School & Community Programs

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Trailside Nature & Science Center is the Environmental Education Center of the Union County Department of Parks and Community Renewal, under the auspices of the Board of Chosen Freeholders. It is located in the Watchung Reservation, a 2,065-acre preserve containing woodlands, fields, lakes, streams and more than 13 miles of color-coded hiking trails. This serene setting provides the perfect classroom to have fun while learning about the natural world around us.

The Visitor Center, renovated in September 2006, houses 4,500 square feet of interactive, state-of-the-art exhibits, featuring a towering 34-foot American beech tree exhibit which fills the building’s atrium. Other features include four classrooms, a multi-purpose room, a library and an auditorium with seating for more than 250 guests. New educational exhibits include:

  • Forest Community Wetlands
  • Edge Habitat Night Theater
  • Meadow Geology of the Watchungs
  • Vernal Pool Children’s Discovery Room
  • Lenape Native Americans Backyard Habitat
  • Wildlife Viewing Area

Trailside’s Group Programs are conducted by professional staff in a safe, enjoyable and educational manner. Programs may be adapted to accommodate different grade levels. A range of current New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards are addressed in each program. A list of the standards is available upon request. See Trailside’s Fee Schedule for rates.

Specific programs (marked with the car symbol to the left) are available for off-site classroom presentations or assemblies (for groups located within a 25-mile radius of Trailside).

Tour Trailside’s new state-of-the-art exhibits. Learn about the layers of the forest and life under a log. Enter a hollow tree to view live box turtles. Stroll through the meadow and enjoy interactive displays highlighting insect life. Take a seat in the night theater to learn about nocturnal animals. Discover how Lenape Native Americans lived by walking into a life-sized wigwam. Crawl through an old log to view live fish and aquatic turtles thriving in a wetland habitat. Look for wild birds, chipmunks and deer at our wildlife observation site and find out how you can help wildlife in your own backyard. 45 min. –1 hr.

Learn about these extinct animals by pretending to be a paleontologist. Search for “fossil” remains of dinosaurs and help reconstruct a dinosaur skeleton. Compare the actual sizes of several dinosaurs and mimic the walk of a T-Rex and Stegosaurus. 45 min.

Investigate the wonders of fields and forests through touch, smell, hearing and sight. Children will be introduced to descriptive terms corresponding to shapes, colors, textures and numbers in nature. 45 min.

Search the forest floor to collect, identify and release a variety of nature’s recyclers. Participants will use magnifying “bug boxes” to get an up-close look at earthworms, millipedes, beetles and ants. Learn about the big jobs these small creatures perform. (April-June & Sept.-Oct.) 45 min.– 1 hr.

All animals need shelter to survive. Discover which animals call the Watchung Reservation their home. See a bird’s nest, an engraver beetle tunnel and the home of a bald-faced hornet up close. Search for animal hideouts and learn what building materials are used. Take a short hike to a variety of habitats to find evidence of animal homes and hideouts. 45 min.- 1 hr.

Identify the unique characteristics of reptiles. Compare the similarities and differences between snakes and turtles. Find out how snakes hunt and eat their prey. Discover how turtles eat without teeth and why they bask in the sun. Touch turtle shells and a snakeskin shed, and feel a replica reptile egg. Interact with a live snake and turtle. Indoors. 45 min.-1 hr.

GREEN WONDERS – 2-5th grade
Find out about the tallest, largest and oldest living organisms to ever inhabit the Earth. Students will participate in fun activities that demonstrate how people and animals depend on plants for their daily survival. Then take a hike along our trails to discover the uses of specific plants. 1½-2 hrs.

FEATHERED FAUNA – 2–12th grade
Explore the diversity of bird life found in the Watchung Reservation. Unique adaptations and behaviors will be emphasized. Listen to bird calls and examine feathers, bones, nests and eggs. Search for birds in field, forest and meadow. Trailside features a year-round bird observation site. Program content will vary slightly with the season. 1-2 hrs. (Spring – nesting, Fall – migration, Winter – feeder birds)

MAMMAL MANIA – 2-12th grade
What makes a mammal a mammal? Investigate the characteristics of mammals and the special adaptations they need to survive. Examine skulls, pelts, tracks and scat to help identify the different species that reside in New Jersey. Compare predator vs. prey. Take a walk to search for signs of local mammals. 1-2 hrs.

NATURE’S CHOICE – 2-12th grade
Many changes take place in nature with seasonal cycles. A brief introduction will highlight natural occurrences in winter, spring, or fall. Explore fields and forest to discover strategies used by plants and animals to cope with the changing seasons. Students will use a key to identify some of the more common trees in the Watchung Reservation. 1– 2 hrs.

SAP TO SYRUP – 2-12th grade
The Algonquin called Maple Sugaring Sinzibuckwud, “drawn from wood.” Learn the Native legend of this unique American food. Investigate the seasonal life cycle of the sugar maple tree and discover how 100% real maple syrup is made from the sap. Measure the diameter of trees and see the specialized equipment needed to collect sap. Take part in a taste test to identify the real thing. Participate in a field walk to learn how to identify the sugar maple tree and observe a working tap. (Feb.-March) 1-2 hrs.

ANIMAL NEIGHBORS – 3-12th grade
Learn about the different mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that share our urban and suburban neighborhoods. Search grass, meadow, forest and aquatic habitats for what every animal needs to survive. Create a food web to see how all living things are connected. Look for signs, homes and hideouts. 1-2 hrs.

Discover the unique characteristics of the reptiles living in our state. Examine turtle shells and a snakeskin shed. Learn the importance of these often misunderstood creatures and the threats they face. Participate in an activity that tests your new knowledge of reptiles. Meet a number of Trailside’s live resident reptiles. 1-1½ hrs.

Learn the importance of conservation and sustainable living through interactive games and activities. Explore what renewable energy sources are available. Discover easy ways to help protect our planet through everyday choices and find out how you can make a difference. 1-2 hrs.

Discover the characteristics and life cycle of these unique creatures. Learn to identify some of NJ’s amphibians by sight and sound. Learn about the problems that threaten the survival of amphibians and their importance as indicators of environmental health. Search for and identify amphibians in various habitats. 1½- 2 hrs.

LENAPE OF NEW JERSEY – 4–12th grade
Watchung is the Lenape word for “hilly place.” Explore an area the Lenape people once called home and learn about their lifestyle. Students will receive an interdisciplinary view of NJ’s Native American residents through a life-sized wigwam, artifacts, maps and historically documented visuals. An outdoor search for plants used by the Lenape people for tools, medicine, food, dyes and cordage will round out this experience. 1-2 hrs.

FOREST COMMUNITY – 4–12th grade
Learn about the relationships of biotic and abiotic components of a forest ecosystem. Through group activities emphasizing observation and data recording, participants will navigate through four distinct stations which focus on the layers of the forest. The impact of humans on the forest ecosystem will be examined. 1-2 hrs.

AQUATIC LIFE – 4–12th Grade
Ponds and lakes are special communities made up of plants and animals adapted to water. Using dip nets, students will catch, identify and release insects, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans and fish. Learn the definition of a watershed and find out how we affect our waterways. Predict water quality based on the organisms found, then use water test kits to see if your predictions were accurate. Limit one class at a time. Requires two naturalists per class. Spring & Fall 2 hrs.

Grade Over 45 million years, three lava flows covered this area. Explore the geological processes that led to the formation of the Watchung Mountains. Examine samples of each type of rock: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. Learn the difference between rocks and minerals and how they are useful to people. Hike the reservation searching for evidence of ancient lakes, glaciers, lava flows and erosion. Collect rock samples for further study. 1- 2 hrs.

To schedule your group program, call 908-789-3670 Ext: 7912, Mon.-Thurs. between 9am and 2pm. Programs are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis. Please book early to ensure availability. Confirmation and additional information about your visit will be mailed to you.


Consult Trailside’s Group Fee Schedule for pricing. To secure your organization’s program reservation, payment must be received within two weeks after the reservation is booked or the reservation will be cancelled.


We welcome you to eat at our picnic areas. Larger groups are invited to use our lawn in the loop area or behind the Museum. A large playground is a short walk from the Visitor Center. A beverage vending machine is located on the lower level. Please bring a garbage bag to collect your refuse. Recycling containers are found around the facility. In the event of inclement weather and if available, Trailside can provide a room for your class to eat lunch, for groups of up to 40.


Programs are designed with indoor and outdoor components except where noted. We will go outdoors regardless of weather unless dangerous conditions exist. Please make sure students dress appropriately with the proper footwear and rain gear.

Natural History Gift Shop-

Please allow 15-20 minutes for your group to purchase mementos from their trip to Trailside. The gift shop can accommodate 10 to 15 children at a time. Please plan your shopping based on your group size.

In order to accommodate everyone, please let us know in advance if your group has special needs.

Make A Day Of It-

If scheduling allows, we encourage teachers to schedule more than one program. A full day’s visit may include a group program, lunch, a tour of the Visitor Center and a visit to our Natural History Gift Shop.

Cancellation Policy-

Refunds will only be given for cancellations made a minimum of two weeks prior to your scheduled visit. If a cancellation is received after 14 business days prior to your visit, a refund will not be issued.