Cheesequake State Park, New JerseyIf you think winter’s chill means you need to keep the kids at home all the time, you may not know about the indoor pleasures of New Jersey’s nature, environmental, and interpretive centers. There are quite a few of them in the state, and each one has exhibits to pique the family’s curiosity about the natural world. Many also offer outdoor bonuses, such as hiking trails, bird watching, biking, skiing, and more.

A Quick Look at New Jersey's Nature Centers

The most popular exhibits at Cooper Environmental Center at Cattus Island Park (Toms River, NJ) “are the live snakes and turtles,” says its director, Christopher Claus. “Visitors are welcome to use the free binoculars on the observation deck to check out the surrounding marsh.” Claus says children “don’t spend enough time in outdoor natural settings. Here, they have more time to explore, and although they may not necessarily focus on one particular activity, they learn while browsing the numerous exhibits.” Exhibits change frequently, but certain things, like the reptiles, are perennial favorites; 732-270-6960.

At Cheesequake State Park’s Interpretive Center (shown in photo) (Matawan, NJ), learn about ecosystems, local history, and flora and fauna, see live animals (more snakes!), or watch a film. You also can take a walk with Jim Faczak, naturalist extraordinaire, or attend one of his lectures.

“There’s something different to see or do each time you visit,” Faczak says, “whether it’s helping to feed a diamond-back terrapin, a Russian tortoise, or fish, participate in a craft, dance, or participate in our family fishing program. Bring nuts along to feed resident squirrels and chipmunks on the front deck. Our goal is exposing children to the wonders of Cheesequake and to create an environmental stewardship among them,” he says, so kids are aware of the importance of salt marshes and keeping our waters clean; 732-566-3208.

Explore nature and history at Trailside Nature & Science Center (Mountainside, NJ) through its state-of-the-art exhibits. Learn about nocturnal animals in the night theater, walk a meadow, try the interactive displays, crawl through an old log to view live fish and turtles, and learn about Lenape Native Americans in a life-sized wigwam. Or traverse 13 miles of hiking trails dotted with lakes and streams; 908-789-3670.

At Cora Hartshorn Arboretum (Short Hills, NJ), the Stone House holds both stuffed and live animals. These include reptiles, fish, a boa python, and chinchillas. The chinchillas are very popular because they’re unusual, but it’s also fun watching birds at the feeders outside the bird observatory room. Check out the marked trails and the gardens. And consider it as an unusual birthday-party venue; 973-376-3587.

Two more nature centers you won’t want to miss include the interactive exhibits and the family programs at the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center in Chatham Township, NJ (973-635-6629), and the first-class learning experience at the Environmental Education Center in Basking Ridge, NJ (908-766-2489). Call or visit the websites for a schedule of programs, workshops, and nature-related special events.

Arline Zatz, from Metuchen, is the award-winning author of several New Jersey guidebooks, including Best Hikes With Children in New Jersey (The Mountaineers).