Education programs convey outdoor learning at Sonoma County parks

Kristina Stanton, with the Environmental Discovery Center of Sonoma County talks to students from Old Adobe Elementary Charter School during their Rockin' and Recycling hike at Helen Putnam Regional Park, near Petaluma on Friday, September 15, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Sedimentary rock “is kind of like a big sandwich.”

That was the take away for 8-year-old Kearah Reiss-Martindale, among an audience of second- and third-graders on a recent field trip to Helen Putnam Regional Park in Petaluma.

The day’s focus was geology — how soils and minerals in the ground compact under pressure — and the 50 students from Old Adobe Elementary took turns modeling strata, or layers of rock, with bright pink and green Play-Doh.

Park naturalist Meagan Horeczko also showed her young visitors how to examine an abandoned bird’s nest for clues to its former occupant. After the group found an owl pellet on a trail, Horeczko demonstrated how to pick tiny rodent bones out of the remains, explained the ethics of respecting wildlife habitat and helped them determine the source of some scat left on the side of the path.

Connecting children with the outdoors is the goal of Sonoma County Regional Parks educational programs, which reach thousands of local students and families each year through field trips as well as events and exhibits at the Environmental Discovery Center at Spring Lake.

“My role here is to create the next generation of park visitors,” said Christina McGuirk, Regional Parks program coordinator. “We know from the research, but we also know from doing this for as long as we have been, that the kids that come out here develop a love for what they’re experiencing.”

An average 25,000 school-age children annually get out to a regional park for “Rockin’ and Recycling” and eight other themed field trips aimed at educating kids about the natural world and their place in it. The trips touch on everything from healthy eating and exercise to climate science, native cultures and ecosystem diversity.

The educational programs, expanded over the past decade or so, reinforce classroom lessons with hands-on experience, exposing youngsters to the physical and emotional health benefits of getting outside, McGuirk said.

Students hike as part of their field trip and hear about the importance of protecting nature collectively and through their own behavior.

The audience is not just students. Parent chaperones often comment on how much they learn, McGuirk said. Many share plans to return on visits with their children, she said.

Families can take in the Environmental Discovery Center together. The facility has rotating, interactive exhibits that are open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Park naturalists hold “Science Saturdays” on the first Saturday of each month, with experiments and, sometimes, guest speakers. There are also naturalist-led family hikes at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month from November through May.

The past several years have seen a surge in programming for Spanish speakers of all ages, including guided hikes, story and crafting sessions, and special programs involving cultural history and traditions.

County parks also has hosted Latino campouts at Doran Beach Regional Park the past two summers. This year featured an introduction to camping and gear, said Outreach Coordinator Irma Cuevas.

“I do public education,” she said, “and part of my job really is to connect people to the parks.”