Forever Young

Catching air: The new Petaluma skateboard park is among the places that kids can enjoy when they’re done washing the dishes and learning Latin.

Michael Amsler

‘Best of’ local kid stuff–
more than just child’s play

MADELEINE MAY have thrived in a Parisian bed staring at a crack in the ceiling that had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit, but city living is most definitely not where it’s at for those children lucky enough to grow up in Sonoma County. With enough open space to put a glow in young cheeks, with a closeness to the earth and its bounty that is reinforced by the proximity of local farms, and with beaches, woods, skateboard parks, hiking trails, storytimes, farmers’ markets, fairs, lakes, and parks galore, Sonoma County offers its youth the opportunity to enjoy the sort of childhood that mimics the leisurely growth that youngsters generations ago simply took for granted. Heck, the town of Sebastopol seems to exist solely for the purpose of raising environmentally aware, empathetic, and curious young citizens. Can the same be said of Detroit? We think not. There are many, many good reasons to land in Sonoma County: the people, the food, the wine, the countryside. There are even more reasons to stay, raise a family, and to put down roots. This soil isn’t good just for grapes.

Best Way to Teach Philanthropy

Last year, 16,000 students at 41 local schools raised $35,000 for 105 non-profit organizations. How? By mastering their curricula and garnering sponsors in the Great Academic Brain Wave. Each participating class chooses the charity it wants to help; students must each answer 100 questions based on their course work to earn the donations. Ten percent of the total goes to the non-profit; most of the rest supports the school. Begun at Sonoma Country Day School in 1992 as a means to teach philanthropy while reinforcing scholastic goals, this innovative program is now poised to go national, even as the school year’s new campaign gets under way. The Great Academic Brain Wave–coming soon to a student near you. 5340 Skyland Blvd., Santa Rosa; 524-2006.

Best Place for a Portable Party

First things first: No, you don’t have to be a member to throw a birthday party at the YMCA. Fifty dollars buys a room for 15 kids, but you may need to reserve early, as the rooms are available only on the weekend. You don’t get a lot of frills–the rooms come with carpet, tables, and chairs, and not much more. Set-up and clear­up are your responsibility. But you do get to use the pool, and that makes the Y an attractive option, especially during winter’s uncertain weather. The aquatic exercise also provides a means of burning off the obligatory sugar rush from a kids’ party. Sequencing is the key. Save the swim for last. Your guests’ parents will thank you. YMCA, 1111 College Ave., Santa Rosa; 545-9622.

Best Place to Tease the Fish

There’s something Seussian about koi, some sense that they’ve been fed beyond the bounds of normal fishness. Kids naturally gravitate toward them, and even some older types can lose track of time trying to make the fish gape. Oversized goldfish are not for everyone, so it is a fortunate thing that Freestone’s Wishing Well Nursery, where some of the county’s more aggressive specimens dwell, also boasts enough roses, fancy geraniums, and garden art to bemuse the fish-phobes in the party. The immense mossy urns and “Garland Ladies” from San Francisco’s old Palace of Fine Arts are not for sale, but there are more antiques (most of which will fit better in the car trunk) available in the adjoining Freestone House Hotel. Fish feeding is allowed, so go ahead and bring the kids. But keep an eye on ’em: The fountain is deep, and those fish get teased a lot. Wishing Well Nursery, 306 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone; 823-3710.

Best Place to Spin Your Wheels

The biggest obstacle to a youngster’s bike-riding hobby can be a simple flat tire that never gets fixed for lack of know-how. At Mud Camp, a mountain-bike clinic for youth ages 7 to 13, kids learn to fix their own bikes, ride safely, and race competitively. The teachers are kids themselves, members of Team Mudpuppy, Sonoma County’s youth mountain-bike team. Team Mudpuppy conducts the clinics under the watchful eyes of adult coaches Yuri Hauswald, a Petaluma schoolteacher, and Matt Nyiri, a bike-industry professional. “It’s an excellent outlet for kids,” says Hauswald. “They’re continuously pushing themselves to get better.” The five-hour workshops take place at Gianni Cyclery in Occidental and in the nearby wilderness. The best part may be that “there aren’t a lot of rules,” as Hauswald says, and kids get to “rip around and have fun.” The price is $30 a day or $80 for three days. Call Yuri Hauswald at 776-2893.

Best Place to Flock Together

At the Santa Rosa Bird Farm, the emphasis is on education and the finery our feathered friends display. Bonnie and Waldie Sheffler have collected breeding pairs of dozens of species of exotic birds from around the globe, including numerous types of peacocks, pheasants, parrots, ducks, and cockatiels from South America, Australia, China, and Southeast Asia. The 60-plus varieties range from tiny quail to mighty emus and an ostrich, all housed on the family farm not far from Elsie Allen High School. “Education is what it’s all about for me,” says Bonnie. Senior groups and kids on school field trips are frequent visitors, but smaller groups are welcome, too. There’s even space for picnicking in good weather. Call ahead to schedule any visit, though. Santa Rosa Bird Farm, 1077 Butler Ave., Santa Rosa; 546-1776.

Best Place to Foil Your Kids

My grandfather once said, “You should never play with sharp knives; unless, of course, you’re really good at it.” It is in that spirit that we recommend the Sonoma Fencing Academy, an excellent place for pre-teens and hormone-mad adolescents to work out their ya-yas while getting to play with deadly weapons, all while learning the safety precautions necessary for the handling of swords. Seriously, though, in fencing, they are called foils and are always blunt-tipped. The masterful instructors at the growing Petaluma-based club–now in their own brick building on Water Street–do a marvelous job of teaching this highly competitive, energetic sport and hold court over the members’ four-nights-a-week open matches. All ages are welcome. En garde! Sonoma Fencing Academy, 239 Water St., Petaluma; 763-8290.

Best Place for Laid-Back Turtle Watching

It’s impossible to visit downtown Sonoma and not see the Mission; it all but dominates the town square and stands as a testimony to the energetic power of the religious domination the Spanish priests once held over the native people in the area. I don’t know about you, but it makes me jumpy to walk past and see the proudly restored cannon and other instruments of military force on display (thousands of Indians, by the way, are buried beneath the adjoining streets). Just down the road, however, is the beautiful, sprawling home of Gen. Mariano J. Vallejo (himself no prince, but he did have excellent taste in living quarters). A few dollars will get you in. After wandering the homestead and chatting with the knowledgeable docents, take a snack up the outside steps and through the garden to the immense fenced-in pond at the top of the hill. A herd of turtles frolic in the laid-back manner of wet turtles everywhere, skimming the surface of the well-vegetated pond. Sit on the shaded benches, feet stretched out in the warm summer sun, and be one with the turtles. Or something. Whatever you do, relax; you’re in one of Sonoma’s least-known anti-power spots. More power to you. Or something. Gen. Vallejo’s residence is located at the corner of Third and Spain streets in Sonoma right off of Highway 128. Admission is $2 adults (12 and older); $1 children, ages 6-11; free under 6. (Tickets are also good for admission to the Petaluma Adobe and Sonoma Barracks on the same day.) 938-1519.

From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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