Two things are certain about what goes on almost every Saturday morning at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center kids' day program: It's as educational as school, and it's more like play than homework.
The kids' day program, held from 11 a.m. to noon most Saturdays, is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and often is presented by a Forest Service naturalist. On Nov. 2, Laurie Lamm, a seasonal employee with the Forest Service, talked with kids and their parents about animal feet. The subject was of considerable interest to those in attendance.
"Mountain goats have toenails that wrap all around the sides of the toe," Lamm said. "Any idea why?"
Hands shot up and answers came singing from the children sitting on the floor and the benches around Lamm.
"So they don't hurt their toes," said one child in attendance.
"For traction," said another.
The kids ranged in age from 4 to 12 years and almost all of them were eager to show off their deductive reasoning skills.
"That's right!" Lamm said, holding up a rubber model of a goat's foot and maneuvering the toes so they grabbed her finger. "Mountain goats can also hold on to things with their toes."
Lamm usually works for the Forest Service as a shipboard guide with the Alaska Marine Highway System and gives kids' day presentations in the fall and spring as needed.
The science may not be ground-breaking, but a lot of it is news to these kids, and their parents looked like they were learning something as well.
Nels Tomlinson, who was at the presentation with his wife Susan and their daughter Connie, 4, and son Conway, 7, said the kids' day program is a good way for his family to spend time together.
Conway Tomlinson said he's learned a lot at the kids' day programs.
"We've learned about bats, like what kind of bats live in Juneau," he said. "I didn't know they could live in Juneau.
"It's a lot better than homework," he added.
The weekly kids' day presentations usually consist of a 30- to 40-minute talk by a naturalist followed by a hands-on activity or game. Lamm's presentation ended with kids sculpting animal feet from homemade clay and drawing animal habitats on sketch paper.
Usually about 18 kids attend the off-season programs, and 10 to 15 attend during the summer, said Denise Wolvin, assistant director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
"I'm here because I want to learn," said Tia Keopple, who came to the presentation with her father and grandmother and was sculpting a human foot. "I like to learn."
Presentations planned for this season include talks on beavers, mountain goats, why leaves change colors, and the history of Smokey the Bear.
The talks will be held every Saturday until Dec. 14, and will resume Jan. 11. A special family weekend at the visitor center will be held Nov. 29 and 30, with an extra kids' day talk, special activities and family-oriented videos.
Forest Service employee Rob Morgenthaler began the kids' day program in 1993 as a way to increase public knowledge of the agency, said Wolvin.
"Our goal is to enhance the image of the Forest Service as well as our understanding of our natural and cultural environment here," Wolvin said. "Some people do not even know what the Forest Service does. A lot of people think we're logging and that's our only focus."
The free programs are partially funded by the $3 entry fee to the visitor center the Forest Services charges during the tourist season. They are also partially funded by the Alaska Natural History Association, which provides money for supplies for the activities.
"The entry fee is actually what allows us to stay open through the winter," Wolvin said. Two full-time directors work at the center year-round, as well as two permanent seasonal employees.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.