Thrifty Thurston Shares the Love of Nature at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

nisqually wildlife refuge
The Nature Explore Area near the Education Center offers hands-on investigation and fun.


By Jean Janes

sunset airJust shy of the Thurston County line, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a world of trees, damselflies, and bird song. Seeking some fresh air and education, my son and I took a day to wander the trails at this lovely place.

Like most four-year-olds, my son will only focus on the most engrossing things for fleeting moments. Luckily, the Refuge offers a couple of activities with the youngest nature enthusiasts in mind, such as a Nature Explore Area as well as a Junior Refuge Manager Program.

nisqually wildlife refuge
The Nature Explore Area near the Education Center offers hands-on investigation and fun.

Both activities are fun and provide me, as a parent trying to teach my son to enjoy and safeguard nature, resources with which to direct my son’s attention toward learning about the Nisqually Refuge and the life it protects.

We start at the Visitor Center where we spend some time looking over the educational exhibits there. We take our time exploring a relief map of the region, reading some information on local wildlife we can expect to see, as well as watching some short videos about the mission of the National Refuges across the country. We then head to the counter where we are given a pamphlet and pencil. Armed with these tools, my son and I set off on the Twin Barns Loop Trail to earn him his “Junior Refuge Manager” badge and certificate.

Designed for kids from three-to-eleven and divided into age groups, my son applies himself to the three-to-seven age appropriate activities. The first item in his pamphlet is a list of items to try to find along the trails. These are items that most kids will enjoy looking at, but thanks to our list, we are sure to take notice. The list includes things like “a tree with leaves larger than your face,” a “nurse log (a fallen tree that has other plants growing from it),” and “something that smells.”

The list also reminds me of things that are worthy of special attention and an explanation for my son. A nurse log, for example, is a profound concept of death and rebirth that I hope he will remember in other contexts throughout his life. Even if this lesson does not stick this time, at least he finds it fascinating to see what happens to fallen logs.

nisqually wildlife refuge
The trails offer lovely views such as the Nisqually River Overlook.

Besides the checklist, there are some pictures to color, an area for him to draw his favorite Nisqually Refuge experience, and the pledge that all new Junior Refuge Managers must sign and promise to honor. They are excellent promises, such as picking up litter, recycling, and continuing their nature education. They are values I am always trying to instill, but the Nisqually Refuge gives my son a badge and certificate to seal the deal, and he takes his new duties very seriously. His certificate of training is now prominently displayed in our home while his badge will certainly remain a treasured item.

We stop intermittently just to be still and listen. Damselflies flitter close enough for us to inspect their shimmery blue and then dart away before tiny fingers can get ahold. The bird song titters and warbles and I love the look on my son’s face as he begins to hear and understand how each one is the call of a different bird. There are plaques along our trail which give information to describe a few fowl we may be hearing—herons, wrens, sandpipers, and swallows. I do not know nearly enough about birds to identify which music belongs to which, but perhaps I have sparked an interest for my son and maybe someday he will be able to match them up for me.

After an invigorating mile of walking and investigating, we head down the road to the Environmental Education Center where the Nature Explore Area is located. While the Education Center is only open by appointment for schools and field trips, the Nature Explore Area is open to all kids, with children ages two to eight in mind. With activities such as giant logs to climb through and a corner just for digging, my son has great time. Clean air, clean dirt, and a whole lot of interesting things I know he’ll remember, this has been a fun day for us both.

nisqually national wildlife refuge
A fantastic wonderland, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge helps me teach my son the value of our natural world.

It is a gift to be able to provide a magical place, unsullied and wild, for my son to appreciate. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge not only represents nature preserved, but it also serves as a reminder of what we are passing on. My hope is that he will remember the musical sounds, his promises to take care of our natural resources, and, of course, the joy of digging holes in the Nature Explore Area.

Thrifty Thurston highlights inexpensive family fun in Thurston County.  The weekly series focuses on family-friendly activities throughout our community.  If you have a suggestion for a post, send us a note at  For more events and to learn what’s happening in Olympia and the surrounding area, click here.


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