City Council members last week received a brief recap of the new "From the Ground Up" outdoor program held in the fall at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.
Approximately 15 children - aged from 5 to 12 - participated in the seven-week program, said Traci Farris, recreation manager with the city of Ceres.
Materials used in the program, such as compasses and backpacks, were covered by a grant from Walmart.
"It was a new and unique program for us," Farris told the council of the seven-class sessions held at the lower terrace of the Hatch Road park near the Tuolumne River. "We're kind of giving children an opportunity to be exposed to nature."
No other local city provides such a program, said Farris, who would like to see its continuation.
Farris and Recreation Supervisor Cambria Pollinger volunteered their time to make the program happen, as did a number of others outside of city employment.
The program was held Sunday afternoons, Sept. 24 to Nov. 12.
The first class involved the teaching of wilderness first-aid by Brandy Meyer, such as how to bandage wounds.
For the second session, city employee Rosemary Martinez taught students how to identify birds with a small booklet.
"We got to know the lower river bluff really well with these kiddos," said Farris. "We hiked all over the place and so they got to find all the birds that are down there and there are tons of birds down there."
Angela Mendoza helped the students understand Native American traditions, learning about symbols and foot mapping. Activities including shucking corn and roasting it for a snack.
"It was all about really allowing them the opportunity for free, unstructured play while also learning about different skills they can use in nature. There's a lot of studies that go into how much better children do when they are exposed to nature."
The fourth session involved shelter building with volunteer Buzz Clark. Children learned how to build structures out of natural materials - as well as unnatural items like blankets - and that smaller structures would help keep a person warmer.
Schyler Johnson taught students how to fish in the fifth class. Johnson taught how to drag a line, bait a hook and tie proper knots and casting.
"All of the students, we saw tremendous growth in them. When they first started they were afraid to get dirty. By Week 7 we couldn't get them out of the dirt. We also allowed them a lot of freedom. We didn't ‘helicopter' them so no one got hurt. We wanted to incorporate risk into this learning environment because you learn better when there's a little element of fear and giving them that independence."
Freedom also meant allowing the kids to scamper up a hillside of rocks.
The sixth class involved identifying plants with the help of Pam Speed of California Landscape Supply of Ceres. The group hiked around looking for native plant species and learned how birds can plant non-native plants. Students were able to take home a plant for which they care.
Each week a craft was supplied to compliment the theme of the lesson.
The final class involved Ceres Fire Department personnel teaching the safe way to build a fire by which to cook and draw warmth. Ceres Fire Chief Rich Scola came out with his crew to build a fire pit and talked about wind and distance from trees. The activity ended with the roasting of marshmallows.
A stop at the Howard Stevenson Memorial at the park opened a discussion about the importance of respecting police. Farris remembers asking students if they had family members in public safety when one five-year-old told him his father was killed in the military.
"It's kind of one of those things I will never forget," said Farris.
The program was deemed a success with parents asking if it will be repeated. Farris said the city staff is considering a smaller program but on a smaller scale.
"We're definitely going to be emphasizing nature again this year."
The city is planning a teen campout and a family campout.
Mayor Chris Vierra commented that the program was a great one.
"I wish that more of the youth could experience," said Mayor Vierra.
Councilwoman Linda Ryno teasingly piped up, "What about us older people? You should have a program for us older people."
Vierra drew laughs when he told Ryno, "You can climb all those hills all you want."