Discover the great outdoors this summer! #ForestChat #sponsored

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Although this is a sponsored post for TravelingMom, as always all opinions stated here are 100% my own or those of my family.

When I was a kid, I felt like I had the best of all worlds. No ‘City Mouse’ versus ‘Country Mouse’ for us – my family lived in the suburbs, close to the amenities of a large metropolitan area, but our particular neighborhood wasn’t quite so ‘citified’ and boasted horse farms nearby, roadside produce stands and plenty of woods to explore all summer long. And that’s what we did.

Our house wasn’t in a subdivision – our street and the ones on either side were filled with houses that had been built one at a time over a longer period (and weren’t at all ‘cookie cutter’), were mostly set farther back away from the road (with no sidewalks), and the large backyards were still separated by strips of leftover woods, so you never saw your neighbors behind you. This strip of woods was sort of a no-mans-land that we kids used to travel from one house to another, and down to the end of the street, across which sat our elementary school, also surrounded almost completely by woods, a nature trail and a small creek.

I remember summer days filled with playing outside – whether in our yard, a friend or neighbor’s yard, or in the woods by the school. This was back when the cell phone was still something out of science fiction and kids simply ran wild all day – as long as we were home by dark. We collected flowers (and left paper cups filled with them on neighbors’ doorsteps for May Day every spring), climbed trees, threw stones in the stream and crossed it back and forth on trees that had fallen spanning both sides, and played badminton until it was too dark to see anymore. We came home sweaty, sticky, covered in dirt, bug bites, and often various scrapes or scratches – but that’s just what summertime was for us back then.

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That sense of safety that we had to roam the neighborhood is mostly gone now, but there are still plenty of ways for kids to get outside and explore nature. We visit area parks often. And our suburban neighborhood may have cookie-cutter houses, but my kids love to chase and catch butterflies and fireflies, collect interesting flowers and leaves, ride their bikes, or simply run around our yard and our neighbors’ yards with the neighbor kids. They create chalk masterpieces on the driveway, paint rocks with watercolors, swing, throw balls for the dog to fetch and more often than not, my husband and I end up out with them in the evenings throwing (or hitting) a ball around. The other evening, at various points we had games of street tennis (on our dead-end side street), badminton, and beach ball volleyball going on in or in front of our yard, with our kids and various friends – and I loved every minute of it.

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What we haven’t done is to immerse our kids in nature away from home very much – my husband hates to camp and until this year I haven’t been willing to try taking the girls out myself. I challenged myself recently though – I told the girls that I WILL take them camping this year. Someplace with woods to explore, maybe a stream to throw rocks in or a lake for swimming. We don’t even have to go very far – here in West Michigan, we have plenty of parks, campgrounds, nature centers, rivers and lakes within a short drive, and Lake Michigan’s beaches and dunes are only an hour away as well. I can’t wait to sit by a campfire and eat s’mores, sleep in a tent under the bright stars, and point out constellations with the girls.

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It’s easy to find forests and parks with the National Wildlife Service’s Discover the Forest website – you can search to see what’s near you and it’s easy to filter by what activities you’re looking for (or want to avoid). There are also downloadable guides, games, activities and more on the site to get you ready and excited about spending time out in nature as well. You can even take a Virtual Hike right from your living room, to get the family used to the idea.

Join @Cheecker and @kimorlando for a fun Twitter Party all about the great outdoors with the US Forest Service at 1 p.m ET on June 26th – just follow #ForestChat on Twitter!