Outdoor classes for kids in Alaska nourish desire to learn and discover

Erin Kirkland

Samuel Gold, 7, balances on a rock at Pole Point on Campbell Creek while searching for minnows on Friday July 17, 2015. During the Trailside Discovery Camp, Gold along with fellow campers searched the creek for minnows for catch and release exercises, learned about the salmon cycle and how to keep creeks healthy.
Shelby Lum / ADN

HOMER — Peering into a tide pool filled with seawater left by a retreating tide, a group of young citizen scientists offer opinions about its contents.

“Worms. Fish. Crabs. Trash.”

Answers to the question of just what belonged, or didn’t belong, in Alaska’s watery habitats were diverse, coming from an audience of kids and parents during a beach walk sponsored by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer. Clad in their own pint-sized versions of Xtratuf boots and foul-weather gear, these children were more than casual or temporary observers of Homer’s shorelines. This was their home, and they were there to learn about ways to protect and preserve it.

Given the expanse of wilderness beyond most Alaska backyards, one would think kids in the 49th state don’t need much in the way of outdoor education. After all, nature is steps away from schools, parks and playgrounds, with near-daily opportunities for enrichment in the ways of wild places. Right?

Outdoors classes during 1970s

I grew up in the 1970s, during a time of nationwide energy crises and campaigns like “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute!” Even in my semi-rural community outside of Seattle, deer wandered nearby hillsides and kids spent hours building neighborhood forts and hiking to lakes full of bullfrogs and trout. The intricacies of a nature-nurture balance was implied through experiential play, an abundance of time and an annual thing our parents called “outdoor school.”

Back then, area schools sent legions of youngsters away to camp once a year for outdoors classes. We slept, ate and breathed concepts like recycling, plant identification, survival and energy conservation. Kids returned home with signed promises to turn off lights and protect rivers and streams from infiltration by trash, and we drove our parents mad with rhyming chants about the water cycle.

These days, while Alaska doesn’t have a specific model for outdoor education beyond the realm of field trips during the school year, there does exist a statewide collection of nature centers and outdoor-themed facilities that strive to reach both resident and visiting families. The ability of nature centers to engage young visitors and their families about Alaska today means more children will potentially become Alaska stewards tomorrow, and that’s a good thing.

Planning an Alaska stay-cation this year or next? Consider a visit to the following places for your own family’s version of “outdoor school,” and see how much new information you can discover, whether you’re a lifelong resident or a newcomer.

Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Homer. Located on scenic Kachemak Bay, the center has been a leader in environmental education since 1982. Priding itself on activities for kids and adults, the center operates three different facilities in Homer and one across the water along the shores of Peterson Bay. New this year are sleep-away camp opportunities for kids and families.

 • Campbell Creek Science Center, Anchorage. Considered a hotspot for school field trips, Campbell Creek Science Center also offers group classes in everything from soil science to team building and outdoor leadership. Located in the middle of 740 acres of forest and creek land run by the Bureau of Land Management, the center is the culmination of years of community support and dedication to Anchorage’s wild spaces. Free programs include Midsummer Nights Science Series presentations and wintertime Fireside Chats, suitable for most age groups.

Eagle River Nature Center. Tucked away in scenic Eagle River Valley, the nature center is a quiet place to savor Alaska’s remote forestlands and riverbanks. Open all year for classes, presentations and special events, the nature center’s Junior Naturalist and Knee-High Naturalist programs keep kids engaged with their natural world, and annual Halloween and winter solstice walks are favorites of many families. Trails connect to Crow Pass and the Historic Iditarod Trail, with opportunities to overnight at an Alaska State Parks public use cabin or collection of yurts.

Denali Education Center, Parks Highway. With a goal of fostering hands-on connections to Denali National Park and Preserve, the Denali Education Center is more than it looks like from the outside. With solid programming that covers topics like exploration, canoeing, hiking and ecosystem education, the facility takes kids, adults and groups into Denali National Park for multi-day experiences that rival similar programs in the Lower 48. The organization also offers a weekly “Tundra Tots” program for toddlers and preschoolers to promote a healthy, outdoor-based lifestyle.

Creamer’s Field Migratory Bird Refuge, Fairbanks. This wide expanse of grassland provides a temporary home for migrating birds and is also a place of fascinating discovery. Walk the meadow trails and look for sandhill cranes or geese. Take a guided hike through the boreal forest, or sign the kids up for a “Camp Habitat” session for young people. Creamer’s Field is a special place to learn about the importance of stewardship toward birds and the wild lands they inhabit. The annual Sandhill Crane Festival, held each August, is popular with Fairbanks residents and visitors from around the world.

Sitka Sound Science Center. What began as a small effort to educate residents and visitors about aquaculture has blossomed into one of Sitka’s most visible and sustainable organizations. Housed in the old Sage Building on the fringe of what was once Sheldon Jackson College, Sitka Sound Science Center now hosts day camps, field trips and weekly programs for preschoolers. Visitors should not miss the touch tank and outdoor hatchery, or Ludwig’s chowder cart, for that matter. Classes and seminars are held year-round for all age groups, including parents.

Erin Kirkland is author of “Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children”, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s family travel resource. She is currently working on her second book, due out next year. Connect with her at togoak@gmail.com.

Kids in the Outdoors Calendar

 Alaska Zoo Friday Night Live Music, 7-8:30 p.m., Fridays in July and August. Included with regular zoo admission, or included free to pass holders. www.alaskazoo.org

Campbell Creek Science Center Midsummer Nights Science Series, July 22, 7 p.m. at the center, 5600 Science Center Drive, Anchorage: Inch by Inch: Gardening with the Family. With a little preparation and creativity, children can chip in on the family garden.  Patrick Ryan of the Alaska Botanical Garden has tips, and information on native plants for young gardeners. Free.

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Summer Program Series, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (programs vary according to age). www.fws.gov/refuge/kodiak. “Families Understanding Nature” is geared toward kids ages 3-5, and “Wildlife Investigation, Learning, and Discovery” is designed for kids ages 6-12. Both are full of hands-on learning. Saturdays are family-friendly walks and hikes with a refuge naturalist or volunteer. All events are free.

Denali National Park Learn to Camp program for families is Aug. 7-9 or Aug. 14-16 in Denali National Park and Preserve.  National Park rangers and Alaska Geographic staffers will facilitate programs designed to teach basic camping skills, including campsite set-up, cooking and dealing with wildlife at the Savage River Campground. Fairbanks Public Lands Information Center will provide camping gear and Alaska Geographic will offer meals and snacks. Space is limited. (907-459-3731, Maria Berger).

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