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Toddling around in animal kingdom

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / August 8, 2010

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WEST HARTFORD — The albino corn snake initially prompted a flash of fear from adults in the room. Writhing around the torso of class instructor Alexis Schmitt, the reptile appeared equally reluctant to meet and greet a group of mothers and toddlers. “This is Corny,’’ said Schmitt, introducing the snake in a hyper-animated voice. “He likes to eat mice.’’ The mothers laughed at the name, while the toddlers proved a tougher crowd more interested in staring at each other.

This was the start of the Gentle Touch program at Westmoor Park, a class designed to teach toddlers how to approach animals with scales, shells, feathers, and fur. On a recent morning, the class attracted four mothers happy to be out of the house and five toddlers unsure what to make of the menagerie before them. The corn snake was followed by a leopard gecko and a tiny turtle, then a walk to nearby barns for roosters, bunnies, sheep, goats, geese, ducks, turkeys, llamas, and a friendly pony named Mac.

With toddlers ranging from 16 months to almost 3 years, reactions to the animals varied. Most squirmed away from the reptiles, retreating to their mothers’ laps as Schmitt carried the animals around the discovery room. One child reached out aggressively. “Gently,’’ reminded Schmitt. “With two fingers.’’ To keep the parents semi-entertained, each animal was presented along with some basic background about its natural habitat and habits.

“It’s a tough juggling act,’’ said Doug Jackson, Westmoor Park director, of creating programs for toddlers. “We try to give grown-up information and keep it tactile for the children. With any group of kids, you have different levels of acceptance of what we’re sharing and different levels of enthusiasm. But I find few young children who aren’t curious about animals. They want to experience it, but not everybody is ready to touch yet.’’

Entertaining the toddler mind and accommodating the toddler at tention span is no easy task. Destinations need to take into consideration adult concerns as well as toddler temperaments. Ideally, parents can engage and encourage their toddlers’ curiosity during a farm tour or craft activity or music class or yoga instruction. Environments that provide opportunity for repetitive play work well for young children, as do places with a multitude of offerings.

The Gentle Touch program was interactive, educational, and variety-filled. Participants who shied away from the garden snake one moment enjoyed petting a short-haired bunny the next. Overall, the intimate scope of the farmyard put both parents and toddlers at ease. By the end, even the youngest children were exploring on their own, lingering by the animals that interested them most.

“Learning should be fun, particularly at this age where they’re all dabbling,’’ said Jeri Robinson, vice president of Education and Family Learning at the Boston Children’s Museum. “You’re trying to expose them to a wide variety of things. We don’t know what they might be interested in. The parent should be sensitive and watch how the child acts and responds. Toddlers are not going to do what they don’t want to do. They are going to tell you very clearly if they’re happy or unhappy.’’

At the museum, the PlaySpace exhibit and programs are geared toward children up to age 3 and their caregivers. Toddlers can explore the Tree House Climber with ramps, paths, and slides and the Train Set with trains to push over bridges and through tunnels. They can play dress up, take a yoga class beside their parents where basic poses mimic different animals, and make a mess in an area where they are encouraged to play with water, paint, and shaving cream.

Similarly, the Discovery Museums in Acton provide space for self-guided, hands-on toddler play. Inside a Victorian house, toddlers can work on motor skills and social skills while dressing up and playing train conductor or pushing balls along tracks to set off chain reactions with chimes and bells.

“We’ve disconnected kids from the natural world,’’ said Neil Gordon, Discovery Museums CEO and past president of the Association of Children’s Museums. “Children’s museums provide environments where kids are playing with real objects, taking them out of a 21st century rut where they’re in front of screens.’’

It doesn’t get more natural or real than Westmoor Park: a rooster strutting through the barnyard, butterflies flitting around gardens, vegetables sprouting, three miles of trails twisting around the 162-acre spread. Under the stewardship of the town, Westmoor works to maintain its cozy, neighborhood park atmosphere. Given its relatively small size, it’s no coincidence that most visitors are families with toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary students.

“I actually come to Westmoor Park probably twice a week because it’s a great place to go to get out of the house,’’ said Tracy Mehr-Muska of West Hartford, who brought her son, Noah, almost 3, and daughter, Elsie, 18 months, to Gentle Touch. “It’s free. It’s fun to wander around, and it’s safe for the kids and very educational. They love coming here. They know even a mile away that we’re almost at the farm. We’ll wander around the perennial gardens, walk around the trails. We really do like to spend a lot of time here.’’

Visitors from near and far come for Westmoor Park’s two annual celebrations: Farm Day in the spring and Pumpkin Festival in the fall. At this year’s Farm Day in mid-May, the parking area was full minutes after the event started. Families piled out of mini-vans, then headed in different directions. At the barns, a bunny and pony calmly let all comers pet them. Elsewhere, there were hay wagon rides, plant-your-own-seeds craft activities, child-friendly music sets by the Connecticut River Ramblers, wheel barrel races, face painters, and sheep-shearing and butter-making demonstrations.

The Pumpkin Festival will take place Oct. 16 and feature many of the same activities. Also, there will be a hay jump, a simple maze in the meadow, pumpkin decorating, and a parade for animals in costume.

Jackson views Farm Day and Pumpkin Festival as open houses for Westmoor Park, helping explain why both events are free. The park charges only for summer camps and special programs like Gentle Touch, which costs $10 for West Hartford residents per parent-child pair and $11 for nonresidents. The free general admission and low cost of programs is part of Westmoor’s appeal.

“A lot of times, the parents are trying to coax the child out of one exhibit and into another because they feel that they’ve paid money and want to see the whole building,’’ said Amy Spencer, director of Early Childhood Education at the Discovery Museums. “But that’s not necessarily best for the child. If they’re captivated with one activity, that’s where the learning is really happening and you need to take advantage of that moment.’’

Added Robinson: “When activities are already included in the price of admission, hopefully a parent can be at ease and participate in a way that supports their child. All of our activities are not classes that begin and end. It’s clear that the parent and the child should stay as long as it works for them.’’

The Gentle Touch program lasted 35 minutes, concluding after the toddlers were given the opportunity to touch sheep, a rooster, a pony, and rabbits. Some participants never warmed up to the idea of petting animals, vigorously shaking their heads “no’’ each time Schmitt presented something new. Watching the action was just fine for them.

“It wasn’t as I had anticipated,’’ said Cara Boland of Manchester, Conn., who brought her daughter Lila McPherson, 16 months. “It’s a little give and take. She liked the animals from a distance. But being around the other children is probably the most valuable part of these activities.’’

After Gentle Touch ended, some of the parents and toddlers retreated back to the discovery room that houses the snake, gecko, and turtle, as well as a loudly squawking parrot. In the back of the room, some children gathered and played with farm-themed toys, including a barn and plastic animals. A boy who didn’t want to pet any of the animals clutched a plastic horse tightly in his right hand.

Lessons learned for toddlers and parents alike.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

If You Go

Westmoor Park
119 Flagg Road
West Hartford, Conn.
860-561-8260
www.westmoorpark.org
Farm hours 9 a.m.-4 p.m., grounds dawn to dusk.
General admission free.