Reading maps, telling time, calculating distance traveled, and fire safety - who knew so much education could happen in one trip to the beach!
The kids and I just returned from a one day/ one tank of gas mini-vacation to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Every summer we try to take at least one day and visit Lake Michigan.
My wife's favorite spot is Washington Park in Michigan City, but I suspect it's really the nearby outlet mall that attracts her. Another family favorite is the nearby State Park where the youngest and I went camping one summer. But this year I decided to try a new spot.
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West Beach is part of the national park system and though smaller than the state park beach it was still a very nice facility. Most of the park is open and free to traffic but there is a gatehouse at the entrance to West Beach. We paid $6 for the carload. They did warn that the park closed at dusk and cars left unattended would be towed. The national park's campground is several miles away and removed from the beach.
One really nice feature was the stairs up the dunes on the Succession Trail which we hiked. Later on my kids wanted to blaze their own trail over the dunes, merely for the excuse of rolling down the steep inclines.
The beach did have lifeguards who frequently whistled at swimmers who wandered out too far. But they are only employed during the summer so swimming is at your own risk. Rip tides are also a possibility.
Another really cool thing we discovered is the Junior Ranger program. First we stopped by the Visitor Center located right of Highway 49. Several rangers were available and eager to help us, providing several different booklets for each kid. Because most of our day was spent enjoying the beach, the kids opted for the fire safety booklet. It was also the easiest to complete since it didn't require any travel to one of the educational centers.
On our way home, we stopped back by the office where a ranger reviewed their answers and awarded each them with a patch. The patch is a full 4" tall and reads Junior Firefighter, NPS Wildland, Indiana Dunes. The kids thought the little squirrel was funny with his tail on fire.
My 8 year old daughter was especially excited to get the patch. She said she was just like a friend of hers who was in Girl Scouts. We plan to continue collecting patches and badges from many more national parks and are trying to figure out the best way to showcase them.
One final idea that really seemed to work well was giving each kid their own state map. I showed them how to read the mile marker/exit numbers and showed the route we'd be taking. Then every time one asked "are we there yet" I just referred them back to the map. Eventually they quit asking, either out of depression or because they could find the answer out for themselves.