It was two weeks before Christmas and off in the suburbs, the weather was warmer, if not sunny — OK, it was kind of yucky. No matter: The holidays were in sight, and it was nice enough for kids and grown-ups to get out and about Saturday.
At Norristown Farm Park, nearly two dozen of them gathered for a morning workshop to make natural ornaments for birds. During the winter, food is scarce for animals — especially for birds. So the idea was to make edible ornaments to put outside, and have some fun in the process.
Sankar Ram, 40, of Collegeville, brought his 8-year-old daughter Daanya. She loves birds, he said, and they like the programming the park has to offer.
“I’m really glad that even in spite of all the COVID, different townships are doing these programs for the kids. So it is good for everybody. I would encourage them to come out and participate,” Ram said.
Daanya wasn’t completely finished adorning her “ornaments with apples and seeds and oranges,” but she already had a good idea where she was going to put it.
“On a tree,” she said.
With 2½ cups of birdseed, two packages of unflavored gelatin, two tablespoons of honey, and a cup of water, Norristown Farm Park environmental educator Rebecca Blacketter prepared essential ingredients. She also set aside oranges and apples, for make-and-take-home outdoor tree ornaments for the squirrels.
Blacketter has grown versatile over the past year of working at the park, she said — interactive programs like these happen all the time.
“We have educational programming throughout the year. It depends on what season we’re in, what we’re doing. So today, we’re talking about bird ornaments because it’s the Christmas or holiday season,” she said.
The 690-acre Norristown Farm Park, which spans parts of Norristown proper and East and West Norriton townships, has been in continuous use since colonial days. It’s owned by the state of Pennsylvania and currently operated by the Montgomery County Division of Parks, Trails, and Historic Sites.
Blacketter said the park has seen its visitor numbers rise because of the pandemic. And with the coronavirus’ omicron variant causing some concern, events such as Saturday’s workshop offer a safe escape.
“A lot of the things that we are doing are outside. This particular program is indoors, but it is very spaced out and very open because we’re in a good space. But a lot of our outdoor programs have been very popular because people feel more comfortable and more spaced out outside,” Blacketter said.
Karen Stover, 63, of Harleysville, said she’s always outdoors, “doing line dancing and Tai Chi and various things, and walking a lot.”
Stover and her 5-year-old granddaughter, McKenna, said they were excited to be making food for wildlife.
“It’s just been fun spending time with my granddaughter doing something for the holidays. So it’s great,” Stover said.
Andrew Haimbach, 52, of Norristown, came along with Cub Scouts Troop 724. The troop leaders were “trying to find places to just do activities with the troop to get them away from video games and being stuck at home there, especially during the wintertime,” he said. “Here, it’s good to get out there learning about birds and wildlife.”
True, but 10-year-old Cub Scout Anthony told WHYY News that he wasn’t ready to give up on video games just yet.
If you missed out on Saturday’s ornaments workshop, Blacketter said other events are planned soon.
“We have a monthly bird walk. So we walk around and look at all the bird species. We also have a full moonwalk every month, which is also very popular, so you get to be in the park after hours, which people find very fun,” Blacketter said.
Nearby, at the zoo …
Just a short distance away, at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, families with young children were on a scavenger hunt after having brunch with Santa.
Laura Houston, the zoo’s director of education, said the scavenger hunt was an educational opportunity meant to challenge kids with different questions and riddles about the animals.
“More than ever, it’s important to have people connect with nature and connect with wildlife. The zoo provides as a whole an opportunity for people to be able to make those connections. Events like the Santa brunch, and we have an Easter brunch in the spring, have that opportunity for people to come in that maybe wouldn’t come in normally,” Houston said.
One of the stops on the hunt was the Discovery Center, where kids and grown-ups could make holiday cards for the animals — and see Monty, the snake.
“This is Monty, and he is a ball python. So there is a little pun in there for some people who might be cinema fans. And he is 26 years old, so he’s a rather old snake. He’s been at the zoo for quite a long time,” said Laura Soder, the manager of ambassador animal engagement.
Monty is just such an animal ambassador — his job is to meet the kids and take part in educational programs. When he’s comfortable doing so, of course.
“The general goal with our ambassadors is that they can help people to understand animals a little bit more and appreciate them, even when they might be something that often has a lot of myth or nervousness associated with it. Snakes are not as loved as the soft and cuddly fuzzy guys,” Soder said.
David and Susan Lynn brought their 4-year-old grandson Mikey, who happened to be more comfortable near the snake than the WHYY News microphone. Saturday morning, Mikey had brunch with Santa and gave him his Christmas list, which was full of dinosaurs.
Being outdoors made the trip safer and enjoyable, even on a rainy day, David Lynn said.
“We come here pretty often to the zoo. It’s just magical, especially for little guys like that. It’s still a real zoo. Right? But you can walk it — and it’s beautiful,” he said.