It's partly location, pre-trip and post-trip programming and creative financing programs that brings classes back to Bluff Lake Nature Center, but it's the on-site programming that seals the deal.
Bluff Lake Nature Center is located at the southeastern corner of Denver's old Stapleton airport, directly south of the city. It's located in a basin where Bluff Lake is fed by storm water runoff (which was hard to come by this year).
Bluff Lake is surrounded by a large wetlands area, a stream corridor (Sand Creek), some short prairie grass and meadows with various native grasses.
Bluff Lake sees deer, foxes, coyotes, beavers, owls, hawks, water fowl, shore birds, migratory birds and even a bald eagle in the winter.
"For a tiny place surrounded by the city it's a heck of an oasis for wildlife," says Bluff Lake's executive director Steve Norris. "It's a great blend of the conceptual and the tangible. A lot of city kids have never been outdoors, don't know what wildlife really is and they think ducks are scary. In just two hours we see a change in attitude in the kids and we hope that persists."
The tie between the conceptual and the tangible happens during the walk through the various habitats represented at Bluff Lake -- prairie, riparian (along a river or stream) and wetland.
Bluff Lake limits attendance to no more than two classes, then further breaks down the groups –- typically ten per group –- to more easily facilitate teaching.
The programming starts with an introduction, the history of the site and the rules. Then the groups walk the trails, stopping often to do hands-on activities, play games and role-play. It's important to break up the walk, particularly with the K-4 age groups Bluff Lake specifically serves.
Programs include Sensory Discovery -– where children learn about how various animals' senses are different from theirs and how they can use their senses to look at nature –- and Healthy Habitats, where children are taught what makes a healthy habitat, the main components of a habitat (food, water, shelter and space) and what kinds of animals live in different habitats.
Third and fourth graders go through the Wetland Wonders program. Bluff Lake is a storm drainage runoff area, and they discuss how the city is impacting the site, how wetlands are beneficial to people (clean the water, provide a floodplain, recharge ground water, and so on).
Activities are progressively more advanced for kids who have been out to the site before, and depending on their age group.
"Because each program has two grades involved, a kid may come out in third grade and have already done the activities. They might come out in fourth grade and we'll start doing some water testing and soil samples, and things like that, so we do more in-depth activities with returning students."
Norris adds, "The whole rationale for us doing this is that the wildlife refuge itself is a great place for kids to be."