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STAY AND PLAY: Getting back to nature (centers) across region

"Playstation" by Bridget Beck at Franconia's Sculpture Park encourages children to climb and explore the exhibit.

Summer is a perfect time for getting outdoors and exploring nature.

There are people who are content with slinging backpacks full of supplies over their shoulders and trudging off into the unknown.

For those who would like a little more guidance, there are a few options in the area.

Willow River State Park Nature Center

Located at 1034 County Road A in Hudson, this Wisconsin state park has a nature center that invites interaction.

Upon opening the door, guests are treated to the sight of Alice, the 4-foot-long fox snake.

Alice is in a large glass tank set just off the floor so even the youngest of guests can see inside.

The public part of the center is limited to two rooms, but it is packed with plenty of exhibits.

There are three "What Am I?" displays, which describesa wetland, prairie or woodland animal and encourage visitors to stick their hands inside to "feel" the answer, such as an actual bison hoof or turkey feather.

A large bird exhibit occupies one wall, where guests can push buttons to select a bird and where it comes from.

There are also skull and hide displays, as well as books and puzzles available for kids to use.

Hidden Ponds Gift Shop is located to the side of the entry, where books, toys, posters and walking sticks are available for purchase.

Restrooms are located just down the sidewalk in the bathhouse. A newer playground with picnic tables sits beside the bathhouse, and adjacent to the swimming beach.

As with all Wisconsin state parks, a day pass for Wisconsin residents is $7; $10 for a nonresident.

The Willow River Nature Center is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. They are closed on Mondays.

For more information, visit their website or contact the nature center at 715-386-9340.

Interstate State Park Nature Center

Although Interstate State Park is the oldest Wisconsin state park, the nature center is relatively new.

Built in 1982, the Ice Age Interpretative Center, located on State Highway 35 in St. Croix Falls, pays homage to the glaciers that formed many of the park's features.

The building itself is rather impressive, with a fireplace to the left of the entrance, and a vaulted ceiling in the exhibit room. A outdoor deck with plenty of seating overlooks the dense forest. A gift shop is also housed in the facility.

The building was expanded in 2009 to include a classroom and kitchen.

Visitors can screen a 20-minute film "Night of the Sun" about the history of glaciers in Wisconsin in the center's auditorium. The film is shown every day at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Inside the exhibit area, a map of the world covers one wall, showing the world 15,000 years ago during the Ice Age. There are also exhibits describing the legacy of the glaciers.

As an added activity, kids can receive free, age-appropriate activity books that they can complete and bring back to any Wisconsin state park and receive a badge. Explorer bags are also available for guests to use during their visit to the park.

The Ice Age Interpretative Center is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

A day pass for all Wisconsin state parks is $7 for residents; $10 for non-residents. Residents can purchase an annual pass for $25.

For more information, visit their website or call 715-483-3747.

Franconia Sculpture Park

It's not technically a nature center, but it certainly encourages an appreciation for blending art with the outdoors.

The Franconia Sculpture Park is located at the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 95 in Franconia, Minn. It is approximately a 40-minute drive north of New Richmond.

The sprawling 20-acre property features 75 larger-than-life sculptures created by artists from all over the world.

The contemporary artwork is accessed through a series of paths - some grass, some gravel. Golf carts are available for visitor use.

Each exhibit has a small plaque that features the name of the piece, a short description of materials used and information about the artist. Pieces are rotated throughout the year.

There are artist-led tours available on Sundays at 2 p.m., but the park itself is open free to the public from dawn to dusk 365 days a year.

The park is supported by donations, and they do have special events throughout the year, such as music festivals, symposiums and workshops.

Some of the art, such as "Playstation" by Bridget Beck, encourages kids to climb and play on it. "Playstation" is a huge structure of plastic tubes, wood and fabricated steel that features swings, bridges and even an underground hideout.

For more information, visit their website or call 651-257-6668.

NEXT WEEK: Museums and historical sites.