Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center

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Just a quick five-minute drive from almost any point in Madison is an environmental and educational gem -- The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center. My family and I have attended almost every major event and class offered at the GSOEC throughout the years, and we have walked the trails in every season. From the annual maple sugaring and apple cidering weekend demonstrations, to the night-time Halloween Trail Tales and Winter Solstice bonfire, to the toddler treks and animal artist classes, we've done it all.

The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center is located at 247 Southern Blvd, in Chatham, just past the Hickory Square Shopping Center (Shop Rite and CVS). You enter the center through a long winding driveway. It is along this driveway one spring several years back, where my kids and I stopped our mini van and slid open the doors so we could watch a snapping turtle lay her eggs in a hole she dug right along the roadside. We sat for about 10 minutes watching her lay a ping pong sized egg into the hole about every 30 seconds. It was truly an incredible sight.

The parking lot is at the end of the driveway, just before the unassuming red-brown OEC building. Just inside, the walls are covered with inviting hands-on boards for kids to test their knowledge of animals, dinosaur names, bird calls, and scat. Don't worry, the scat samples are all made from rubber! Really, who doesn't get a kick out of matching the scat with its owner? Always a family favorite!

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The largest classroom is lined with additional activities and animals. In several tanks, kids can see live stick bugs, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, giant millipedes, and an adorable tortoise. They can then test their balance on the bird perch, climb in a bear cave, and make animal footprints in a sand pit. An outdoor scene with taxidermy animals fills the back wall. A bookcase on the right is filled with nature-themed puzzles, books, and games. When the kids were young, we spent hours on the rug putting together the tadpole-to-frog and caterpillar-to-butterfly puzzles.

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Heading outdoors, you'll find several beautifully maintained trails in a combination of dirt paths and raised wooden boardwalks. One trail leads to a Lenape Indian wigwam you can explore. Next to the wigwam is a great fire pit surrounded with benches made from stumps and trunks. We've enjoyed several Winter Solstice bonfires at this fire ring, listening to Native American tales, sipping hot apple cider, and roasting marshmallows. (This year's Winter Solstice celebration is Wednesday, December 20, from 7-8pm. $8 per person, and you must preregister)

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Another trail heads toward a beautiful pond where you might be able to spot turtles sunning themselves on a log, or an blue heron catching its dinner. Continue on the trails through the woods to complete the loop back to the OEC. Some trails also have bird blinds, which are large wooden walls or shelters with eye-level slits cut out so you can view the birds without scaring them off.

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The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center has numerous events and activities for all ages. Here are a few of the upcoming events to note. Some events require a small fee and an RSVP. Check the Web site, call GSOEC, or stop by for more details:

  • Lenape Day:Saturday, Oct 7, 12 noon-4pm; drum circle, dance performances, fire making, Lenape games

  • Trail Tales: Saturday, Oct 28, 5:30pm-7:45pm; hear nature-themed tales told by costumed storytellers along decorated nighttime trails.

  • Kids' Nature Fest: Cool Creepy Crawlies!: Thursday, November 9, 9am-4pm; Kids in grades 1-4 can spend the day off from school (Teacher Convention) investigating bugs, slugs, and more through games, crafts, hikes, and live bug activities.

  • Apple Cidering: Many Saturdays and Sundays in October and November. 1pm and 2:30pm. Help make fresh cider with an apple press and learn fun facts about apples.

  • Additional Kid Programs include: Toddlers & Tykes hikes, Outdoor Skills for Teens, Yoga for Nature Kids, and Awesome Animal Artists.

  • AdditionalFamily Programs include: Falling for Fungus, Music in the Woods, Trail Treasure Hunt, Home-school Adventures, Weekend Family Walks, Nature Photography Walk, and Winter Solstice Celebration.

The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center is located at 247 Southern Blvd., Chatham, NJ. The trails are open daily sunrise to sunset throughout the year. The Visitors Center is open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. throughout the year. For more information, 973-635-6629 or visit http://morrisparks.net/index.php/parks/great-swamp-outdoor-education-center/