Monroe Conservation Commission
Monroe Town Hall
7 Fan Hill Road, Monroe, CT 06468
203-452-2800
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An Education in Mother Nature

Written by Marla Hoffman
June 14, 2008 Monroe Courier

      When one walks through the forest, different sights and sounds may invigorate the senses: A warm breeze breaks the canopy and urges you farther down the path; the distant sound of cracking branches brings about consciousness of the life around you; the smell of the earth generates the feeling of being a part of nature itself.
      These are often some of the experiences people have when walking through the woods. In a country and state, where preserving open space and forest area has become an emergency situation, Monroe residents are lucky to have an abundance of opportunity to spend time outdoors.
      The Monroe Conservation Commission has been working to preserve Monroe's landscape and make it into something that can be enjoyed by families, hikers, schools and anyone else wanting to enjoy nature.
      The Webb Mountain Discovery Zone, the commission's biggest success story, is drawing residents to its paths through education and appreciation, using elements of local history, biology, botany and other sciences.
      Through the work of the commission, Monroe Science Coordinator Bonnie Maur, Environmental Biologist Hank Gruner and State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni, a Scavenger Hunt has been incorporated along the trails, as well as a Butterfly Garden and Outdoor Classroom.
      Using the Scavenger Hunt as a tool to educate children on the different plant and animal life that can be found in the forest, and integrating elements of local history, such as remnants of 18th- and 19th-century farms that have been overtaken by the forest over time, the commission hopes to heighten the learning process for students.
      "The initial goal for this project was to work with the Monroe school system to provide a way to take learning outdoors and enhance the existing science curriculum with more field study," said Tom Elbogen, chairman of the Conservation Commission. "Hands-on education is widely believed to make learning more relevant and interesting, and helps students make connections," Elbogen said.
      "The Discovery Zone is perfectly suited for outdoor education because of its unique habitat that supports many types of amphibian life, perfect for studying biology. In contrast to nearby Webb Mountain Park, the flat terrain makes it very easy to navigate. Beyond the outdoor classroom, we were looking for other avenues that would tie into education in some way," he said.
      According to Ellbogen, Gruner helped initiate the idea for interpretive signs that mark the trails on the Scavenger Hunt. He and Bellantoni were able to identify points of interest along the trails, which happen to include historical sites. Maur has helped identify several grades that can benefit from the Discovery Zone and is working toward integrating it into the science curriculum.
      "We are extraordinarily fortunate to have had the top experts in their field donate so much of their time to this project, and we think that the quality of people's experience at the Discovery Zone reflects this," Ellbogen said.

Coming to life
      With hands-on education in mind, the free-of-charge Discovery Zone brings topics, that children would typically learn about or experience in the classroom, to life.
      "The goal is to make science, biology and history relevant and exciting, versus what, for some, can be boring or intimidating," Ellbogen said. When you walk down the old, 19th-century road we call "Memory Lane," history is there in front of you, he said. "It's real; it's not a painting or a photo in a history book."
      "Kids can look in the park for the quarry holes or look for the charcoal from the old kiln that existed in the 19th century, and look under boards for salamanders. The interaction makes it all come alive so the experience has a meaningful impact," he said.
      Jim and Carey Dougherty and their daughters Maya, 8, and Olivia, 7, were able to experience the Discovery Zone firsthand. Setting off on a warm Saturday morning, escaping to the cool protection of the forest canopy was a welcome respite for them, from the intense heat that broke upon Connecticut this weekend.
      The flat and clear-cut trails guided the Doughertys toward the many stops along the way that explained the historical and biological significance of each particular site. A walk down "Memory Lane" led the Doughertys past long-forgotten rock walls that once partitioned farmers' fields and marked the roads, past the birthing station where the animals would give birth to their young, and past evidence of where Native Americans once made tools of quartz.
      Other roads led the Doughertys past the man-made vernal pools, where cattle used to drink and frogs and salamanders now lay their eggs; past decomposed logs, where the presence of bacteria, fungi and animals that live in the forest are evident; past the kiln site, where wood was burned down to make charcoal for blacksmiths; past lycopodium, a tree often found covering the forest floor; and past milky quartz, gneiss and schist, evidence of Monroe's geology.
      The roads - Classroom Court, Memory Lane, Froggy Freeway, Salamander Street and Turtle Turnpike, among others - led the Doughertys through miles of easy walking. In case anyone was tired, benches were found at several junctures along the way.
      Having been designed for their age group, the Scavenger Hunt had several highlights for Maya and Olivia.
      "I learned about the liken on the trees," Olivia said, "and how the paths used to be roads that were built by settlers. Also the cedar trees that are there now grew where there used to be pastures. But my favorite part was learning about the different animal prints," she said.
      "I enjoyed learning about the 18th-century rock walls, which are from the 1700s," Maya said. "We saw the birthing area for cows and other animals to have their babies. I liked finding arrow heads and quartz on the ground too," she said.
      Their experience at the Discovery Zone wasn't just stimulating for Maya and Olivia, however. Jim and Carey saw the value in what their kids were learning.
      "It's neat to just close your eyes," Carey said, "and imagine what we would have seen 200 or 300 years ago. We would have seen people making charcoal, Native Americans carving arrowheads, different kinds of farm animals and horse carriages. We see traces of that today, as evident by what we discovered."
      "This is a great place to learn about the past and nature," Jim said. "It is an outdoor classroom that is enriching for both parents and kids. It says a lot when you can get the kids to come back."
      Olivia had walked the trails of the Discovery Zone before, but wanted to bring her family back to experience it, too.
      "It's also a great family outing," Carey said. "You get exercise by walking the trails, but it's not too rugged."
      "Just bring bug spray," Jim said. "This really is a great way to learn, and it's nice to think we're standing right here in history."
      "Some kids think this stuff is only a few years old," Maya said. "But it has really been here a long time."

The mission
      As much as the Discovery Zone's Scavenger Hunt is geared toward children and students, the appeal is much broader.
      "We have people who love to come here with their dogs, because it's pretty and easy to walk," Ellbogen said. "We get bikers and runners."
      According to Ellbogen, the park has already drawn interest from schools and groups in and out of Monroe. Several daycare center field trips are planned this summer, and Monroe schools and other districts are planning to use the Discovery Zone Outdoor Classroom. The commission is also planning to create a tutorial for Scout leaders for the fall, so they can take troops around the Scavenger Hunt.
      "We know this is a perfect venue for families, because while the children can enjoy the Scavenger Hunt, parents can get some exercise and enjoy learning some new things as well," Ellbogen said. "People can come this summer just for a picnic and to check out our new Butterfly Garden."
      Local arborist Ken Twombly is assisting the commission in identifying the plants that are used in the Butterfly Garden and with parking lot landscaping, which he designed.
      "We think the Discovery Zone is a jewel that will help enhance the quality of life in Monroe," Ellbogen said, "much like Wolfe Park, which is so important in differentiating Monroe from other towns."
      "At a time when it's so expensive to travel and the economy is forcing people to cut back, it's great to be able to take advantage of something that provides both fun and educational opportunities for the whole family - free of charge," he said.
      According to Ellbogen, the importance of creating appeal to the outdoors is crucial in today's world.
      "Today's children are spending less time outdoors, and there are growing concerns about the long-term consequences, in terms of emotional well-being, physical health and learning abilities from these trends," he said. "We know we are competing with television, computers and video games, and to get today's kids outdoors and keep them going back ... we have to make it fun and interesting."
      With this in mind, the scientific and historical aspects of the Scavenger Hunt were put in place to increase the chances of keeping the children's attention pointed toward the outdoors and what can be found in nature, Elbogen said.
      What might otherwise be a simple walk in the woods is turned into exciting detective work, he said. "And because children actually enjoy familiarity and repetition, the Scavenger Hunt gives them a reason to come back repeatedly and reap the many benefits that we know the outdoors has to offer them."

June 14, 2008 Monroe Courier


The Monroe Conservation Commission manages parks and open space properties for the town's enjoyment and use, including Webb Mountain Discovery Zone and WebbMountain Park. It is in the planning stage for the Chalk Hill Nature Trail, Lane's Mines Park, and the Halfway River properties.

Commission Members
Cindy Ambrosey
Gail Bunovsky, Vice Chairman
Tom Ellbogen, Chairman
Michael O'Reilly, Secretary
Andrew Pfau
Michael Visconti
Christine Clark, Treasurer
Town Hall Liaisons
Dave Solek
Vincent Mangiacopra

The Monroe Conservation Commission
meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7:30pm
in the Town Hall conference room.
Public participation is welcome.
Email us at monroeconservation@monroect.org with questions, comments
or concerns about our properties and nominations for Conservationist of the Month.
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