'Backyard' bonanza

Early Dismissal Monday program offers outdoor options for students, parents

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2010

Wriggling worms. Biting beaks. Prickling pine cones.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

Local students are spending early-release afternoons away from couches and electronics, choosing instead to be close to critters and products of the earth.

It's a choice made possible through Discovery Southeast's new program, Early Dismissal Mondays, which was created to provide an option for students - and parents - on the 15 days elementary schools throughout the Juneau School District release students at 1:30 p.m.

As a parent of two girls in the program, Annika, 6, and Minta, 5, Tom Schwartz said for him, it's an excellent option. He's also a student at the University of Alaska Southeast who tailored his class schedule to coincide with his daughters' in-school hours.

"I can't go get them because I'm in class. So, it's a great feeling for me because they're outside doing something they love to do," he said. "I picked them up after a rainy day and they had fun."

Schwartz also works as a naturalist for Discovery Southeast's Nature Studies program at Gastineau Elementary. He said individuals like Scott Burton, the school's lead naturalist, are dedicated to creating activities that fit with the abilities of the group and to making sure the students have fun.

So far the groups, which exist at all local elementary schools except Riverbend Elementary, haven't ventured far from their campus backyards. But that doesn't seem to hinder the exploration that abounds with the help of inquisitive students and encouraging naturalists, said Discovery Southeast Executive Director Beth Weigel.

"We try to think about their backyard as their classroom," she said. "For example, at Auke Bay, we went out and talked about worm composting. We talked about how things decay. Then we went back to the school, dug in the dirt and added the worms (to the compost pile)."

The program at each school is individual and catered to the type of "backyard" surroundings.

"They all have a little different focus on things," Weigel said. "At Gastineau they go down to Sandy Beach."

The Auke Bay Elementary group will try to head out to the aquarium at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Auke Bay Laboratories. Participating Harborview students aim to get away from the urban environment of downtown. And once the snow starts falling, "backyards" will absolutely transform, opening up opportunities for activities like animal tracking and snowshoeing, Weigel said.

Groups are a mixed bag of ages, ranging from first through fifth grade, and the number of students tops out at around 10 kids. But the lead naturalist at each elementary is always the same.

"These folks really know the kids," Weigel said. "They are a familiar face."

Cost for the two-hour programs vary based on number of Mondays a student is enrolled. Drop-ins are an option and prices are discounted for Discovery Southeast members. Weigel said the fees are in place "basically just to cover the direct cost of having the naturalist there."

Overall, Weigel believes this program is not only a good option for parents, but it is also a way to further connect local youth with nature, the driving goal of the local nonprofit.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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