Introduce children to the outdoors at CREW 

By Nan Mattingly

CREW Trust environmental education programs brings all ages to the CREW Trails

With the long end-of-year holidays, kids need healthy and fun activities, things they can do with their families and friends. If they’re visiting Florida in December, this is the perfect time of the year to introduce them to the world of nature. The weather is fine for all kinds of outdoor activities. And the four different CREW trail systems offer a variety of sights, sounds and experiences. 

But some kids have little experience with the great outdoors. Worms, spiders and other creepy-crawly things may intimidate them. They may resist getting wet or muddy. And they might find trees, trails and rocks uninteresting. Given a choice between playing outdoors or playing a video game, some kids would opt for the indoor game.

Some kids just need an introduction to nature. They need exposure to the physical world in order to learn to be comfortable in it. The adults in their lives can show them how to love nature and be safe in it. Nature promotes healthy growth by encouraging kids to be active. It’s also good for their imaginations, stimulating curiosity by introducing them to new and different experiences. Just being outside in our gorgeous Florida winter weather makes everyone, kids included, feel better.

So how can you persuade your kids to come outside with you? We have some suggestions.

Kids plot out the route at CREW Marsh Trails

Prepare before you load up to hit the trail. Before you take the kids on a CREW hiking trail, share your own enthusiasm about what they might see, hear and experience in the woods. Keep your research simple, and note anything that seems to capture their interests. If they express an interest in spiders, help them do a little research to figure out where and when they might see a spider in the woods. Early morning sun at any of our CREW trails illuminates spider webs and makes them look like jewels adorning the bushes. Choose one particular web and study its construction with your kid, explaining how the spider builds its webs to capture its prey. The Green Lynx spider is a bright shade of green and can be found on many trails. 

(photo of Green Lynx spider)

Tell your kid what he or she is likely to see in the woods. Here in Florida’s forests there are Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats and other mammals, as well as too many birds and insects to name. Address any fears they may express. You can explain, for instance, that Florida’s panthers and bears are shy and can smell you from a long way away, so it’s easy for them to avoid us. If your child is fascinated by panthers, bears and bobcats, show them how to look for the tracks of these animals on a muddy or sandy trail. We have a dazzling array of butterflies in Florida. The beautiful white peacock tends to fly low to the ground so they’re easy to spot. You may also be lucky enough to spot the striking zebra longwing, the Florida state butterfly. Show your kids the photos here and help them look for these colorful treasures in the woods.  

(photos of white peacock and zebra longwing butterflies)

Devise a simple game or set a few easy goals for your time outdoors. If your kid is reluctant to touch things in the woods, you can create a simple scavenger hunt that they can complete through observation. Give them a checklist to allow them to check off each item as they spot it. Keep it simple; don’t name a specific bird. Just list “bird” as one of the things they can look for. Other things you can put on the list: worm, bird’s nest, flower, animal track, and big tree. Or you could announce that whoever spots the first bird or butterfly during your outing gets a special prize. 

Parents, prepare for your kids to play in the mud. Bring clean clothes, extra shoes and water to wash their feet.   

Mud and everything in between at CREW Cypress Dome Trails

Model good behavior for your kids. Explain the “Leave No Trace” principles to them and make sure you take any trash home with you. It’s important that kids learn to respect nature, so explain to them why we don’t feed animals in the wild. This is especially important in Florida where every pond or lake is likely to house an alligator or two. Feeding them destroys their natural fear of humans and encourages them to approach people. Alligators are fascinating to watch but teach your kids to do so from a distance. In Florida’s public parks and nature preserves, it’s illegal to pick plants or to remove anything, so encourage your kids to take photos instead of collecting wildflowers. Take the things you need for safety (bug spray, hat, sunscreen, lots of water) and explain why you’re putting them in your backpack. Let the kids choose a snack.

Before you go, take a look at the CREW website ( and decide which of our four trail systems would provide a good introduction to nature for your kids. The rainy season has ended and most of our trails are now dry. If you want to experience the magic of walking through a cypress forest on a boardwalk, consider Bird Rookery Swamp. The red trail at Flint Pen Strand offers easy hiking through pine flatwoods and a prairie where you may spot some deer or even a red-headed woodpecker.     

Your child may be excited to get outdoors if you allow him or her to bring a friend. Recognize that kids usually walk at a slower pace than adults and allow them to linger over things that interest them. Most of all, enjoy yourself. Show your own curiosity about things you see. Your enthusiasm for nature in all its varied forms will be contagious.    

At the CREW Project, we’ve got four different trail systems for hiking, biking, running and just enjoying the outdoors. 

Kids on the Trail

Volunteer Perspective Series

by Nan Mattingly

Does your family have cabin fever?

The CREW Land & Water Trust has a solution – four trail systems that offer you and your family a chance to get outside and get a breath of fresh air while staying safe from the coronavirus. Granted, the Florida summer is hot and you may get your feet wet, but we promise it’s worth it! Here are some tips to keep you and your family safe and healthy and hints about what you might see.

Before you go:

— Choose your destination: check out for descriptions and locations of all four trail systems. Each one is unique. Pick the one that suits your family best. Study the trail maps and plan your hike using the mileage indicated for each trail.  

— Fill your backpacks: each hiker should have a backpack with water, a snack, a face covering, and a safety device like a whistle. Kids can make their own personal alarms in the form of a “wildlife shaker” – an empty can filled with a few coins or pebbles and sealed with tape.   

— Gather items for the group: sunscreen, extra water, bug repellant, binoculars, and maybe even a picnic lunch. A cell phone is handy for taking photos and is also good to have in case of emergency. Bring a trash bag so you can carry out leftover food and trash. Leave no trace of your presence on the trails.  

— Dress like a pro hiker: everyone should wear close-toed shoes, a hat and long pants. If it’s been raining, trails are sure to be wet, so old tennis shoes make the best footwear.

— Plan your departure time: in the summer heat, you might want to kick off early, or you could wait till the heat loses its intensity around 4:00 p.m. All trail systems are open from dawn to dusk. Check the weather just before you leave home and reschedule if lightning is predicted.   

At the trailhead:

— Take a minute to scan the kiosks at each trail system – you might find some useful information.

— Take a photo of the trail map on the kiosk or pick up a copy of the trail map from the brochure rack.

— Take advantage of the porta-potties at the trailhead since there are no facilities on the trails. Pro tip – bring a small roll (without the cardboard) for emergencies. 

On the trail: 

— Walk slowly and use all your senses. Big things like trees, marshes, larger birds such as herons, vultures, hawks, otters, rabbits, etc. are easily spotted but take time to look for smaller things like butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers, and dragonflies. Note their unique characteristics and colors as well as their behaviors. Birds are most active in the early morning and late afternoon.

— The CREW project is home to larger animals, too, but you’re very unlikely to encounter any of them on the trail. Most of them avoid intruders (that’s you) in their habitats. You might see the flash of a white tailed deer running away from you. If you get to see any of these elusive larger animals, consider yourself lucky! 

— Picking flowers, seeds and plants is not allowed. Take a picture instead and use your photos to identify interesting things you’ve seen. 

— A special note about CREW Bird Rookery Swamp: this unique habitat, an old cypress logging swamp, is home to many alligators. Occasionally gators sun themselves on the trails or along the sides of trails. Be alert and don’t feed them or do anything to provoke them. Use good judgment and turn around if necessary. Walking dogs here is not recommended.           

A note to parents: you’re the hike leader. Keep a close eye on your group and make sure everyone stays in the middle of the trail (fire ants live on the edges). Teach your hikers good trail manners – courtesy to other hikers and consideration for wildlife. For example, wildlife shakers or whistles should be used only in case of a real emergency because the noise will upset the inhabitants of the woods.  

During this pandemic, we’re all safer outdoors than inside but we still have to observe good health practices. Everyone in your group should have a face covering, and they should be worn when you encounter others on the trail. Maintain a safe distance (at least six feet) from hikers not in your group. When other hikers are walking toward you on the trail, have your group move to one side of the trail to help maintain an appropriate distance. Follow local guidelines and check to make sure the trails are open before you go.  

Despite the heat, this is a great time to get acquainted with CREW trails and banish that cabin fever!

A few tips for geocaching with kids

At last week’s family fun day, two of our volunteers taught my children how to geocache. We decided Spring Break was the perfect time to hit the trails and get a little lost in the woods. Thinking of doing some geocaching of your own, maybe with kids or grand kids? I’ve got a few suggestions that might make your trip go more smoothly.

  1. Download a geocaching app on your smartphone. We used Geoacaching which was very user-friendly; I opted to purchase a one month subscription. You can also get the coordinates from a geocaching website, like The smart phone app was nice because it helped me lure the teens into going with us.
  2. Wear long pants and long socks. This seems like common sense but my 7 year old was more than happy to wear a pink fluffy skirt and her ladybug rain boots. After tromping off the trails and searching for our first two caches she understood why long pants were a better option.
  3. Let the kids do the leading and the finding – within reason. I insisted on being in the front whenever we ventured off the trails and everyone followed that rule. But once the app alerted us that we were close, I let the kids take over and start searching for the caches.
  4. Make sure you bring trinkets. Some caches have goodies inside and the kids can take something, like a really gorgeous marble, and leave one of their trinkets behind. Also bring a pen to sign your name on the list in the cache, and have the kids come up with a cool geocaching name for your group.
  5. Set a reasonable goal. I said we would try to find four caches, and after our third one (which was a bit difficult, but probably our best memory of the day) the kids were ready to go home. I reminded them of our goal and we trudged on, finding two more caches on our way back to the trail head.

6. Bring water and snacks. A stack of graham crackers can be a lifesaver after you spend twenty minutes off-trail and end up on a service road (that you could have taken the whole time).

7. Be ready to get lost. Not really lost, just enough that the children start to doubt that you actually know what you are doing. My favorite memory of our first geocaching trip was the kids complaining about how certain they were that we were lost. I may have accidentally taken us very far off course but the end was worth it. The cache was in the middle of a beautiful cypress dome and I’d like to think they were thankful (but see tip #6 about why you should bring snacks).

8. Have fun. We identified wildflowers along the way, spotted a lot of lubbers on one section of the trail and definitely learned what poison ivy looked like (and tried to avoid it). Even the complaining was fun mainly because it made me laugh.

So, how much fun did we have? The kids asked to go again. And no one got poison ivy.


Interested in learning how to geocache? Come to the Cypress Dome Trails on April 22 and learn how to geocache. For more information, visit


Boost your family’s health with a “Vitamin N” hike at CREW

children playing outside

children playing outside When: December 5th, 2015, 9 AM to noon
Where: CREW Cypress Dome Trails
Register by clicking here

Come join CREW for a fun, family walk in the woods – with activities that will get you dirty, inspire you, and engage all your senses – giving everyone a nice dose of Vitamin N (that is “Nature”). This is an active walk for the whole family to get involved and enjoy nature at its best.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, describes time in nature as “Vitamin N”. He writes about the importance of Vitamin N for families here. Getting out in nature with the family can build bonds, improve mental and physical health, boost creativity and help form strong, positive connections to the natural world.

So come on out and play in the woods with CREW staff and volunteers!

This walk is limited to the first 20 people who register. Children must be accompanied and supervised by their adult guardian during the walk.

Registration ends December 3rd. So sign up today 🙂homeschool


Sharing the Trails with Children

Winter is one of our busiest seasons for environmental education programs out on the CREW Marsh Trails. So, don’t be alarmed if you find yourself on the trails along with 120 kids.


group of students on the CREW trails
Calusa Park students learn about CREW


The CREW Marsh Trail is an  exciting outdoor classroom for kids from both Lee and Collier Counties. Jessi Drummond,  our Environmental Education Specialist, takes 3rd graders out on a “Walk through the Watershed” where they spend time dip-netting, getting to know where their water comes from, and the importance of protecting the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed.

Ricky Pires,  from FGCU’s Wing of Hope  Panther Posse Program, brings 4th and 5th grade students to the CREW Marsh Trails to teach them about the Florida panther, its habitat and research. FGCU college students help to lead the Wings of Hope field trips, giving them valuable service-learning experience.

Ricky Pires with Panther Posse students
Ricky Pires with Panther Posse students

Both of these programs, plus a variety of private and home school groups use the CREW trails to help educate the kids of all ages about CREW. As part of our mission to protect the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, these educational programs are important to developing support for the watershed and engaging people in its protection.

So, remember, the next time you go out to the CREW Marsh trails on a weekday from 10 AM to 1 PM, you may find kids exploring nature. Be glad they are there.

Anyone is welcome to come see the magic in action and experience the joy of children outdoors. For more information on CREW’s Environmental Education programs, click here.


Mom Shares Her Family’s First Wet Walk Experience at CREW

Keri Harty
Keri Harty

A guest post by CREW visitor Keri Harty:

Even though I was afraid, I put my big girl pants on and decided that I couldn’t let my children miss this cool opportunity to see this treasure in our SWFL backyard.

… I now have firsthand knowledge of why everyone says that the trails are a MUST-DO during the rainy season. It was a totally different experience…You have to see it to understand it.

Dear CREW,

Thanks so much for asking about our recent trip and wet walk to the Marsh Trails! (Or making sure that we made it out alive….LOL!)

Keri's kids, brother, and sister-in-law
Keri’s kids, brother, and sister-in-law

We had A BLAST!!! I went with my 10 year old daughter, my 8 year old son, and my brother and sister-in-law. I decided to do the wet walk because my niece who is a FGCU student recently did the wet walk with her class and thought it was awesome. We have visited both the Cypress Dome Trails and the Marsh Trails many times in the winter and spring and have had wonderful adventures, but I was assured by my niece that I was missing an amazing and different world out there by only visiting during “dry” season.

Even though I was afraid, I put my big girl pants on and decided that I couldn’t let my children miss this cool opportunity to see this treasure in our SWFL backyard. I was actually going to go to Bass Pro and buy some camo pants to get myself psyched, but I decided my old jean shorts would do. J As we arrived at the wet part near the observation tower, even my brother and sister-in-law – who are very well traveled – asked if I was sure that it was safe to enter the small trail through the grass and swamp water. While the water is semi-clear in most spots, the sea of tall grass looks so ominous! I was thinking “Children of the Corn” only gator style. LOL!

I have to admit that I was very nervous in the water past the observation deck, but my brave little 8 year old son led the way with his big walking stick clearing all the webs made on the morning dew from the friendly spider residents and watching for anything suspect. (He dreams of being a herpetologist or Everglades scientist or guide, so this was right up his alley.) Since this is the end of the wet season, the highest the water ever got was mid-thigh, but that was CHEST high on my son. Was I a coward for allowing my precious boy to lead me on this adventure? Yes! However, I presented it to him that it was his very first guide through the Marsh Trails and he stood tall and felt very important. Most importantly, he did a great job pointing out the flora and fauna!

Among many other creatures, we saw the most beautiful beetle. It was black and had a top so colorful and sparkly that it looked like a Mardi Gras parade participant. The hawks were screeching above our heads and the frogs were singing around our feet. We interrupted at least 4 different black racer snakes sunning themselves on the trails and it was my sister-in-law (not me) who almost stepped on one and screamed so loud that all the vultures in the trees flew for their lives. My daughter and son tried to revive a dying dragonfly and unfortunately were unsuccessful, but it was a good opportunity to discuss the “Circle of Life” and yes I did start singing the song to lessen their pain.

We found many different kinds of scat. Yes, we were excited about finding poop. Who wouldn’t be? Some we assumed was deer due to the plants in it and some we assumed was maybe bobcat. (It had a lot of hair in it 🙂

We also hiked the Popash Trail, which we had never done before, and that was really awesome as well. We really only went that far back into the trails to find the geocaches, but I am so glad that we did because it was just beautiful. Although, it is also a little scary because it is so remote and the trail so narrow. It was thrilling! As our feet left imprints in the jet black mud, we saw so many paw prints of recent animal trails. Of course we thought they were all bear and panther and estimated each animal to be at least 700 pounds in size, but I am sure most were much smaller. We DID however see human foot prints that looked like someone was walking barefooted. It was very strange. So of course that added to the thrill as we and the children concluded that it was either someone with those toe shoes on OR the Skunk Ape. LOL!

keri harty familyAnyway, I now have firsthand knowledge of why everyone says that the trails are a MUST-DO during the rainy season. It was a totally different experience. Especially in the hustle and bustle of our extremely hectic and busy lives, it was as if we stepped out of time into a magical world that only we were a part of. You have to see it to understand it. Every single student in our county should have the opportunity to visit this jewel. Thank you so much for your encouragement and information to make our visit out there a success. If you get reports of a 40-year-old woman running around the trails with her children wildly laughing, don’t worry, it is just the Harty family back for a visit.

~Keri Harty, October 2013

Note: Many FGCU “Environmental Biology of SWFL” and other classes come to CREW for field trips each semester. Kudos to their instructors for exposing them to the wonders of this amazing watershed and teaching about the important ecosystem services it provides to all of us here in SW Florida. And special kudos to Keri’s niece for encouraging Keri to bring her family out for a wet walk to experience CREW in a whole new way!

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