Connolly Ranch Welcomes Kids to Discover Nature


by Stephen Ferry

The best thing about being a part of Connolly Ranch is opening the eyes of a child to our connections to the natural world,” says Michael Lauher, Education Director of Connolly Ranch.  “Whether it’s an infant toddler or an adult, it’s all about helping folks connect with Nature.”

For most of the twentieth century, Margaret “Peggy” Connolly liked to sit out on the front porch of her Browns Valley home at the corner of Thompson Avenue and Browns Valley Road, and enjoy the view of her gardens, her farm animals and, particularly, the local children passing by enjoying the little piece of natural paradise.

“When Mrs. Connolly passed away in 1991, she donated her property to the Napa Valley Land Trust,” said Jennifer Thacher-Fotherby, the new Executive Director of the Connolly Ranch.  “She donated the property with the stipulation that it be used to connect kids and their families with nature through farm-based education.”

The house remains to this day, and the surrounding twelve acres of paddocks, ponds, barns and outbuildings are used to stage a wide range of programs providing nature-based education for children of all ages.

“The education programs for kids started around 1994,” explained Thacher- Fotherby.  “Our Ranch Manager, Thom Arcadi, was one of our founding members, and between 1991-94 he was the one helping clean up the ranch to accomplish the transition from the Connolly family home to the Land Trust education-centered farm facility.  Today, Farmer Thom continues to oversee our maintenance program and our farm animal care.”

“For the past 20 years, we have been doing progressively more and more programs,” said Lauher, who also serves as property caretaker and lives in the former Connolly residence.  “Today we have dozens of offerings for individuals, small groups, and entire school classes that can be as brief as an hour or two, or as long as a full-day experience.”

“What we do on a full-time basis during the weekdays is offer educational field trip opportunities to schools,” said Thacher-Fotherby.  “Through our field trip program, we reach 70% of the Napa Unified School District.  The trips are coordinated through teachers at the schools.  Most of the field trips are for grades K-6, but there are also offerings for high school kids..”

Lauher continued, “During school hours on weekdays, groups of kids come and are presented with age-appropriate experiences.   We teach them about things such as growing food and raising farm animals at home, or preparing food in the kitchen, or environmental history, or early pioneer life.  The kids learn where their food comes from, and what “farm-to-table” is all about.

“We have a fascinating, Native American program for third graders.  The timing of this fits right in with the standard programs the kids get in school at that age.”

“During the last school year we hosted about 4,000 kids as part of  this program,” added Thacher-Fotherby.

“We also take kids into Westwood Hills City Park, which is located right behind us, up the hill,” said Lauher.  “We go for hikes and learn about oak, land ecology, native plants and animals, the importance of clean water, clean air, and clean soil.  We try to help the kids understand – on a personal level – how these things really do make a difference in each of our own personal lives.”

“When we host school classes for field trips, we usually get a class or two at a time, so it could be 60 kids in a day.  We also do small groups.  There can be numerous classes in a single day.”

Thacher-Fotherby said, “Many of the schools we host for field trips are Title One schools (where the children are on free or reduced lunch programs).  For these schools, we provide the field trip and, sometimes, the bus transportation, for free.  This is one tangible way we reach out to the community to make sure everybody can share in the opportunities for growth and learning that we are fortunate to be able to offer.  We raise money for these field trips through grants, foundation functions, individual donors, and our Connolly Ranch, fundraising events.”

“Connolly Ranch has so many long-established programs to offer,” Thacher-Fotherby continued.  “For preschoolers we have Summer Camps for kids 1st grade ready to 11 years, with themes that include Life on the Farm, Art Exploration, and Farm to Table Cooking.  We also have an Ecology Play Camp for kids 5 & 6 years old.”

“For infants up to two 2 years we have our ‘Sounds of Silence’ program each Tuesday from 9-10am,” Thacher-Fotherby said.  “This guided program is designed to be a time for parent and child to leave the noisy, often over-stimulated world and connect through gestures, body language and facial expressions.  The class moves slowly and calmly, creating a safe and relaxing environment for Very Little People to experience our ranch and the wonders of Mother Nature.  At the same time, for Big People it is always a source of wonder and inspiration to observe what each child is noticing, and how they are interacting with that plant, rock, animal or new friend.  You could find yourself experiencing our earth for what seems like the first time too!”

“Beginning this year, we want to make the Connolly Ranch more available to people,” said Lauher.  “We want to offer things besides the field trips and the camps, so we will be doing new things on Wednesdays and Saturdays.”

“One new thing this year will be ‘Walkabout Wednesday’.  Every Wednesday between 3-5pm Connolly Ranch will be open to the public.  It will be a way for people to come in and check it out for free.  People will be encouraged to make a donation, but it will be free for those who can’t afford a donation.   We will be offering tours and also allowing people to check out the Ranch in their own.”

“Wednesdays also will be a good time for people who are thinking about volunteering to come by and check out the possibilities for that.  We rely heavily on volunteers.   The time is totally unstructured.  Visitors can just come in and relax and explore,” said Lauher.

“And, Wednesday Walkabouts will also be an opportunity for adults who may have been in a program 20 years ago to come back and see how the Ranch has grown and evolved,” added Thacher-Fotherby.     The new, Saturday programs are going to be one-day offerings, which will make attendance more practical for parents who have to travel a little farther to get here.

“The new Saturday programs will start on April 12, and will continue the second Saturday of each month,” explained Thacher-Fotherby.  “There will be different activities as we go through the seasons.  We will start out with a ‘Mommy and Me,’ parent-child class from 9:00-10:00.   Then, from 10-2, we will have a drop-off session for kids between the ages of 4-13.  Having a wide age range allows siblings from the same family to be in the same group together, and also simplifies the drop-off/pickup logistics for parents with more than one child in the program.   This will be a great time for kids to connect with nature while the parents have a few hours to go off and do something locally.”

“We will continue to have ‘Fun Family Fridays’ for children/infant through five years old, accompanied by an adult,” said Lauher.  “Each Friday will start out with some free, play time in the barns, garden or grove.  Then we move into our project of the week.  These structured activities are designed for all ages to participate together, and include topics such as gardening, cooking, art and animal care.”

“Saturday is also when we have workshops for adults,” continued Lauher; “Master gardeners, tree pruning, beekeeping classes, plant propagation, backyard poultry, and eggs in the yard.  We run little workshops, give them some idea of what it is like to have six birds in your back yard.

“Saturday is a chance for the kids who have done a field trip during the week to bring Mom and Dad (who may be occupied with work M-F) out to the Ranch,” added Thacher Fotherby.

“People just need to come out here and visit,” said Lauher.  “The magic is here.  Once people get here on-site, they seem to find that they connect to more than they expected.”

Connolly Ranch is located at 3141 Browns Valley Road, Napa, California 94558, at the corner of Thompson Avenue, and is open to the general public for Family Farm Day in June, and Harvest Festival Day in October.

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