Kenai National Wildlife Refuge PEEPS Program

Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on October 10, 2017.

Just so you know, there’s a lot more to being a red squirrel than merely looking cute and shaking your bushy tail, and a swarm of little kids at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Education Center are about to find out why.

They are gathered around ranger Michelle Ostrowski, and most of their eyes are directed at the small items she holds in her hand.



Kids at the PEEPS program at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge education building sing and dance to a song about squirrels. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

“OK, little squirrels!” Ostrowski shouts. “Let’s go hunting for our winter’s food!”

It’s September, and time for another session of Little PEEPS, short for Preschool Environmental Education Programs, a free offering for kids ages 2-5 and their parents or caregivers.

Every month, Ostrowski and her staff spend an hour with kids building skills necessary for school in a hands-on format that feels anything but ordinary.

It’s an interesting combination, this pairing of federal agency (the National Wildlife Refuge System is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) with preschool education, but one that brings families together to learn more about the flora and fauna around them.

I watch as the children scamper around the center’s carpeted floor looking for spruce cones, “nuts and berries” (small colored pompoms) and mushrooms cut out of paper. Ostrowski and her helper that day, Student Conservation Association intern Travis Mabe, encourage the little squirrel-humans to sort their finds into piles –nuts in one place, berries in another, mushrooms in their own special stash.

 Some kids count the number of goodies as Mabe and Ostrowski talk about what makes squirrels so special, pointing out features they share with people, like teeth and eyes, and those they don’t, like a tail and four legs.

Preschool as a concept is up for much debate these days, especially in homeschool-strong Alaska. Questions about structure — enough or too much? — make the argument as murky as Alaska mudflats. What’s more important? Social-emotional development, or a “skills-specific” sort of curriculum like math and reading? Attend an all-outdoor program like the “forest schools” that are cropping up around the nation, or play outdoors for a set amount of time each day?

At the PEEPS program there appears to be a thoughtful mix of both, something Ostrowski says is exactly what she envisioned when the program started in 2010.

“It was a catalyst to my own parenting,” she told me as we stood in the education center’s small kitchen area, watching the kids do a wiggly squirrel-themed song and dance with Mabe.

“I wanted a program for my own preschooler because it is the perfect time for environmental education and raising Alaska kids who understand the values of being kind, curious and living a low-impact life as stewards.”

Ostrowski gathered information from other programs around the country and other Alaska refuges like Kodiak, and dug in, creating a free, once-a- month opportunity for Kenai Peninsula youngsters to start learning.


A squirrel with a yellow tail? Why not? At the PEEPS program at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, preschoolers are encouraged to use their imaginations. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

The PEEPS program is short, only an hour each session, so Ostrowski presents concepts the kids can take home and carry forward with their families.

“I keep telling them that everything they see here in the refuge they’re likely to see in their own backyard,” Ostrowski said. “These kids have an incredible retention of facts, and they take those facts home and then want to know more. But we keep things focused on nature.”

The class takes walks around the trails edging the education center and nearby visitor center, where moose and bears frequent the same pathways and chattering squirrels are easy to spot. Ostrowski sends an email the week before the program, setting the stage with the monthly theme.

Maila Stocks has three kids ranging in age from just a few months to 4, and says she’s glad she made the effort to attend September’s PEEPS class.

“We’re just starting to homeschool, so this was a nice way to ease into things,” she said as she juggled baby Evelyn and guided daughters Josephine, 4, and Charis, 2, with the activities.

“I can’t wait to go hiking and say ‘Remember, we learned about this at PEEPS?’ “

As kindergarten becomes more and more academic, some parents are looking for an experience that balances play with some structure. The kids respond well to Ostrowski and Mabe’s instructions, with just enough restlessness to remind us that they are, after all, small children.

 Ostrowski says she creates the monthly programs with a healthy dose of gross motor skills infused with outdoor-themed ideas and plenty of imaginative play. The kids hopped from hula hoop to hula hoop pretending to be squirrels jumping from tree to tree, but lined up to wait their turn, a social skill Ostrowski says is important for everybody, not just those transitioning into kindergarten.

She also creates moments for fine motor skills, as evidenced by the day’s craft project — making tiny squirrels of their own. Ostrowski and Mabe handed out sections of egg cartons, painted brown, for the bodies, then offered a variety of options for legs, tails and eyes.

“I need googly eyes!” Charis Stocks shouted when she discovered wobbly plastic eyeballs were available.

“This is my favorite part of all,” her sister, pint-sized Josephine, said as we inspected her squirrel. “It was hard but it’s so pretty!”

Ostrowski wandered among the family groups, offering supplies and making observations but not interfering with the process. It’s important, she said, to allow the kids to try, fail, then try again with a “you can do this” perspective, because nature is full of successful failures.

The hour went quickly. Ostrowski reminded the kids to look and listen for squirrels as they walked under the spruce trees back to their cars, and after they returned home. She handed out a few coloring pages with a picture of a squirrel.

Then everyone scrambled for rubber boots, coats and strollers, and they were gone — all but one mom and daughter, the latter wanting to “finish coloring before we go.” The duo laid out on the floor, crayons in hand, and quietly filled in the spaces as rain drummed on the roof and Ostrowski and Mabe cleaned up from the morning’s activities.

October’s class will be about ravens and crows, Ostrowski said, already thinking ahead to the stories she’ll tell to connect these small Alaskans with the natural world they are so fortunate to inhabit.

Here are Alaska-based National Wildlife Refuge programs (part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service):

 PEEPS: Third Thursday of every month at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Education Center just off Ski Hill Road in Soldotna. For kids ages 2-5 and their caregivers. Free. Call Michelle Ostrowski, 907-260-2839.

Pre-K Puffins Early Learning Program: Last Thursday of every month at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge building (Islands and Ocean Visitor Center) in Homer. Geared toward children ages 2-5. Call Kendra Bush-St. Louis, 907-235- 6961. Free.

Families Understanding Nature (FUN): Every Tuesday at Kodiak Refuge Visitor Center multipurpose room. For children ages 3-5. Call Shelly Lawson at 907-487- 2626. Free.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 16 refuges in Alaska. Visit the refuge website for more information and ideas for family outings. 

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