PUBLISHED: 1:59 PM on Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Where naturalists are made
Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center opens the door for children's learning

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Lisa Miles talks with her son Cedar Miles, 5, about his plans for his art project. Miles said her son has been faithfully attending Kid's Day at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center on Saturdays since last summer.
They are geologists, herpetologists and naturalists in the making. Ages 4-9, they meet at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center on Saturdays to learn about rocks, bugs and frogs, ermine, shrew and water.

On a frigid Saturday in mid-March, Riley Sikes, 5, sits next to his sister, 21-month-old Grace, his mom Heather and 16 other would-be scientists all making rocks out of yellow, purple, green, blue and red construction paper.

"They're learning respect for nature-what rocks are made of and that you can't take a piece of a tree, put it in your pocket, and take it out of the forest," said Heather Sikes, a Juneau native who used to spend her Saturdays as a child hiking near the Mendenhall Glacier.

The art work is part of "Can You Dig It?" a geology lesson on the rock cycle - how they're formed, spit out, broken down and formed again over thousands of years. This hour-long session, held in the morning, is designed for 4-6-year-olds.

It started with a story about rocks, and ended with a question and answer period that helped children identify how minerals, which make up rocks, are found in every day items, such as toothpaste, vitamins, building glass and soil.

Responding to a question about the contents of glacial flower, the fine rock dust created when glaciers grind rocks together as they move down the mountains, one child produced a cookie.

A more advanced session, held in the afternoon and aimed at the 7-9-year-old Junior Ranger set, followed the first.

Both are part of the Kid's Day Saturdays at the glacier, which introduce children to the natural world through stories, videos, puppet shows, crafts and discussions on topics such as water, frogs, spiders and scat. Funded by the Alaska Natural History Association and the U.S. Forest Service, the Kid's Day programs are free.

They have been offered for at least the last seven years and run throughout the year. Sessions for younger children typically attract 15-25 participants and their parents.

The sessions for older students are smaller.

The summer sessions are held outside under the covered view area and after the organized activity, many families hit the trails.

Teaching science to young children can be challenging because of the limited attention spans of little ones, but Forest Service Information Assistant Elayne Boyce, a former secondary school science teacher, who runs the winter Kid's Day programs, succeeds in holding their interest.

She admits to being amazed by what some of her youngest students understand.

"They know words like igneous and sedimentary and can explain to me these processes," she said referring to rocks made by erupting volcanoes and those made from pieces of earth, which collect in layers on riverbeds, and the floors of lakes and oceans and ultimately are compressed into rock.

Adult chaperones have told Boyce that the "making part" where children are invited to create their own arachnids, fire rock, limestone and amphibians are particularly instrumental in helping children to recall ideas.

"That's what my son remembers when he gets home, he talks about what he made," observed one parent.

Boyce's programs focus on local flora and fauna, and are cleverly organized to keep participants moving.

One Saturday she led a session on the Mendenhall's mini mammals, which include ermine, shrew, mice, mink, porcupine, beaver and red squirrel.

Tracks of individual mammals were taped to the floor; participants were assigned an animal, had to find their tracks and follow the footprints around the room. It helps when children learn about subjects with which they are already familiar.

Boyce says porcupines sometimes will occupy trees near the visitors center and there's a shrew that appears regularly on the center's web cam.

Water, water everywhere, another popular Saturday session, invited children to follow a drop of water-rain from a cloud, a snowflake landing on the glacier, a tad of moving groundwater. At each destination, participants picked up a colored bead that they could thread onto a cord to make a bracelet.

The Kid's Day winter program culminated on Saturday, March 25 with a focus on how, metaphorically, the land awakes in spring. On the roster: ice breaking up in rivers; how tree buds are formed. The Kid's Day program will not be held in April, but the summer program will begin on May 20.

The visitor's center has scheduled two special Saturday events which will include activities for children. On April 22, Earth Day, there will be a full day program for children aimed at recycling and how they can make a difference.

On May 13, International Migratory Bird Day, which celebrates birds' journeys between winter and summer homes, there will be craft programs and short, guided hikes to help children explore the natural environment and to see the flocks of migrant birds that come through Juneau in the spring.