Bay Nature magazineWinter 2012

Kids and Nature

A Nature Quest on Corona Heights

January 18, 2012

“I see it!” Julia shouted out, pointing up at the pink rock outcrop in San Francisco’s Corona Heights Park. “Let’s go!” Clara said. And off they ran toward the 500-foot summit. But they didn’t go straight up to the top. Instead, they paused along the way to learn about various elements of the natural world–from geology and weather to plants and animals–in the heart of the city.

These two third-grade girls were on an adventure devised by Urbia, a group of San Francisco-based nature educators who have created five self-guided nature-focused explorations in the city. The adventures, designed for kids ages 6 to 11, take about two hours. A mix of play, natural science, and treasure hunt, each one is described in its own packet, with a map, an illustrated booklet full of clues and nature activities, and pencils for notes and sketches.

These booklets seem simple, but they are great for getting kids to slow down and notice things they might otherwise miss–all in the name of playing a game.

If you live in or near San Francisco, Urbia’s adventures offer ready-made, kid-centric outings. But no matter where you live, it’s not hard to create simple adventures on your own. “As with bird-watching or botanizing, the most important thing is making it fun to notice the details,” says Urbia cofounder Damien Raffa. “This practice can enrich our experience of place no matter where we find ourselves–even the most urban corners of the Bay Area.”

Corona Heights, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Corona Heights, site of the Randall Museum, also has cool rocks, great views, and opportunities for adventure. Photo by Gritchelle Fallesgon.

Urbia’s booklets demonstrate some general principles for engaging kids in nature discovery: Let them set the pace; follow their interests; and be flexible if they want to backtrack. Make the outing into a game, with puzzles to solve along the way. The goal is not to get the “right answer” immediately, but for children to enjoy figuring out the adventure on their own.

Julia and Clara did just that at Corona Heights. On the way to the top, they stopped near the Randall Museum to look across the city and compare it to an illustration of the landscape 300 years ago. “I wish it was still like that,” Julia said. They searched for other wildland remnants in the city and imagined themselves as animals traveling from one spot to another. “I might dig a little burrow here if I was a rabbit,” Clara mused. “I might travel at night if I was a fox,” Julia said.

As they ascended the hill, the kids looked over the railing and marveled at the smooth, shiny rock face that plunged straight down below them. The booklet explains that the polished surface, called a slickenside, formed when rocks were grinding past each other on opposite sides of a fault.

Another page in their booklets showed the girls how to estimate the age of chert, that pinkish rock they had seen from below. This rock is made of the skeletons of tiny single-celled sea creatures called radiolarians. After getting a little help with their math, Julia and Clara were amazed to learn that the chert in their hands had taken tens of thousands of years to form (a thousand years per millimeter, not to mention a few million years after that to get from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the hill!).

At the summit, Julia and Clara perched on the park’s namesake crown of rocks, enjoying a panoramic view and a well-deserved rest before finding their way back down to the bottom of the hill.

Julia and Clara did almost everything on their own by following the clues in the packet, but needed a hint to find the Urbia box hidden at the very end of the adventure. Then, poking her head under a bench, Julia yelled, “Here it is!” After opening the box and perusing the contents, the girls tucked it away to be discovered by future adventurers. “That was fun,” Julia proclaimed on the way out. “Oh yeah,” Clara agreed.

For more information about Urbia, visit

Get Out!

Join Urbia Adventure League and Bay Nature on Saturday, January 28, 2011, for a special indoor-outdoor urban nature event hosted by the Randall Museum! Learn more>

About the Author

Robin Meadows is a Fairfield-based science writer. She enjoys spotting quail, great horned owls, and gray foxes in her own backyard, next to Rockville Hills Regional Park.
Her children are all grown up but they still enjoy family hikes in the Bay Area and beyond.