You might think that 5-year-old Rosa might be hesitant to return to her teacher after sneaking off to smear gray mud all over her face and arms. Instead, she runs right up to him with a smile on her round, blackened face.
Teacher Chris Giorni, 42, laughs and takes a picture. “I think you might be the dirtiest Frog Trek camper I’ve ever seen,” he says proudly.
That’s quite an achievement considering Giorni’s Frog Treks camps and after-school programs have been helping kids get dirty for the last 10 years. His programs aim to teach both science and modern ecological issues through hands-on activities dealing with the natural world.
“If you can get them young you can create an interest in the wonder of nature that will last,” says Giorni.
For Giorni, the key to sparking that interest is fun. He even has a way to teach the sobering lessons of environmental crises to children. During a field trip, Tree Frog Trek campers run into actors playing endangered animals, invasive plants, mummies, and pirates who tell them how the earth is threatened and what they can do to help.
“You have to be careful not to scare kids away from nature,” said Giorni. “At a young age it’s almost an abuse to simply let them know that their forests are dying.”
Giorni, who has a masters in biology, started Tree Frog Treks in Placerville in 1999. An acquaintance connected him with the Hunter’s Point YMCA , where Giorni says he realized the great impact he could have by bringing his nature-based lessons to city schools.
The Tree Frog Treks headquarters, in San Francisco’s upper Haight, hosts both after-school programs and community events. It’s a sort of reptile zoo: Tanks and cages line the walls and at any time during open-hours, snakes, turtles, and lizards roam around the main room’s carpet. Their only obstacles: books from the Tree Frog Trek library, toys, and the detritus left over from various experiments.
“I come because I love playing and meeting and touching all the animals,” said 9-year-old camper Mason, who has been attending Tree Frog Treks camps for several years. Earlier that morning he had participated in a group hug that included a 12-foot-long Burmese python climbing from shoulder to shoulder.
As much as 35 times per week, Giorni and some of his more than 20 workers visit both elementary and middle schools around the region to entertain students with explosive experiments and live animals.
Giorni says Tree Frog Treks has had 3,847 kids hold its “animal ambassadors” and hopes to eventually reach the 25,000 mark. “It’s come a long way since I was running the whole thing, even picking up all the telephones,” Giorni says with a smile.