By Stacey Vigallon, Director of Environmental Education | Photos by Stacey Vigallon
As students hike through the mid-beach, they are asked to keep an eye out for evidence that animals were present. This helps to keep students engaged, offers lots of opportunities to compare and contrast animal tracks, and gets students thinking about what wildlife is doing when humans aren’t present.
This is the view that greets students when they arrive at Dockweiler Beach for the Snowy Plover Field Trip Program. California native plants are incorporated in both the building landscape and can be found in the dunes.
During the past three school years, the seasonal Snowy Plover Field Trip Program has brought over 1,300 LAUSD students to the beach to be “biologists for the day” and to enjoy time in nature. Though Los Angeles, and California as a whole, maintain many miles of public beach, a recent report by UCLA and San Francisco State University highlighted the challenges that many residents face in actually getting out to the beach, particularly lower-income residents (see KCET’s online interactive summary of the report: https://www.kcet.org/redefine/access-for-all-an-interactive-report-on-challenges-to-coastal-access). The LAUSD schools we work with are classified as Title 1, meaning that a large number of students face financial hardship. Even more troubling is the fact that about 1 in 45 LAUSD students are dealing with issues of homelessness (J. Resmovits, Los Angeles Times, Nov 24, 2016). This makes access to nature more important than ever, as studies continue to underscore the beneficial effects of time spent in nature on mental and physical health (visit childrenandnature.org for an lengthy list of sources). Los Angeles Audubon’s field trip programs to the beach, to Ballona Wetlands, and to Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area are providing a much-needed community service.
During the 2015-2016 school year, we opted to move the Snowy Plover Field Trip location to the beach directly in front of the Dockweiler Youth Center. While spotting a Snowy Plover is a little less of a sure thing at this site, it has enabled us to substantially expand the scope of our field trip curriculum. Students now get to scan the open ocean through scopes and binoculars with the guidance of volunteers, comb the wrackline to study kelp, invertebrates, and micro-trash, hunt for animal tracks mid-beach, and discuss earth science concepts in the dunes. Students take notes and sketch in their own field notebooks and give short presentations about their team’s adventure to the group as a whole at the end of the tour. Perhaps the most important part of the day, however, is the hour-long lunch-time at the beach. This is an opportunity for students to engage with nature on their own terms — a time for supervised but unstructured play. It is fascinating to watch the students organize themselves: soccer players establish teams and referee their own games, engineers and architects work together to build cities in the sand, and artists create work from what they find along the wrackline. Ending the day this way is an essential component to the field trip program, as it provides students with much-needed exercise, fosters imagination and innovation on the part of students, and helps students see natural areas as places that are fun and rejuvenating.
The following photos provide a glimpse into the Snowy Plover Field Trip Program. Many thanks to the volunteers who assist each school year in getting kids out on the beach to learn about nature!
We also wish to thank the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Disney Conservation Fund, and donors for supporting this program.
You never know who you might find in the dunes! This egret hung out with a team of students for over twenty minutes, and we were able to observe it hunt (and catch) lizards. Predation in action!
Observational sketch from a student’s field notebook.
Students explore the wrackline under dramatic clouds. Kelp, invertebrates, tiny shells, and trash all make great objects to sketch in a field notebook.
In a short walk along the wrackline, students were able to see just how much trash can accumulate on beaches after a storm event. These were some of the single-use straws we removed and threw into a nearby trash can. Experiences like this give students a real-world understanding of how daily actions in the middle of the city, like littering, can impact habitat miles away.
A team of student artists spent their lunch time creating ephemeral artwork with natural objects they found along the wrackline.
Students use binoculars to check out birds on the beach and the open ocean. Hosting the field trips in the fall and winter months maximize opportunities to see grebes, scoters, godwits, plovers, and more. Students are always thrilled when they spot sea lions or dolphins as well.
Taking good notes requires teamwork! In addition to writing down observations about wildlife and habitat, students are also required to sketch an object they found along the wrackline and sketch a bird they observed with their own eyes.