Back-to-school blues? Take a break at Martin Park Nature Center



Oklahoma City family fun can get lost in the shuffle during back-to-school season. 

The calendar has flipped to August, which signals summer's end.

School children everywhere are returning to class and we, the parents, are busy doing all the things necessary for that to happen. Instagram is already full of photos of #firstday photos; I see shiny shoes, coordinated outfits and new backpacks. Tax-Free Weekend is here and my inbox is screaming with clothes discounts, unique deals, buy, buy, buy.

Less photographed but equally critical to family life is what I'm doing each evening and a lot of parents are too, I would guess: sorting out each closet, drawer and dedicated space so that they're conducive to our routine. It's the season of early bedtimes, new routines and establishing how we're going to do all that is required of us for the next nine months. Last year, in that same period of time, I gestated a child and it seems like so much develops and changes through that same period going forward, from their schools to college semesters. What we do with it, the quality with which we live it and raise them, is squarely up to us. I feel that weight each year and pray for a good first grade year, a positive start to middle school and please, on please, be potty-trained so that preschool is a go.

As a teacher's wife, I also feel a sense of dread because after next week, it's just me here, with four small children, as Mario goes to work three jobs. Three, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. four nights a week and part-time on Saturdays.  We all make our choices, strangers in the internet comments section affirm or accuse, what to study, "so many" kids. We're making things work in a state that a lot of educators have fled. And we're grateful there is extra work this semester because that's not always the case either; a class got canceled last semester and things felt different, harder, with budget concerns pressing on the news but also at home. It's stressful and there's no shame in admitting that. 

A lot of parents experience stress this time of year so I'm going to make a suggestion: leave it all behind for one afternoon. Family activities to get out of the house with everyone, events still going on this summer as a back-to-school countdown, can be one way.

Last weekend, though, we tried something different: Martin Park Nature Center's free iNaturalist class. It's offered every month and an instructor shows registered participants how to use an app to photograph and tag plants, insects and animals, that are added to a community ID log.

Emily Hiatt, a naturalist with the City of Oklahoma City, explained that she attended a conference where she saw the app and then proposed its official use within her job at Martin Park because of an unlikely source: Pokemon Go. 

"We had scores of people out here playing Pokemon Go and that does get kids out of the house but they're really not experiencing the nature around them while they're chasing these fictitious characters," she said. "The other part of that is people are already taking photos on their phones of what's here. iNaturalist is ideal because you can learn more about the flora and fauna around you and hopefully want to conserve it. In a way, I was hesitant to even go there with an app because sometimes nature is really about getting off of your phone but if that's how we can reach more people and make visiting a nature center an interactive experience, I'm all for it." 

The app works in basically any outdoor location and you can control its privacy settings to identify, say, what's in your backyard without sharing where you found it. I snapped a photo of a milkweed plant and it was immediately identified. Turtles are the most common animal reported at Martin Park, Emily confirmed. We also saw a muskrat, water skippers, spiders and butterflies. My sons don't have phones but they had no problem pointing out what I should photograph next to tag in iNaturalist. 

Martin Park Nature Center is hidden in the heart of the north Oklahoma City. I've lived here more than a decade and had two babies at the Mercy hospital just a few miles away but had no idea it's there, a surprisingly short distance from Quail Springs Mall, which will doubtlessly be descended upon this weekend by families like ours looking for a bargain. Emily said visitors often come over from the hospital after treatment, to think through a diagnosis or to process a recent loss. Exercise and being outdoors are treatments used for anxiety; I can better understand that after visiting.  

I can see how visiting a nature center could be a comfort, actually, which is a lot to say given that I would not describe myself as outdoorsy. We walked the trails, took the baby in his stroller for the first time, climbed up an observation post, spotted wild birds and took the kids over to a forest-themed playground on-site. There's also an indoor area with science displays for field trip groups but families are welcome to look at soil samples, insect displays and similar models. The restrooms in the building were also clean and easily accessible. The fact that admission isn't charged is also a plus. There are events throughout the year that do cost but admission to Martin Park is free. 

If back-to-school season is stressing you out, take a break. Download iNaturalist if you want to ID plants or animals; skip it if you need a break from technology. Go check out Martin Park Nature Center. You'll be glad you did. 

No matter what the school year throws at us, we'll deal with it. We're starting off on the right foot and sometimes, that's all you can ask for when everything else demands your attention. Emily's goal is that visitors leave nature in place and work to conserve natural spaces for future generations. I think there's something to find there for self-preservation too. 

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