Parks Interpretive staff gets creative, connects kids with their natural world

“…State parks connect all Washingtonians to their diverse natural and cultural heritage and provide memorable recreational and educational experiences that enhance their lives...”

- Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission mission

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Amos Almy careens around a Skagit Valley classroom honking and flapping his wings, er, arms, in a display of avian migration. He lowers his face and pecks to simulate eating grass. Throughout the room, 23 Head Start students ages 3 to 5 follow Almy, a Washington State Parks interpretive specialist. The kids flap, honk and peck until giggles get the best of them.

Tina Dinzl-Pederson, Parks’ interpretive specialist for the Salish Foothills area, smiles at the memory.

“The kids thought Amos was magic,” she said.

Almy and Dinzl-Pederson were visiting Skagit Head Start in Mount Vernon to give a lesson on “Migration, Adaptation and Hibernation,” behaviors of local wildlife.

The pair used snow geese to demonstrate migration, bears to show hibernation and coyotes to explain adaptation.

As bears, the young students “woke up” in spring, stretched and began searching for berries and food. They practiced using “bear lips” to pick berries (blueberries and raisins) off a bush (their hands). They did this until it was time to find/build a den and sleep again for the winter. Dinzl-Pederson later helped students build bear dens out of graham crackers and royal icing and place gummy bears inside. At the end of the exercise, the kids ate the dens.

The versatile, non-hibernating coyote required even more imagination. First and foremost, the students howled. Then they grew a “winter coat,” by putting on jackets or hugging themselves. Finally, Almy had them put on “coyote ears” and hone their reflexes to find food.

“Coyotes have to listen,” said Almy. “The kids cupped their ears and got quiet to hear critters under the snow. When I yelled ‘jump!’ they pounced.”

DInzl-Pederson, who has been working with school groups for 10 years at State Parks, said the joys and challenges of early childhood education lie in making it fun.

“That fun is making an impression,” she said. “You’re affecting parts of children’s brains that need to be stimulated."

Classes in state parks and State Parks in classrooms

State Parks interpreters host many school groups at such parks as Olmstead Place Historical State Park, an 1875 pioneer farm and Cama Beach Historical State Park, a fishing resort from 1934 to 1989. School groups also visit parks with such natural features as old-growth trees and tide pools, where they take guided walks with rangers and interpretive staff.

Though Dinzl-Pederson said many interpretive specialists have full calendars of school visits, she finds value in going to classrooms.

“A school may not have a bus or funds to rent a bus for a field trip,” said Dinzl-Pederson,” so I always leave myself time to go out from the park.”

Often when she visits a classroom, she takes an array of taxidermy animals and simulated food sources. (Fruit punch in a narrow-necked bud vase can approximate a hummingbird’s nutrition and method of feeding.)

Pick a theme, almost any theme

Teachers will often ask park staff to speak on a theme, such as the “Migration, Adaptation and Hibernation,” theme posed by Skagit Head Start.

“It’s interesting to take what the teacher wants and turn it into an activity,” said Almy, who also asks thought-provoking questions of his young audiences and leaves them to think about it for a while.

“Kids always want to share their experiences with you,” he said. “Asking tougher-than-usual questions gets the gears turning in their minds.”

Connecting with nature at school

Head Start programs in particular may not have field trip funding, and field trips may not be appropriate for 3-year-olds. But traveling park staff gives underserved and low-income children a chance to connect with nature on their own turf, at their own developmental level.

“We’re trying to get the next generation excited about the outdoors, and you can see it happening,” said Almy.

After the program, the Skagit Head Start teacher sent Dinzl-Pederson a thank you.

“These children will forever have a memory of this experience,” said the note. “You’re changing lives one child at a time.”

For Almy, however, the biggest rewards were not the accolades from the teacher or his colleague.

“The best part?” he said. “You could see the smiles on the kids’ faces.”