames to form huts like those used long ago by Susquehannock tribes. Garden planters in the Central Valley section feature heirloom varieties of crops grown in Pennsylvania. Throughout the garden, native plant species demonstrate the biodiversity of the region.

This summer, guides will be on hand to answer questions and inspire informal learning. Formal programs will be developed as the staff learns which features are most inspiring to young visitors.

Childhood’s Gate and the arboretum are open every day from dawn until dusk, free of charge.

Schlow Centre Region Library

Rainy day? Go to the library. Too hot and humid outside? Go to the library. Everyone in the family wants to do something different? Go to the library.

Schlow Centre Region Library is the place to be all summer long, for both kids and adults. Start with free summer reading programs for all ages by registering online. Read 15 books to your infant or toddler and choose a free book to keep. Kids ages 3 to 12 earn tickets toward prize drawings for each day they read at least 20 minutes, plus special prizes for reading books in different genres. Teens can enter weekly drawings plus the grand-prize drawing for a Nexus 7 and a $100 Amazon gift card. Adults who log books they’ve read can win prizes donated by local businesses; play book bingo and enter to win a Kindle Paper White and an iPad Mini.

But wait, there’s more! Visit BookFestPA at the library from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 12. Meet authors, win more prizes, buy books, learn about writing, and listen to author talks.

Choose a lazy summer day to drop by one of the library’s many clubs to see if you’d like to attend year-round. Meet other locals who enjoy comic books, the game of Go, embroidery, or knitting. Or join one of Schlow’s book clubs — afternoon book club, evening book club, senior book club, nature book club ....

Check out Schlow’s online calendar for a wide variety of events happening during the summer. Pet a frog, listen to storytellers, build with Legos, watch a movie (one based on a book, of course), or participate in one of many other activities, all at your local library. 



Tracey M. Dooms is a freelance writer in State College and a contributor to Town&Gown.
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