The first three months of 2012 were even wetter than normal in metropolitan Portland. March alone saw a record 7.89 inches of rain. It impacted everything from rivers to roads and didn’t do much to improve the malaise that sets in for Oregonians that time of year. At Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, however, the rain was fun, fun, fun—thanks to the Puddle Stompers program.

While many Portlanders remained indoors, kids and their parents put on rain gear and ventured out to the refuge. From January through March, refuge staff and volunteers led six sessions in which young nature enthusiasts (ages one to five) sang songs, read stories, went on walks and, of course, stomped in puddles. They did it all in the name of learning about the animals that thrive in Oregon’s rainy climate.

About to enter its fourth year, Puddle Stompers registers individuals and groups, such as day care centers, for its sessions. The program, which is promoted in Friends, volunteer and refuge newsletters and local Web sites, is so popular there is often a waiting list.

“The goal of Puddle Stompers is connecting young people with nature,” says Gardiner Platt, environmental education coordinator at Tualatin River Refuge. “We have a weekly theme—like ducks, frogs or water—and we get dirty and have fun exploring them.”

The kids aren’t the only ones having fun.

“We didn’t anticipate how important this connection would be for parents,” says Platt. “They are having a good time alongside their little ones and seeing winter weather and wildlife in new ways.”

Just ask Carissa Ainoa, mother of 15–month–old Anuhea: “Not only did the group learn about tadpoles becoming frogs, the kids were actually dressed like frogs in their matching rain gear, which was really funny.”

That gear was supplied by the refuge and Challenge Cost Share, a Service grant–matching program that provided start–up money for Puddle Stompers. Recurring costs—supplies and educational staff positions, such as Platt’s full–time job—are covered by Friends of Tualatin River Refuge grants.

Nearly 500 kids and adults have splished and splashed with Puddles Stompers so far, estimates visitor services manager Kim Strassburg, who came up with the idea. “I went to the YMCA during winter and saw little kids and parents inside participating in crafts,” she says, “but back at the refuge there were no preschool children and parents out exploring.”

Strassburg saw a need to “make going outside in winter fun and attractive to parents and their children,” and Puddle Stompers was born. “What is better than stomping in puddles and learning at the same time?”

Refuge manager Erin Holmes echoes Strassburg. “It is really about the joy of being outside,” Holmes says. The kids “don’t have to know the names of the trees, bugs or birds, but if they know they can come here to discover them, that is what we want.”

Platt calls volunteers “the heart and soul of Puddle Stompers … They plan the activities, choose the stories, lead the walks and even write some of the songs we sing.”

Because of the program’s growing popularity, Platt plans to increase its capacity slightly when it runs again January through March 2013.

“Kids and parents tell me they look forward to it each week,” says Platt. “We offer the opportunity for discovery, and we want to continue to do this, rain or shine.”

Amanda Fortin is a Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) intern in the Pacific Region office in Portland.