Diane LeDoux, Deb Ratzlaff and Mary Smith have more in common than proud grandmother status. They’re all advocates for Greater Omaha’s outdoor amenities; active proof that you can venture affordably with the grandkids, often times with no more cost involved than a picnic lunch and a state park permit or an annual membership to a nature center.
Heron Haven: 2nd Saturdays
Retired teacher and certified Nebraska Master Naturalist LeDoux is channeling her expertise on native ecosystems and habitat conservation into volunteer work at Heron Haven, a wetland sanctuary in northwest Omaha that offers free, daily trail access (flat and full of photo opportunities) from sunrise to sunset.
LeDoux leads educational nature tours and helps with upkeep. She also assists with and accompanies twin granddaughters Abby and Maddie, age 9, at the Haven’s 2nd Saturdays, a free 90-minute program that includes a morning hike and rotating nature lessons the second Saturday of each month.
“I’m trying to get them acclimated to nature so they’re not squeamish or ‘screamish’ about spiders and bees,” LeDoux says.
She encourages fellow grandparents to bring their grandkids to soak up the sights, including a namesake blue heron, a “humongous snapping turtle,” peculiar stalks of jack-in-the-pulpit, chirps, babbles and other sounds of nature; and unplugged togetherness.
“Grandparents can experience things with their grandkids that they’ve never experienced before,” she says.
Fontenelle Forest: Grands & Me
Deb Ratzlaff is a regular at another option for outdoor adventure: Fontenelle Forest’s Grands & Me summer day camp. She has attended with six different grandkids over the past four years.
“Camp is a guided experience where we can both learn,” she says. “I don’t have to be the expert. I don’t have to plan or figure out what we’ll do next. … It’s a scheduled one-on-one time doing things I don’t normally get to do with them.”
Spread over two half-days, the Grands & Me schedule winds from short hikes with the grandkids to nature crafts and s’mores over the campfire – “all activities that get grandparents outdoors and moving, soaking in some vitamin D and improving their mood,” says naturalist Grace Gaard.
Spots remain in the June and July camps for children ages 8-12. Camps for children ages 4-8 sold out quickly again this year.
“I believe that’s because grandparents from the previous years have had so much fun with their grandchildren and the other grandparents that it becomes a tradition to attend year-after-year,” Gaard says.
Veteran attendee Ratzlaff can “second” that. She’s enjoying the experience while it lasts: “I’m not sure what we’ll do next year when (granddaughter) Colette is too old for Grands & Me.”
Lauritzen Gardens: Lil’ Sprouts
If it’s a Lil’ Sprouts day at Lauritzen Gardens, odds are you’ll find Mary Smith and her lil’ sidekick, granddaughter Ruby, crafting, listening to stories and exploring the garden together. They’ve been attending for more than a year now, ever since Ruby was 3.
“It’s just fun. There’s nothing like taking a nature walk, observing and then talking about what we saw. That fits right into what children need at that age – being able to talk, observe, see, smell and hear,” says Smith, who has a doctorate in education.
The next round of Lil’ Sprouts – open to children ages 3 to 5 and their parents or grandparents – is coming up in August and September. In the meantime, grands and grandkids can connect over the garden’s many other amenities, including the hands-on Children’s Garden and the Model Railroad Garden with its seven trains.
Looking for more “grand” outdoor adventures with the grandkids?
Mahoney: Cast a line or zipline (your choice)
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park in Ashland, Nebraska, offers a sliding scale of activity for grands and grandkids, including a new zipline. Fish for bluegill and channel catfish, play miniature golf or take in the view atop the Walter Scott Jr. Observation Tower.
Those up for even more adventure and activity (rated “difficult”) can accompany the older grandkids as they tackle the new Go Ape Treetop Adventure, a self-guided journey through the forest canopy that features dangling obstacles and a ride back to the ground via zipline.
No matter what they’re doing together – whether it’s traipsing through Heron Haven or watching the pelicans at Carter Lake – retiree Diane LeDoux says outdoor time with her twin granddaughters is quality time: “I’m just trying to get them outside, away from their computer, and let them explore.” Plus, she says, “I’m like a little kid outside too.”