- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

Children have been observing the sky, strolling the trails and learning about animal habitats at the Rock Creek Nature Center for more than 40 years. Located in a quiet spot in the peaceful surroundings of Rock Creek Park in the District, the nature center is a place to learn about the animals, plants, the woodlands and the watershed — surprising tenants of an urban location.

Rock Creek Nature Center is a great location for young children to discover nature because of its small size and hands-on approach, says park ranger Anne O’Neill. One of the highlights is the “Discover Rock Creek” exhibit, which takes up the basement level of the building.

“It is a museumlike exhibit created with the Smithsonian,” she says. “It explains to children the idea of flora and fauna they will find in the park. It is also the first bilingual National Park Service exhibit in the region. It explains the watershed of Rock Creek Park and the different animal habitats here. It is a multisensory exhibit, where children can look, smell and touch things.”

Speaking of touch, the first floor of the nature center also has hands-on learning. My 7-year-old guest got to hold the live corn snake, one of several animals that live at the nature center, and enjoyed feeling animal pelts and matching them to their one-time owners. There also is a contained room for the toddler and preschool set to read nature stories, play nature-themed games and play with animal toys. Young children will enjoy the sand table/track identifier, where they can learn what type of tracks various woodland animals make.

The center is home to Washington’s oldest planetarium and the only planetarium run by the National Park Service. Though it doesn’t have the lasers and “wow” factor of some bigger, state-of-the-art planetariums (such as the one at the Maryland Science Center), Rock Creek Park’s planetarium is still an accessible way to see the stars.

“Our planetarium is more than 30 years old,” Ms. O’Neill says. “It’s not full of special effects, but it is a good place for basic night sky observation.”

The planetarium has many ranger-led programs for astronomy enthusiasts. Weekends at 1 and 4 p.m., there are two programs for school-age children. “The Night Sky” (1 p.m.) explains the brightest stars, planets and constellations and is geared for children ages 4 to 12. “Exploring the Universe” (4 p.m.) includes topics such as the sun, moon, stars and planets. It is for children age 7 and older.

The planetarium also has a 15-minute “Young Planetarium” program Wednesdays at 4 p.m. This program is appropriate for preschoolers.

The nature center hosts a full slate of programs for preschoolers and school-age children. Topics range from animal puppet shows to educational programs about trees, habitats and aquatic ecology.

Two self-guided nature trails are outside the center. The Edge of Woods Trail is a paved quarter-mile trail that is wheelchair- and stroller-accessible. This trail also has Braille markers for the blind and audio narration that can be borrowed from the nature center. The trail takes hikers past examples of woodland, pond and meadow habitats.

Nearby is the half-mile Woodland Trail, a looping path that goes through the ravine woodland.

The Rock Creek Nature Center is located on the six-mile Western Ridge Trail, which makes it a great spot for taking a break from more strenuous hiking. A visit to the nature center can be combined with a stop at the Rock Creek Horse Center, located a few hundred feet away. Children can watch the horses being groomed or take a stroll through the stables. Horses also are available for trail rides and lessons.

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: The Rock Creek Nature Center is at 5200 Glover Road NW in the District.

Directions: From the Beltway, take River Road south for 4.2 miles. Turn left on Western Avenue and right on Military Road. Enter Rock Creek Park and make a left on Glover Road.

Hours: The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. It is closed New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Admission: Free

Parking: Free parking in lot

Note: There is a small gift shop that sells nature-themed items. Picnic tables are available on the grounds.

More information: Call 202/895-6070 or visit www.nps.gov/rocr/naturecenter


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