FOR KIDS : Students Go Wild : With crafts, cabins and campfires, Clear Creek education center gives L.A. schoolchildren a week of hands-on learning about the value of nature.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Ask Sandy Vasquez, 11, what she did during a recent school week, and she’ll talk about hiking mountain trails, making rope from yucca plants, listening to coyotes howl, practicing Native American survival skills, singing around a campfire and bunking down in a cabin.

Sandy, a sixth-grader at Ranchito Elementary School in Panorama City, wasn’t playing hooky. For one glorious week, her studies were held at the Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center, operated in the Angeles National Forest by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Every week throughout the year, 80 fifth- and sixth-graders (20 girls and 20 boys from each of two schools) spend Monday to Friday getting a hands-on science education in the wilderness area above La Canada, and about 60 middle and senior high school students attend on weekends.


Because Clear Creek is shared by the more than 500 public schools in the Los Angeles district, each school may send students to the site only once every three to five years, and just a tiny percentage of the system’s almost 600,000 pupils have the chance to take part. Still, since the field studies program was initiated in 1925, more than 300,000 students have participated.

“For a lot of these kids, it is the first time they have ever been on a hike, their first time in the mountains, their first time in a cabin, the first time they ever slept away from home,” said Mark Gardina, Clear Creek’s resident assistant manager, who is known as “Bear” to students. “We take them away from loud noises and cars, and let them hear owls, crickets and coyotes. They are excited the whole time they are here. They are interested in everything; they touch everything; they explore. The idea is hands-on, experiential learning.”

Clear Creek is in the middle of a stand of pine trees planted about 70 years ago by the teachers and students who established the outdoor program. The compound consists of sleeping cabins, lodge, dining room, swimming pool, arts and crafts area, playground, weather station and observatory.


“We have a fabulous telescope that gives our students a better view of the night sky than they would get at Griffith Park, because we are so far from city lights,” said Debra Hetrick, coordinator of the district’s Outdoor Education Program.

A caged menagerie of native wildlife, including a bobcat, hawk, owl, eagle and snakes--which had been injured and rehabilitated but cannot survive in the wild--live at a nature study center on the premises.

Though Clear Creek’s cabins, crafts and campfires are decidedly camplike, the program is first and foremost a school. “The emphasis is on education,” Hetrick said, “but the classroom is outdoors. Students learn about environmental responsibility, different kinds of ecosystems and the balance of nature.”


“We teach them to appreciate nature,” Gardina added. “When the students arrive, a lot of them want to hurt the animals. If they see a lizard, their first instinct is to grab a rock and stone it to death. But by the end of the week, those same kids are likely to respect insects and animals. A camp is a great place to teach.”

Four resident naturalists lead a variety of science-based activities, which cover all educational disciplines, from art to astronomy, composition to conservation, geology to geography, mathematics to music. Youngsters examine--then carefully release--insects and animals.

They compare the chaparral growing along a hot dry trail with the lush ferns near a waterfall. They try to figure out the age of a favorite tree. They write letters to parents and keep journals. They practice recycling and learn to compost. They create crafts from natural finds collected from the forest floor.

“Students can more easily grasp abstract concepts, such as the cycles of nature, photosynthesis or the food chain, when they have an opportunity to actually see them, rather than reading about them in a textbook,” naturalist Judi Sturkie said. “They learn without even knowing they are learning.”

April Torres, 11, was invited to inspect “all the little things in the water” while she hiked along a creek. “I think they were newts,” the Ranchito sixth-grader said. “We saw a snake too and walked around it. At night, we looked through a telescope and saw a planet. I think it was Jupiter. It looked like a little round circle.”

“A lot of their learning flows from activities and games,” added Ranchito teacher Marla Pena, who accompanied the students on the field trip.


“For example, when we went hiking, the kids wanted to push the dirt with their feet. That led to a discussion about erosion. At night, we sat around a campfire and learned Indian legends. Then the students performed a skit, with each student playing a role as a different part of a tree. The students also set the tables; they cleaned up; they took care of themselves. They learned to interact with each other, to cooperate and to be responsible.”