KENAI — Once a month the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Environmental Education Center adorned with taxidermy and kids’ artwork fills up with preschoolers and their parents as well as a few siblings eager to learn, play and create.
On erecent Thursday, when kids arrived to Little PEEPs — Preschool Environmental Education Programs — they saw laminated paper mice, shrews and voles — the theme of the session — scattered about the main room of the center.
After Michelle Ostrowski, education specialist at the refuge, read a story with help from the kids who counted mice in the illustrations of the book, she taught them the difference between the creatures.
Then she set the kids loose to find the paper mice, shrews and voles in the room. When the kids found most of them and got some high-fives from parents, Ostrowski helped the kids identify which animal they had — a mouse with a long tail, a vole with a short tail or a shrew with a pointy nose.
After the kids sorted their creatures into the right group, it was time for a game. Ostrowski pulled out a parachute and said that it represents snow. With the adults holding the parachute, the kids took turns in groups hurrying under the parachute and pretending to be mice, shrews or voles hiding under the snow. The kids also took turns walking or crawling on a rope Ostrowski unwound on the floor for the kids to follow like mice in a snow tunnel. Ostrowski said the kids usually do a couple activities each session.
“I let the kids kind of run around and be noisy and get that energy out,” Ostrowski said.
Two poems and a snack came before craft time. The kids made a little mouse with part of an egg carton, pompoms, yarn and googly eyes, and they made a vole family out of their thumbprints on paper plates.
DeeAnn Steffensen, who has been bringing her son Daniel Steffensen, 5, to the program for a few years, said the variety of activities and subjects has kept them coming back. She said after a session they often further discuss what Daniel learned at home.
Between the two morning sessions, about 45 preschoolers attended as well as some older and younger siblings.
“I think it’s great to target the youngest kiddos and get them excited about what our refuge is and just the basics — learning the different Alaska animals and wanting to learn more,” Ostrowski said.
The refuge has been putting on the free program for about four years for 2-5 year olds. Ostrowski said it’s important to her that the stories she reads for the sessions are fairly realistic not “bear and mouse held hands and skipped to the lake and had a picnic” type of stories.
Refuge intern Bailey O’Reilly has been assisting with the program since August 2013.
“It is adorable,” she said.
Ostrowski said while siblings are welcome to come, the preschoolers have priority when it comes to craft and snack supplies. She said parents are not allowed to drop off kids at the center because the program is meant to be experienced together between parent and child.
Anna Lattin, of Soldotna, said she regularly brings her kids to Little PEEPs. She said it has a broad appeal for younger kids and it’s informative and entertaining.
“I just think it’s a wonderful community program,” Lattin said.