Since 2010, Havasi Wilderness Foundation has been helping to fund the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains’ outdoor education programs. Programs take place at Topanga State Park and Malibu Lagoon, each with their own unique focus. On Wednesday, October 17th, we visited a program at Topanga State Park, where children learn about the ecology and natural history of the Chaparral environment, and how the Native American tribes of the area lived off the land. Castlebay Lane Elementary’s 4th graders were participating in the field trip on this bright and sunny fall day.
Students arrived at the entrance to Topanga State Park, situated among oak tree groves and dry meadows. Before breaking off into groups, the kids formed a big circle and sang along to a few Native American greeting songs, led by one of the educators. The educator told the kids that this site was where the Tongva and Chumash tribes used to meet and trade, and that they exchanged greeting songs upon meeting.
Students then broke off into groups, each with their own educator to guide them. Groups rotated through several different activities. The first group we followed took a hike through the Chaparral, where they spotted Acorn Woodpeckers and learned to identify different native plant species. The educator showed the students how Acorn Woodpeckers use dead tree trunks as “pantries” to store their acorns, and told a Native American story about how the woodpeckers got their laughing sound. She pointed out an Elderberry shrub and told the students how the Chumash used the branches to construct the framework of their homes.
Another group of students were following their guide through an oak thicket. While passing the oak trees, the educator identified poison oak. “Leaves of three, let it be!” she told the students, helping them to recognize and avoid the precarious plant, which can cause severe skin irritation if touched. She then pointed out a large clump of branches tangled together next to the path. She told the students that it was a wood rat’s nest, and pointed out that it had some poison oak branches surrounding it.
“Why would a wood rat put poison oak on its home?” she asked.
Instantly, one of the students chimed in, “So that no one will want to go inside.”
“Very good,” she replied. “For protection!”
Probably the most popular activity of the day was the acorn grinding station. Students sat down on a blanket in the shade of an old oak tree while their educator taught them about a staple of the Chumash diet: acorn meal. Children paired up and were given acorns to grind with a mortar and pestle as the Chumash once did. The educator then explained that the acorn meal must be rinsed with water to remove the tannic acid before eating.
Another group of students were sitting at a picnic table in the shade. The educator passed around two sets of items: one natural and one man-made. The natural set included an abalone shell, a horsetail reed, a soap lily bulb, and a yucca fiber. The educator showed each man-made product, and then matched it up to its natural equivalent which the Native Americans used before these products were invented. She told the students that the abalone shell was used as a bowl, the yucca fiber as twine or string, the horsetail reed as a nail file, and that the soap lily bulb would produce a lather when mixed with water.
It was very apparent how much the students enjoyed their opportunity to learn outside of school, in the best classroom of all: nature!
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All photos by Sandor Havasi