Native Plant and Wildlife Garden Education Program at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area

By Cindy Hardin, Director Environmental Education Programs
Photograpy by Stacey Vigallon




Volunteer Connie Semf leads her group through cool misty weather that brings: Sparkling, shimmering spider webs and marvelous mushrooms!

Los Angeles Audubon is the sponsor of two education programs that bring local school children to the great outdoors.  The Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve is the site of one program, while the second, newer program takes place at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area (KHSRA), more familiar to some of you as Kenneth Hahn Park.  Both programs are modeled on the same format. Students hike around trails and stop at several stations along the way, which are designed to highlight and demonstrate learning objectives taken from the California State Science Curriculum.  The goals of both operations are the same: to get students excited about nature and to foster a greater understanding of the unique ecosystems found in the Los Angeles area. However, the specifics of each endeavor are quite different, which keeps things interesting for all who are involved! In the last issue (Nov/Dec 2012) of the Tanager, I covered all that goes on at Ballona. Now it’s time to fill you in on our activities at Kenneth Hahn.

While Ballona is a protected Ecological Reserve with limited public access, KHSRA is a public park, surrounded by urban and suburban Los Angeles. It is one of the largest open spaces in our park poor city, and is enjoyed by many of the local residents for hiking, dog walking, picnicking and family and group gatherings. At times there are lots of simultaneous festivities taking place, which gives the park a nice feeling of vitality. All of this activity gives our group lots of opportunity for public outreach, as those using the park are very curious as to what’s going on as we set up for the field trips. The binocular table always attracts a lot of attention from the general public. Most guess correctly that we are giving some sort of nature tour, but when we explain that the attendees will be schoolchildren the response is always positive. “Good to get them outside” is the usual comment, and we couldn’t agree more!

As at Ballona, the bus pulls up at around 9:45, and sixty excited children pour out into the parking lot. If it’s a clear day the first thing they see is the iconic view of downtown Los Angeles, back dropped by the mighty San Gabriel Mountains. This image often winds up on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, particularly when the mountains are capped with snow after a recent storm. We have two different curriculums at Kenneth Hahn; one designed for third graders and one for sixth grade students. As at Ballona, the students are divided into four groups, and assigned a docent to be their tour leader. Each child is given a pair of binoculars to use during their visit. At Kenneth Hahn each child is also issued a compass and a mini field notebook. The students use their compasses to navigate their course through the park, and like all good scientists, record their observations and data in their notebooks.


Compasses help us navigate our nature hike and determine the direction of migration paths.

The park has an elevation of over 200 feet, which allows for sweeping views of the entire basin, from the mountains to the sea. We incorporate the geological history that created the Baldwin Hills and the bird’s eye view of the Ballona watershed in our curriculum for both age groups. There are many features in the park that provide opportunity for “teachable moments”. Parts of the park include remnants of the coastal sage scrub habitat that was once abundant in Los Angeles. This habitat has been amplified by the efforts of LA Audubon and others at the Native Plant and Wildlife Garden. The garden was first opened in 2006, replacing non-native vegetation with young plants and seeds that are historically native to the region. Six years later it is a thriving habitat, with plenty of shelter and fodder that attracts all kinds of animals native to the area. The garden is a major stop for both third and sixth grade visitors. Both groups learn about the importance of native habitat, and have the opportunity to touch the leaves and inhale the fragrance of sage and sagebrush. They speculate about which pollinators are attracted to specific plants, and how much taller the stand of cactus must grow before it will be a suitable nesting site for the once ubiquitous Cactus Wren. In addition, the sixth graders conduct a scientific exercise to determine composition (sand, silt, clay or a combination thereof) and rate of drainage for different types of soil, allowing them to formulate and test hypotheses.

The Scientific Illustration Station is adjacent to the Native Garden. Under the tutelage of Stacey Vigallon, we have learned to help students to be better observers of nature and to communicate non-verbally through the power of illustration. Using their Field Notebooks as a canvas, they are encouraged to draw images of various surrounding flowers and leaves, or interesting insect specimens. New to the station this year are microscopes, which are used to magnify and highlight features of observed items. Insects, leaves, flowers and even a blade of grass take on a whole new dimension when viewed through ten power magnification, and help the students to better understand the functionality of the various parts of a plant or an insect.


This year we have dedicated an entire station to Scientific Illustration. The new addition of microscopes allows aspiring artists to see greater detail of the natural beauty found in the park.

After their drawings are completed it’s time to pull out the compasses and navigate their way North along the edge of an area known as “Janice’s Green Valley”. This is the site of a former reservoir that flooded the businesses and neighborhoods below when the reservoir dam failed in 1963. It is now a well-used section of the park, named for the daughter of then County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

The valley is a perfect location for us to teach the third graders about birds and the challenges they encounter during migration. Along the way they use their binoculars to look for Red-tailed Hawks and the Scrub Jays that are swooping about, raiding the oak and walnut trees for a snack for now, or maybe later! So how do you teach a nine-year-old about migration? We ask them to pretend that they are part of a flock of birds, pull out their compasses, locate south and migrate! As they chart their path they make two stops, one for foraging and one for resting. Alas, not every child gets food or a safe place to rest. To the back of the line they go; these little birds will probably not survive the journey. This gives the docents a great opportunity to highlight the importance of preserving open spaces like Kenneth Hahn Park for our avian friends to use as a resting place or even a winter home.


Intern Sally Garcia uses "global awareness" to teach students about migration.

The sixth grade groups do not participate in the migration exercise. Instead, they stop to view the oil wells across La Cienega Boulevard in order to spark a discussion about the extraction of natural resources and its impact on habitat. Ironically, the drilling of oil that has been occurring in the Baldwin Hills since 1924 has inadvertently saved open space at this location, as the city grew up around the oil fields. This “island of habitat” provides a refuge for animals and stressed out city dwellers-a happy unintended consequence of the industrial activity present in the Baldwin Hills.

We may not always see the animal residents of the park, but we often find their calling cards!

Both grade levels are taken from the more manicured and managed sections of the park and led onto the natural habitat trail. The third grade crowd uses their time on the trail to look for Spotted Towhees hopping about on the ground in search of seeds, or gnawed upon pine cones that are the calling card of squirrels. They marvel over the size of the nest high up on the utility towers that was built by a pair of Ravens last spring. This section of the tour gives them a chance to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the coastal sage scrub that once dominated the region. We use this same trail to discuss geological activity with the sixth graders. The Baldwin Hills sit atop the Newport-Inglewood fault. Millions of years ago matter from deep in the earth was thrust up through this fault, forming the Baldwin Hills, the Dominguez Hills, Signal Hill and the Bolsa Chica Mesa. In addition, this thrusting pushed oil reserves close to the surface, allowing access to this valuable natural resource that was and is one of the driving forces of the development and economy of our region.  Sixth grade science students spend much of their year studying plate tectonics and natural resources; on this field trip they are able to see real examples of these concepts. Ballona Creek is also visible from this area, which contains the most essential resource of all: water. The unobstructed views of Los Angeles that we see as we reach the top of the trail is where we can discuss the Ballona watershed. The students even have a chance to pour water over a three dimensional model of the local mountains and observe how some flows into Ballona Creek, while that which pours down the backside of the Hollywood Hills ends up in the LA River, and is part of the Los Angeles watershed.

Obviously, the habitat and activities that the students experience at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area are very different from the program at Ballona. There is also one other significant difference between the two programs: our personnel. Like Ballona, we have several docents that are older adults, many of them retired educators.


Intern Felix Corrodi highlights the Laurel Sumac at the Native Garden Station. Its curved leaves, which help this shrub to catch precious water, give Laurel Sumac the nickname of “Taco Plant”.


Intern Ryan Duncans shows students evidence of erosion. Water can move mountains!

But the majority of our tour leaders and station docents are college age interns. They attend or are recent graduates of several local colleges, and their youthful energy resonates with the visiting students. Some of our interns are old hands with LA Audubon, as they worked with Stacey Vigallon and Margot Griswold as Restoration Leaders or Greenhouse Interns while attending Dorsey High. Others were recruited from Student Intern Fairs or word of mouth. Several interns are in their third year as docents with the Kenneth Hahn Program, and their interpretive skills continue to improve by leaps and bounds. These more experienced members of the team also mentor and encourage those that are newer to the program. These young people have years ahead of them to educate others about the natural world.  It is our hope that by providing them with the opportunity to work with Audubon and the school children of Los Angeles they will become stellar stewards of the environment and act as role models for others to do the same. In fact, there are more than a few in this group who plan to become school teachers upon completion of their studies, and the real world experience that they are gaining by working with us will be of help to them when they begin their careers after school. It is quite inspiring to watch them progress towards these goals.

The Native Plant and Wildlife Garden Education Program at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is in existence largely due to the support and encouragement provided by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Audubon Society. Our docent staff and students that we serve are the richer for their involvement with the program, and we are all most grateful for the support of the chapter. The program depends upon the generosity of the community. If you would like to donate your time as a volunteer, please contact Cindy Hardin at (310) 301-0050. Financial contributions are also needed and deeply appreciated. Currently, due to the many cuts that our state has made to education, transportation for field trips is the biggest challenge for teachers. LAAS has a bus scholarship program, but each bus costs approximately $400.00! If you would like to help students get to the park in order for them to experience wonderful day learning about the great outdoors, please contact Susan at LAAS Member Services, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. As a ways, we welcome visitors who might want an up close view of the fun we have learning and teaching about nature. Please come see us! 

Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 3 Jan/Feb 2013