Go Wild: Hands-On Nature Centers Your Kids Will Love

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If your kiddos’ idea of nature is the sprawling freeways and concrete jungle of Los Angeles, well, let’s be honest, who can blame them, right? While we knew that living in the city would pretty much negate any chance for our little ones to grow up into rugged ranch hands, we at least hoped they would be exposed to nature, beyond the raccoons that occasionally frequent our yards. In the spirit of providing them with memorable nature experiences we’ve identified five excellent local nature centers where your kids can learn about local ecosystems, experience the sights and sounds of our nearby flora and fauna, and get a sense of what the natural world looks like beyond the familiar concrete and controlled chaos of the big city.

Madrona Marsh Nature Center 
This beautiful, busy nature preserve in the heart of Torrance (just blocks from the giant Del Amo Fashion Center mall) is not to be missed by city kids who need a dose of fresh air and fun. The best way to experience the marsh your first time out is to take the Tyke Hike offered the first Thursday of every month ($5 donation, check out the events calendar) for other great hosted walks if you’re busy during the week). Bring a hat and sturdy shoes—it’s alternately sunny and damp in different parts of the preserve—and consider taking binoculars, because this spot is a paradise for birders.

Must SeeMastodon tooth! In addition to a pretty neat collection of snakeskins that the kids can feel for themselves, and tactile table in the ecology gallery that offers pettable pelts from local varmints like raccoons and skunks, the mastodon tooth was donated to the center by a local science teacher who often gave extra credit to students who brought her their noteworthy field finds.

3201 Plaza Del Amo
Torrance, Ca 90503-7137
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Online: friendsofmadronamarsh.com

Sooky Goldman Nature Center at Franklin Canyon Park 
This venerable park nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains has an old-time flair that will remind visitors of childhood trips to National Parks. Genuine rangers will welcome your children to the nature center, where they can jump onto a climbable environmental awareness exhibit that illustrates how even our simplest habits can effect the world around us. Next, browse display cases full of geologic oddities and natural wonders like birds’ nests, seed pods and  more. After the nature center, step outside to check out the outdoor amphitheater, the Tongva ki replica, the redwood groves, Franklin Canyon reservoir and dam, and last but not least, the ducks and turtles over at Heavenly Pond, which is a perfect little picnic spot for families.

Must See: In addition to a striking taxidermied mountain lion—the biggest animal predator in Southern California—this nature center features a donkey skull (why not?) and a substantial display of Native American artifacts.

2600 Franklin Canyon Drive
Beverly Hills, Ca 90210
Open daily, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

Deane Dana Friendship Park Nature Center
Situated on a hilltop overlooking the harbor, this park offers one of the most expansive views of Los Angeles to be found anywhere! In addition to hiking trails, a picnic area and a pleasant playground with a pirate-ship theme, the well-designed new County-operated nature center offers enrichment classes for school groups, education on local species like the endangered Palos Verdes Blue Butterfly and several tanks featuring reptiles and amphibians both familiar and exotic.

Must See: Live rattlesnakes! Check out several juvenile specimens of our local rattlesnake species. Yes, rattlesnakes look mean and may seem a mite scary, but don’t miss this opportunity to familiarize your kids with these creatures in a controlled environment, before they run into one in the great outdoors.

1850 West 9th Street
San Pedro, Ca 90732
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Online: parks.lacounty.gov/Parkinfo.asp

Audubon Center, Debs Park
This center, which operates most programs on an English-Spanish dual-language basis, plays host to school groups during the year and a popular science camp during the summer, as well as bird-watching seminars, art classes and a film series. Located in the fourth-largest park in Los Angeles, the center hosts regular walks through the park’s scenic and species-rich woodland, grassland, and coastal sage scrub.

Must See: Waterfall! The water feature and “sandbox” in the Audubon Center courtyard combine to create the most naturalistic play area we’ve ever seen—your kids will have a blast, and you might even get a chance to relax and enjoy the gorgeous surroundings.

4700 North Griffin Avenue
Los Angeles, Ca 90031
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Online: ca.audubon.org/audubon-center-debs-park 

El Dorado Park Nature Center
If you live on the Westside and you make the trip down to Long Beach to check out El Dorado Park, you might come back cranky that your neighborhood doesn’t have an 800-acre park featuring everything from stocked fishing lakes to community gardens to soccer fields. In the heart of El Dorado’s recreational plenty is the Nature Park, which we think is the place to go to stretch your legs right after, say, you have the baby. Nearly everything is stroller-accessible, there’s a smidge challenge to the inclines but nothing that will break your butt and the scenery is attractive but not too terribly wild. Start out at the cozy old nature center, and then select from three self-guided walking tours of varying lengths. Parking in the lot is $7, but easy street parking can be found nearby.

Must See: Antler touch table! Your little ones will get to handle a variety of genuine animal antlers, horns and bones.

7550 East Spring Street
Long Beach, Ca 90815
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 am – 4:00 pm
Online: longbeach.gov/naturecenter

Do you have a favorite local resource for nature study? Spotted any great birds or bugs in your backyard lately? Tell us in the comments!

— Jen Arrow