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Jack London park boosts student learning programs

(This is Part Two of a two-part story about Jack London State Historic Park.)

It’s hands-on learning at its best: Students actively explore and collect data on plants and animals from their own suburban schoolyard and the wilderness areas of Jack London Historic State Park to compare their levels of biodiversity.

Then the students apply what they have learned by re-imagining their school campus in ways that improve its biodiversity and create a 3D model of what their “new campus” would look like.

This describes in a nutshell Nature’s Design, a seventh grade ecology program that is an expanding, collaborative effort involving Jack London State Historic Park (JLSHP) and Sonoma Ecology Center. And Kristina Ellis, who has served as the park’s tours and education manage for nearly six years, couldn’t be more enthused about how it is enhancing students’ learning.

“The enormous creativity and thought that has gone into the models so far has been exciting and shows clearly that students are beginning to understand nature and how everything ties together within an ecosystem,” Ellis said.

Some models have taken sprawling buildings and raised them several stories to shrink their footprints and others have included solar and other green energy systems. A few have included closed-loop food systems with cafeteria gardens and active composting, all on the building roofs and patios to keep more land open for habitat and animals on the ground.

“Most importantly, the gardens they create mimic functioning wilderness areas that can support multiple species with food, water and shelter rather than just decorative spaces for people to enjoy,” Ellis said. “The project shows how students begin to understand that we can live in cooperation with the natural world, rather than sequestering it to small islands like parks.

Nature’s Design is just one of the several programs that Ellis has helped to create to accomplish one of JLSHP’s main goals: to conduct environmental education programs to connect children to nature and inspire the next generation of conservation stewards. Other offerings include docent-guided school tours, a self-guided school tour, a video learning series and video tours of the park.

Also, for young naturalists the park offers Family Adventure Day twice annually.

“This provides an opportunity for children, 9 and under, and their parents to explore and enjoy nature together through fun art and learning activities, animal encounters and walks around the park,” Ellis said.

During the initial COVID lockdowns, the park began a YouTube series, “Take 5 with Jack,” which highlighted a beautiful areas in the park and offered a mindful activity to help children and adults reduce stress.

“It was our way of bringing nature to people at a time when the public couldn’t get out to parks,” Ellis said. “We are looking to continue this virtual nature and wellness series.”

An annual short story writing contest for middle school students is also offered and this fall, Jack’s Adventures in Writing, a standards-based elementary school program, will be launched that focuses on language arts standards for upper elementary grades.

An interactive field trip program for fourth- and fifth graders, based on Common Core standards for language arts, is being developed and is scheduled to debut in the fall.

In the 1970s and 1980s, large numbers of school children visited the park annually to participate in field trips and other programs. The visits were funded primarily by the schools, but as their resources dwindled and costs increased for gas and bus trips, there was a marked decrease in school participation.

Charmian’s Circle—originally conceived by a group of local women to honor the legacy of Charmian London, Jack’s wife—is helping to boost school participation by paying for the school buses that bring teachers and students to the park and for the field trip portion of programs.

“Providing free transportation is a key element in successfully getting school groups to your site,” Ellis said. “The ideas for reaching new audiences are abundant and we are excited to see how we can serve.

“The park has always enjoyed hosting school group tours from all around Sonoma County and we are now looking forward to consciously expanding our reach beyond Sonoma Valley and into the urban areas surrounding the North Bay.”

Among other things, Charmian’s Circle is looking to make the Nature’s Design program accessible to more urban children.

Sonoma writer, artist, entrepreneur and park activist Elisa Stancil Levine said that Charmian’s Circle also plans to collaborate with nonprofits such as La Luz, Art Escape, Sonoma Community Center and county programs such as Creative Sonoma.

“It is no secret that outdoor learning enhances children’s understanding of nature,” Stancil Levine said. “State parks traditionally focused on families and children, yet the reductions in staff affected outreach and opportunities, especially for undeserved communities that might not have access to or awareness of the park. Increasing access and positive experiences is a key mission of the park, especially due to the stress of COVID.”

Like Stancil Levine, Ellis emphasizes the value of outdoor learning, saying that children learn the most powerful lessons when they are given the tools, space and time they need to explore and investigate questions through their natural curiosity.

“I find that when you offer them clear objectives and boundaries, but then let them go out and explore your questions and directions freely and in their own way, they open up and start to get really excited about the learning process,” she said. “I see shy students gain confidence and distracted students begin to focus, and a natural sense of cooperation and teamwork rises out of the joy and fun.

Ellis became keenly aware of the power of nature in childhood development while working in the educational department at the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County. She was part of an outreach program there that took fourth- and fifth-grade students from the inner-city areas of Los Angeles to nearby wilderness parks for hands-on science field trips.

“The impact that program had on those children just blew me away and I saw immediately how incredibly powerful nature and be in terms of lighting children—and adults—up, and inspiring little minds to dream really big,” Ellis said. “I knew then that this would be my version of a classroom for the rest of my life. Nature is medicine on so many levels.”

During the past 23 years, Ellis has worked with education programs throughout California and in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She also helped to design and run a program for four summers at rural schools in Zimbabwe.

“I have been able to learn from such amazing educators along the way and I was excited to bring this experience to Jack London State Historic Park,” she said. “We are working to create a comprehensive program that can serve school audiences, families and the general community in ways that can foster personal and meaningful connections with the natural world.”

She feels that cultivating these connections can be particularly helpful during challenging times.

“The power of nature to heal, soothe and calm is evident and has been documented time and again,” Ellis said. “It is easy to get lost in the outer chaos and pain of what is happening in our world today, and that can hold people in a diminished state of mental, emotional and even physical health. We need places and opportunities to ground ourselves and to reconnect with our own beings, even if only for a couple of hours.

“The world needs calm and thoughtful people to be making good decisions every day right now. Nature can help us do this.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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