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New LA County Class Teaches Kids To Say Hi, Hola & Ni Hao To Nature

A woman in a khaki uniform holds a picture book up to an eager young child.
Deane Dana Friendship Park's parent and me class is open to kids under 5, their parents and caregivers.
(Mariana Dale
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A New L.A. Class Teaches Parents and Young Kids to Say Hi, Hola & Ni Hao To Nature

On a recent Friday, adults and kids from infancy to preschool paraded up a sidewalk overlooking the Los Angeles Harbor.

The song “Vamos al Zoológico” played from a portable speaker.

Monica Curiel stomped like an elephant, hopped like a kangaroo and danced like a monkey with her 7-month-old daughter Rosario strapped to her chest.

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“Oh my gosh! She loves it!” Curiel laughed.

Curiel came all the way from Ontario for the multilingual parent and me class at Deane Dana Friendship Park in San Pedro. It’s been hard to find opportunities for her daughter to play with others during the pandemic.

“Since we are home so much, I notice when she's noticing other people, and she's really happy right now exploring a new space,” Curiel said.

The class including some Spanish is an added bonus. Curiel’s family is Mexican and her husband is white.

“It's a huge value for her to stay connected to her roots,” Curiel said. “Being bilingual, for me, has been a lot of open doors.”

Two women holding small children walk down the sidewalk.
Marisela Lopez, left, introduced her daughter to a few new animal friends during the class. "I think it's just really important to really connect with nature and our local wildlife," Lopez said. "Living in such an urban landscape like Los Angeles, it's easy to forget all of the the animal and wildlife around us."
(Mariana Dale/ LAist)

The parent and me class has been around since the park’s nature center opened more than 20 years ago, said superintendent Marlene Yang.

The addition of Spanish, Mandarin and sign language is new. So is Yang, who started as the park’s superintendent in March 2020.

A woman with a thick glove on her left hand holds up an American Kestrel.
Yang introduces one of the nature center's "animal ambassadors, an American Kestrel who was once wounded by a BB gun pellet.
(Mariana Dale/ LAist)

As a Latina, she said she didn’t always feel welcomed in outdoor spaces and only started to explore them as an adult.

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“Everywhere that I went, I saw that there wasn't people that reflected, that looked like me,” Yang said.

She remembered a family trip to Yosemite cut short when her parents saw the line of cars, white trucks and park rangers in khaki and green uniforms at the park’s entrance.

“When we got there, we turned around, because it looked like a border crossing,” Yang said. “I didn't know it at the time, but those are some of the things that our families live in fear of.”

I want to provide a place where people feel safe interacting with nature, where they appreciate it, can learn about it, but they don't have to fear it.
— Marlene Yang, Deane Dana Friendship Park superintendent

It’s not just that communities of color can feel unwelcome in the outdoors, it’s often that they don’t have easy access to nature in the first place.

About half of L.A. County residents live farther than a 10-minute walk from a park, according to a 2016 county analysis. African Americans and Latinos were more likely to live where there was less park space than Asian or white residents.

The pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders also cut off access to nature for some of Los Angeles’s Black and Latino families.

Kathryn Derose, a professor of public health at University of Massachusetts Amherst and policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, has studied how Los Angeles families use public parks.

According to a 2015 study she co-authored, Angelenos are more likely to use parks when they feel safe and offer more supervised activities.

“We want to make parks places that people feel secure, that they can go and enjoy nature and be active outdoors,” Derose said.

A woman in khaki shows a 4-year-old girl how to waddle like a penguin.
Yang shows 4-year-old Dhara Menta and her uncle Murthy Muthuswamy how to waddle like a penguin.
(Mariana Dale/ LAist)

This fall is the first time the parent and me class has been offered since the start of the pandemic.

“I want to provide a welcoming place,” Yang said. “I want to provide a place where people feel safe interacting with nature, where they appreciate it, can learn about it, but they don't have to fear it.”

Per L.A. County coronavirus safety guidelines, anyone over age 2 must wear a mask. The class takes place in a socially distanced classroom and outdoors. Yang draws on her background in early childhood development to create a curriculum that engages kids — and their parents — in story time, crafts, movement and song. There are also visits with the nature center’s “animal ambassadors” which include a desert tortoise, opossum and American Kestrel.

With a little behind-the-scenes help from her husband’s Taiwanese family, she’s incorporating Mandarin words and phrases into the activities in addition to Spanish and sign language.

“I want people to feel connected,” Yang said. “If it means singing and dancing like a monkey… I think that that's, you know, a first step.”

The Parent and Me Multilingual Nature Class meets Fridays at 10 a.m. at the Deane Dana Friendship Park Nature Center. Register for the $10 class online here.

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.