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Feature story: Outdoor Ed in Woodside

Huddart Nature Hikes Program teaches students about the great outdoors

By Jackie Gerson | Special to the Almanac

Cicadas buzzing in the trees, leaves crunching underfoot, the smell of eucalyptus trees – there are many sensations one can encounter in the forest, enveloped in nature.

The Friends of Huddart and Wunderlich Parks, a nonprofit organization providing programs and activities promoting environmental awareness and protection, is centered around the importance of exposure to nature. Throughout the year, hikes and educational programs are led in the two Woodside parks for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade.

This summer, the Friends organization is partnering with two other nonprofits, Girls to Women and LifeMoves, to provide hiking and learning experiences for 120 children from underserved communities.

Girls to Women provides underserved girls in East Palo Alto with after-school and summer programs to boost self-confidence and encourage learning. Menlo Park-based LifeMoves helps homeless people become self-sufficient. Children from homeless families participated in the nature hike program, which emphasizes learning about local ecosystems and wildlife habitats to promote environmental awareness and foster preservation of the parks, docents say.

On July 7, a total of 33 girls from Girls to Women hiked with docents through the park and visited hands-on activity centers.

Selijah, who sported vibrant green jeans and flower-patterned sunglasses, is an 8-year-old from Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto. She has been with Girls to Women for 10 months. She oohed and aahed when she saw the magic of a bay leaf working as a natural bug repellent.

Tiana, an 11-year-old who attends a charter school in East Palo Alto, said she felt the hike helped her learn more about nature. She fell into a particular fit of giggles when learning about the scat (animal droppings) of herbivores versus carnivores and omnivores.

Vaierie said she was fascinated by the sheer height of the redwood trees and continually asked the docent in disbelief if the tallest redwood really was 379 feet tall.

All docents are volunteers. Hikes are "never the same," says docent Laureen Sepulveda, from Redwood City. "I do this because I love the kids and love to share the miracle of this planet," said docent Dick Young, from Millbrae. This passion for nature and education is obvious in the docents' enthusiastic discussion of the history of redwood trees in California.

The 10-year-old program has recently greatly expanded. Last year, the program served 900 children and the pool of docents doubled. Over the past two years, the number of hikes tripled.

The Friends waive fees for the qualifying schools, and some transportation is paid for by donors. Many children experience the woods for the first time through this program, docents say.

The girls hummed with energy upon arriving at the park. They separated into groups with docents, and eagerly began to ask questions, constantly looking up and down to absorb their new environment.

Curious to touch, smell and feel anything and everything, the girls hovered near the docent when he picked up a leaf or pointed out a bug. Their eyes shot to the sky and their fingers pointed up when they saw an unmistakable red-tailed hawk soaring overhead.

The constant click of cameras could be heard as the girls documented redwood and madrone trees they liked, or small bugs they saw on the path. Many even adopted a walking stick to mirror that of their docent.

The girls laughed and giggled with each other as they tramped through the forest for what one girl said felt like three hours, but was really 45 minutes. Before concluding their hike, they entered a circle of redwood trees and repeated a pledge, led by their docent.

"Respect your neighbor, respect yourself, and respect nature," was recited in unison by 10 high-pitched voices. For many of them, it was the first time they had been encircled by nature.

After the hike, the girls visited tables set up to teach them about bird nests, skulls, scat and the main four elements needed for life. Stuffed birds that made actual bird noises and real nests were used to explain how birds avoid predators and keep their young safe.

Huge smiles appeared on the curious faces of the girls when the docent took out fake rubber scat replicas in an effort to explain how an animal's diet affects the appearance of its scat. The girls couldn't help but giggle at the mention of scat and want to touch and play with the replicas.

At the end of the hike, all girls boarded the bus with a golden park ranger badge sticker shining proudly on their shirts.

INFORMATION: Go to huddartwunderlichfriends.org for more information about the Friends of Huddart and Wunderlich Parks.

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