SSU launches nature guide training this fall

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You may have never watched a bobcat hunt or a Soap Plant bloom atop Sonoma Mountain, but you can help children from county schools get that chance. This year a new Sonoma State University program is training community volunteers to be citizen naturalists and guide 3rd to 5th grade area students to experience some local treasured wild places in person.

Signup for the second Community Naturalist training session closes midnight September 8.

The four-day session offers a unique opportunity to explore some of Sonoma Mountain’s premiere natural wonders with university staff and other experts, gain insights about local features, and learn ways of sharing this natural knowledge with local schoolchildren.

The playground at Evergreen Elementary School in Rohnert Park sits in the shadow of the 14-mile-long tall ridge known as Sonoma Mountain, but it could be a universe away. As the students learn about nature from books and classes and screen time, the mountain’s wild places — home to woodpeckers, towering oaks and puma, rushing streams and rustling grass — go on as they have for millennia, just a few miles away.

To try and bridge the two, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria last year offered funding support to the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District for a school-to-mountain project. The Center for Environmental Inquiry (CEI) at Sonoma State University (SSU) was selected to run the project, and has now extended its long-running naturalist training program to prepare public volunteers to bring classes of 3rd to 5th graders on field trips into the mountain’s protected preserves for a guided, five senses immersive experience.

In the world view of the Coast Miwok people, Sonoma Mountain was Oona-pa’is, the place where the world began, an island raised above the primeval waters. Home to local Miwok, Pomo and Wappo peoples, the mountain still contains some of the wild beauty and unique natural features of that original landscape.

SSU currently manages 4200 acres of natural preserves on Sonoma Mountain for research, training, and education.

The environmental Center, one of the longest running environmental programs in the county, offers skill-building experiences to students with a coalition of faculty, experts, businesses and community members seeking solutions to North Bay sustainability challenges.

In all, CEI plans to introduce 24 District classrooms to the mountain’s wonders this year through the Naturalist Training Program. They’ll also escort another 48 classes from around the county. According to Kerry Wininger, CEI Outreach Manager, students and naturalist volunteers are both wildly enthusiastic about the experience.

“Our approach is to really listen to classes, what children tell us. We don’t follow a strict curriculum. The field trip is about engagement — the naturalist asks, what did you hear, learn, see? We explore ponds, see snakes and lizards, the mountaintop. Students learn that a rock is also a home to some of the mountain’s creatures,” she explains.

Time spent in nature is important, many health experts believe, and some, like Richard Louv, with the Children & Nature Network, cite studies that offering ‘green’ experiences to young students not only improves academic performance, but addresses what many consider a ‘nature deficit.’

CEI says its programs are designed to empower learners of all ages and disciplines to develop skills to solve environmental challenges.

Wininger notes participants learn soft skills too, including how to conduct research and develop leadership.

“Our goal is to make participants awake, prepared, engaged,” she said, to learn stewardship, and find solutions to environmental and sustainability challenges, especially in the North Bay.

This is the second semester for the Community Naturalist Program. About half of the program’s participants have some sort of background in nature or outdoors. Some have recently retired. The trainees include ranchers, neighbors on the mountain, as well as people who’ve worked with kids: artists, biologists, psychologists.

Trainings and tours are held at SSU’s Fairfield Osborn Preserve, a 15-minute drive from Sonoma State’s main campus. After completing the training course, new naturalists will help lead five schoolchildren’s tours in the preserve in October and November.

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