If you have been anywhere kid-centric around Austin in the last decade, you have probably spotted a copy of PCC member Annette Lucksinger’s guidebook Exploring Austin with Kids beckoning cheerfully from a counter or display case.
To celebrate the 4th edition of Exploring Austin with Kids, which came out last month, we asked Annette about her favorite new nature-play spots in Austin, her tips for encouraging outdoor play, and how her children’s relationship to the outdoors has changed as they’ve become teenagers and young adults.
Now through the end of May, you can get a signed copy of the new edition at www.ExploringAustinwithKids.com with free postcards, a bookmark, and free shipping!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in the Texas hill country and moved to Austin as a freshman at UT where my explorations as a small-town girl in the big city often got me lost! My solution was to transfer to the more rural area near rival school Texas A&M, where I worked as an after-school counselor at an elementary school and graduated with a degree in English. I then moved back to Austin for a year before heading to graduate school in Fort Collins, Colorado. After that, Austin drew me back again to raise my two kids as native Austinites.
Obviously, this city has a pull on me. I love the creatives who live here, the nature you can find in its midst, and the diversity of experiences to be had. It’s a truly unique place. That small town girl in me still seeks out the natural world. And my favorite place to be is outdoors with kids. They bring that natural curiosity and wonder that is so spectacularly contagious.
Following this passion has led me to work with some amazing organizations and people who love the outdoors and getting kids of all ages out in it. I have headed the parent garden committee at Ridgetop Elementary, served on the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee for Austin ISD, taught courses on sense of place and sustainability at St. Edward’s University, written a guide for the Save Barton Creek Association, and acted as a docent for fourth grade field trips with the Colorado River Alliance. I find it inspiring how many Austinites invest their energies into protecting and enjoying nature.
Currently, I spend my time writing and working as a summer camp director at Camp Longhorn, directly across the lake from where I spent my college summers working at Inks Lake State Park.
What are your top two nature-play or outdoor spots from the 4th edition? Any new discoveries?
The remodels by the Austin Parks Foundation at Pease Park and the Alliance Children’s Garden at Butler Park have been a couple of my favorites. The re-use of those spaces have made them so much more fun, kid-friendly, artistic, and unique. Both offer lots of space with a range of activities, from splash pads to nature build to cool climbing structures (and as a gardener, I love the landscaping). Pease Park continues to add community events to its calendar as well. Squirrel Fest in April is a new family-friendly annual event that went into the new edition of the book.
In updating the guidebook, I also added quite a few new restaurants. So many places are finding value in dedicating spaces for children to play and explore outdoors. It also builds community. As I was researching Meanwhile Brewing, I sat at a picnic table beside a dad who had talked his kids into collecting smooth rocks of a particular size to build a fort. Soon, he had a dozen kids from all over the brewpub running back and forth to his table, bringing rocks. It was great!
How can parents and guardians best support kids’ outdoor play and connection to the natural world?
MAKE IT FUN! Here are some tricks that I have found to work well to prolong our time outside together:
- When I lived in Colorado, my husband and I would reward ourselves after a long hike with ice cream. We carried on that tradition with our kids.
- When you go to a creek or lake, take buckets, nets, or shovels to encourage play.
- Treat hikes as adventures. You can turn a trail map into a treasure map, with the waterfall, creek, or lake as the treasure to be found at the end. Look for birds and critters along the way. Take pictures. Stop for snacks. The hardest lesson for me when my kids were little was to remember it was about getting out together and not about completing the trail.
- It’s perfectly okay to keep it simple. A trip to the neighborhood park, splash pad, or restaurant with a playscape can be the perfect amount of time spent outdoors. Plus, you can walk or bike to those! If you want to add variety or a sense of adventure, try a nearby neighborhood where you haven’t yet ventured.
- Invite friends! Kids are social creatures, and outings become much more fun with others.
- Visit areas where kids can build and safely play with natural materials like sticks, stones, leaves, bugs. My youngest loved to build rock dams when he was little. I remember one outing to Barton Creek where the founder of Austin Tinkering School (and his hero for teaching him how to use power tools) came across him in the middle of the creek, building. My son is now 17 years old and applying to colleges to be an engineer. Letting kids explore their interests through play at an early age can be so beneficial.
The first edition of Exploring Austin with Kids came out almost a decade ago. As your kids have become teenagers and young adults, what has changed in their relationship to the outdoors? Are you still able to connect with them around a shared love of nature exploration?
I love this question! As a parent, there is a tricky balance to wanting to pass on your values while not wanting to overdo it for fear that you will push your kids to rebel against these later in life. I vividly remember reading The Lorax to my youngest son at the age of five. At the end, he said, “Well, why can’t the Once-ler sell thneads?” I paused. Had anybody ever taken the side of the Once-ler in Dr. Seuss’s cautionary tale of what industry has done to our planet? I flipped back to the pages and pointed out the fish swimming in brown ponds, the Swomee-Swan flying through clouds blackened by pollution, and the starving Bar-ba-loots, shoulders hunched as they evacuated. He sat undeterred in his opinion that there should be choice. “Is this my child?” I wondered.
Today, he is a teenager, and our debates continue. A couple of years ago, I was lamenting our reliance on modern conveniences and espousing a going back to live on the land so we could relearn how to support ourselves. Then the Snowpocalypse hit. As I sat bundled in ski clothes indoors, a headlamp shining dimly on the pasta I was trying to boil on a cookstove in my dark kitchen, he said, “Hey mom, you still think you’d like living on the land?” He’s the realism to my idealism.
But I get glimpses that my love of the natural world has secretly seeped into both of my kids. They have learned to look. And to appreciate.
My oldest son is now a sophomore at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He will occasionally text me a photo snapped on his way to class of a beaver swimming in the creek, geese on the lawn, or of the rhododendron garden across from campus. For my birthday, he sent me cherry blossoms in a ziplock bag.
I even have texts as evidence from my Once-ler-supporter who has sent me bird videos or a photo of the cardinal spotted from his upstairs window, bathing in the bird bath that I set up at the back of the yard. After a trip he took to Colorado, he came back full of stories and bearing gifts. Those two shiny rocks he gave me sit on my windowsill – like Truffula seeds.