Just before 11 AM on a Saturday morning, Christine Schnurr finds herself surrounded by marsh and mud in a rather unlikely place. The early education specialist is flanked by three students, each of whom are no more than three years old. As the tide slowly trickles in, Schnurr points out a flock of Canada geese preparing to migrate south for the winter. But Jordan, age 3, is taking more interest in a long twig he just found. He and the twig are about the same height, but Jordan quickly loses interest, tosses the twig into the bay and rejoins his classmates of about the same age, Elaina and Freddie.
This is a typical morning at the Alley Pond Environmental Center (APEC), in Bayside, Queens, which hosts its Toddler Time program every Saturday morning. The center sits at the entrance to the 635 acres of forests, meadows, ponds, and fresh and salt water marshes that make up Alley Pond Park. The park is divided by a narrow inlet from Little Neck Bay, and on this brisk morning our pint-size explorers have ventured out onto the long, winding walkway that curves out into the bay. Their parents, not far behind, seem to appreciate that their kids are walking above the muddy marsh instead of walking through it.
Their expedition above the marsh was preceded by about 15 minutes of playtime and 10 minutes of story time. The group also fueled-up with brief snack consisting of classic combination of carbohydrates and protein that has kept generations of kindergarteners in peak physical shape: chocolate chip cookies and milk.
The theme of the day’s class is migration and hibernation, and as Schnurr pointed out, most of the animals that usually fill Alley Pond Park have already headed south or to sleep. However, the animal room at APEC is stocked year-round with a myriad of animals, putting it in a category somewhere between a large pet store and a small petting zoo.
Among the favorites are the 6 different rabbits, with their floppy ears and fuzzy coats. Some of the braver toddlers venture up to the snake tank with a four foot Ball Python inside, or the neighboring Corn Snake, who name is Bernie.
Today, however, the birds steal the show. Schnurr brings out Henry, a ring-necked dove, who momentarily escapes Schnurr’s gentle grip, and finds his way to Sasha, a small green parrot who has been sitting on top of its cage all morning, occasionally belting out a few lyrics to Rockin’ Robin. After Henry is recaptured, Elaina and Jordan move in to pet their winged friend. Freddie, however, has yet to forgive Henry, after the bird landed on his head during class a few weeks ago.
Toddler Time is a weekly program run at the APEC, usually on Saturdays at 10:30. Check the calendar on APEC’s website for more details.