Karin Niehoff has brought her students to the Sonoma Plaza for the second time this week. They scurry around, measuring the diameter of the rose garden with a trundle wheel, then figuring out the perimeter of the historic park in the middle of Sonoma – and, from that, the area of the Plaza itself.
The Plaza, by the way, is 167 meters on a side – according to the perimeter hand-walked by the Crescent Montessori School class. Which makes it 27,889 square meters – just under seven acres.
When they take a break, they eat healthful crackers they brought from home and sip mango peach tea. “Are we allowed to have more?” asks one. Then they’re off again, hand-made clinometers and string (to calculate the height of objects) in hand to measure the largest palm on the Plaza.
Though this is education-as-usual for Niehoff’s class of third- through fifth-graders, it’s a special occasion for the teacher: on Friday, Niehoff will accept the award as Conservationist of the Year from the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley. It will take place at the annual Arbor Day Celebration, beginning at 11 a.m. at the Grinstead Amphitheatre.
In the brief eight years since the City of Sonoma has thrown its weight behind an annual Arbor Day Celebration, the honor of Conservationist of the Year has only grown in credibility. First to be so honored was Bob Cannard, Sr. – though he passed away five days before the award – in 2009. Subsequent winners have included Pat Elliot and Mickey Cooke in 2012, Tom Rusert in 2013, and last year’s winner Joanna Kemper, among others.
Ken Brown, former mayor and always active in planning the celebration, sees the award as doubly fitting, giving Niehoff’s participation in previous Arbor Days. “Her kids are well-behaved, polite, smart – they always bring poetry to the event. They help plant the tree, they sing, they just get into it.”
The relationship the Montessori students have with the Plaza is deeper than most school children have for their City Hall, but it forms a core of Niehoff’s curriculum. “With species of trees from countries all over the world, students can have sense of belonging to the greater community of life; a secure, loving, interesting and inviting place,” she says.
“I think if I conserve anything it’s children’s curiosity,” she says of the award, but she’s being modest. She’s also inspiring those children by using the Plaza as an open-air laboratory for their inquisitive young minds.
Her classes walk to the Plaza from the school, located at the Sonoma Community Center a few blocks away, and spend a couple hours at a time exploring it in all its aspects – biology, botany, mathematics and history. “They know quite a lot about City Hall,” she says, in a way that should make the City Council tremble.
Then she clarifies: “They know that the City Hall has the same design on all sides, and where the basalt came from that built it – up off Cavedale Road.”
The 11 children range from third to fifth grade, yet they’re busy doing the kind of math that might challenge their parents. They are completely and wholly unintimidated by the science, or the math, or the opportunities the Plaza provides: it’s part of their classroom – and that’s a big reason Niehoff is being honored as Conservationist of the Year.
Arbor Day Celebrations
The 2017 Arbor Day Celebration will begin at 11 a.m., Friday, April 28, in the Grinstead Amphitheatre. Ken Brown will MC. Others on the program include Mayor Rachel Hundley, guest speaker Supervisor Susan Gorin, musician Bo Sapper, poet Michael Sheffield and students from Crescent Montessori.
• The Overlook Trail Arbor Day hike will begin at 12:30, led by docent Rosemarie Marks. Meet at the Overlook Trail kiosk, 198 First Street West.
• The Mountain Cemetery hike will begin at 2:00 p.m. Interested hikers will again meet at the Overlook Trail kiosk. Amateur historian Fred Allebach will lead the hike.
• Saturday, April 29, two Arbor Day hikes to the Wolf House are scheduled at Jack London State Historic Park, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Meet at the Ranch parking lot.
• A Day of the Child / Arbor Day event will take place at Maxwell Farms Regional Park on Saturday, including nature walks, special exhibits, rock climbing, music and other activities. Begins at 11 a.m., ends at 3 p.m.