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Preserving family fun
Sawnee offers learning outdoors
Carrie Toth of Sawnee Mountain Preserve talks about composting with program participants, including Kirstin Westphal, Elaine Kaiser, Cason, Emery and Arkady Zarro, Tina and Tyler Johnson and Miriam Kaiser. - photo by Jennifer Sami
On the Net

For a full listing of upcoming events at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, go online at
Arkady Zarro leaned far over the compost pile filled with dirt.

“Miss Carrie, I think there are worms in the bottom of there,” he said.

Carrie Toth, who teaches the preschool explorers class at Sawnee Mountain Preserve, pulled an earthworm out of the pile and showed the children how it made dirt in her hand.

“I didn’t put worms in here,” Toth said. “They came in here on their own.”

The preschool explorers class is one of many programs this month and next at the preserve, where hikes, classes and outdoor activities bring families together for a variety of experiences.

“My intended audience is more families,” said Toth, program supervisor. “I’m trying to get more people to realize that spending time outside is healthy.”

At the preschool explorers class, the children move to different activities, indoors and outdoors.

Each week has a different theme, and each season the themes change.

Thursday, the children worked on worm crafts, listened to a worm story and looked at worms living in different habitats.

The four children and their siblings asked questions about the day’s lesson. The parents didn’t shy away either.

“I think I’m getting more of an education than he is,” joked mother Tina Johnson.

Most of the moms in the group wanted their children to get out and learn about the environment.

“I thought it’ be good to learn a little bit more about nature,” said Cason Zarro, whose son Arkady is almost 4.

Zarro said during their mother-toddler hikes, she sees her son talking about and applying points that he’s learned in the class.

Kirstin Westphal, who hikes with the Zarros, said she likely will sign up her 5-year-old daughter, Miriam Kaiser, again. Her 1-year-old daughter, though only a bystander, also enjoyed listening to the class.

“They really enjoy it because it’s hands on, practical and do it yourself in the end [of the class],” Westphal said.

Johnson, whose 3-year-old son Tyler worked on a pipe cleaner worm eating tissue paper lettuce, said she “likes the idea of coming out to nature.”

Her 6-year-old son recently did a hike at the preserve on an early release day from school.

Guided hikes are a common program throughout the year at the park, which boasts 3.5 miles of trails. Themes vary throughout the year.

Programs like the annual women’s fitness hike help participants keep fitness goals at the start of the year. One group of women continued the hikes on its own after the class ended.

Tree climbing and canopy walk classes often attract families on Saturdays.

The canopy walk, which opened last year, is similar to a ropes course, Toth said. She gets many inquiries about the twists and turns high in the trees.

“It looks very intriguing from the ground,” she said.

Tree climbers receive instruction, equipment and three hours to exercise and climb on a large tree just outside the center.

Rock climbing, camping and backpacking are also offered either at or through the preserve.

County residents get a 20 percent discount for any program. Pre-registration is required.

They also get an opportunity to shape the process for designing classes for each season.

“I listen to people when they come in and they talk about things they want to learn about,” Toth said.

Most of the programs are her design, but some are run by outside organizations.

On Saturday, the Forsyth County Beekeepers Association will come in for a family session called “All About Bees.”

People will taste honey, watch beekeepers in action and learn about the observation hive that can always be viewed in the observation center.

Though many low-cost classes are available to the public, just visiting the center can make a great weekend outing as well, said Toth.

“The preserve is a great place to go and spend some time outside,” she said.