The first wave of nearly 6,000 schoolchildren began to descend Friday on Tolay Lake Regional Park east of Petaluma as part of a wider Fall Festival celebration this weekend and next.

Students are invited to take a hay ride to the massive pumpkin patch, make dolls from corn husks, try their hand at archery, dip candles and wander through the huge barn that is converted into a haven of critters and animals. There will be plenty of docents to explain the sights.

The field trip provides fun with a good dose of learning, said Madrone Elementary School kindergarten teacher Donna Boyes.

"They need to be hands on," she said. "Even the hay bales — when I talk about straw, they can feel it. It really supports the curriculum."

While schoolchildren are haunting the grounds midweek, the general public is encouraged to attend the festival this weekend and next.

In the "night-time creatures barn" lighting was dim and creepy, and critters were at every turn. A venomous beaded lizard from Mexico lounged in one display case, while rattlesnakes were coiled up around the corner.

Laurie Osborne, education coordinator with Sonoma County Reptile Rescue, had three snakes — a boa constrictor, southern pine snake and a python — wrapped around her while children squealed after touching them.

"They are used to it," she said. "This is their job, they are the education animals."

The scariest sight, according to second-grader Avery Simonds?

"Pretty much the tarantulas, but also snakes and scorpions," said the second-grader from St. John's Lutheran School in Napa. "I'm freaking out to see the tarantulas."

Outside, Triana Elan, a volunteer from the Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, stood under overcast skies and simulated an eclipse using her bright orange shirt, a lens cap and telescope.

"We have no sun, so we are improvising an eclipse so they know how that works," she said. "

While the weekday visits focus on school field trips and education — there is still fun to be had.

A gaggle of small faces gathered at Volunteer Starlene Boyer's table to make jewelry out of noodles. The pieces are modeled after the cycle of water and dyed to denote evaporation, condensation, precipitation, run-off and transpiration.

"Each color represents a cycle of water," she said. "But they are really just making macaroni bracelets."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671, or on Twitter @benefield.)