Kids at Commons Ford

by Janice Sturrock

Seventy-five fifth graders from Valley View Elementary attended the “Kids at Commons Ford” pilot program,  on May 18, 2017.  The program was developed as an educational outreach effort by the Commons Ford Prairie Restoration Organization, a committee of the Travis Audubon Society.  Ten volunteers from Capitol Area Master Naturalists, Travis Audubon Society and other groups guided excited students on a day of exploration and discovery at Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park.  The 215 acre park is owned by the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department and provides several diverse habitats for outdoor exploration.

Using tools like insect nets, bug boxes, binoculars and meter sticks, small groups of 9-10 kids assumed the role of scientists for the day as they hiked around the 40 acre restored prairie while observing and documenting birds, flowers, grasses, butterflies, lizards and more.  In addition to exploring and documenting their discoveries on the prairie, the students hiked through a wooded canyon where they observed tadpoles and black fly larva in the nearby creek.

Volunteer leaders assisted students in comparing the open prairie which consisted of 3-4 foot tall prairie grasses and flowers and very few trees,  with the wooded canyon trail which hosted tall ashe juniper and live oak trees as well as rocky cliff outcroppings.

The students from Valley View Elementary, located in the Eanes Independent School District, all live in the neighborhood near Commons Ford Park.  Students and parent chaperones enjoyed learning more about the prairie and the park.  Many students had visited the park before and all were encouraged to come back to the park with family and friends in the future.

The program was developed over the last 2 years and was modeled after the “Kids on the Prairie” program at Tandy Hills Natural Area in Fort Worth.  A colorful field guide was created for the program and provides an outline of content information for volunteer guides and an educational journal for students to record observations, descriptions, thoughts, drawings, time and date and weather conditions.

The purpose of the program was to provide students with an outdoor educational field experience to learn about components of a prairie ecosystem.  Students had fun in the outdoors while exploring and discovering the natural world outside of their classroom.  A poster depicting a prairie grass with underground roots over 12 feet long emphasized the importance of prairies in providing natural erosion control and providing a filter to remove pollutants from rain water as it percolates through the ground to the water table.

Hopefully, students and parents will all learn to conserve and preserve that which we come to know and understand.

The Children in Nature Network, a national organization promoting time in nature for children and families, has conducted research that shows that spending time in nature has positive effects on brain development for both children and adults.

Some may say that the highlight of the day was spotting the great horned owlets in the pecan bottom.  Or maybe it was the opportunity to be in the park for the day, or seeing the incredible display of color on the prairie exhibited in wildflowers like sunflowers, Indian blankets, wine cups and purple thistle; or a chance to see tadpoles in a pool along the creek, or discover black fly larva on the rocks under the flowing water, or the fun of sharing a day with your friends in the great outdoors.

Read more about the restoration work at Commons Ford Prairie here.

You can visit Commons Ford Prairie with a Travis Audubon guide on August 19 for a Prairie Bird Walk with Shelia Hargis. More details and registration here!