About the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone
“To provide excellence in outdoor education by linking the unique resources found in
both Webb Mountain Discovery Zone and Webb Mountain Park to relevant curricula for the Town of Monroe School System and those of neighboring communities, and to promote exploration and learning in a fun, hands-on environment as a prototype for the Federal ‘No Child Left Inside’ initiative.”
The Webb Mountain Discovery Zone is a 171-acre tract of land purchased by the town of Monroe for open space in 2004 for $5.25 million, including a $950,000 open space grant received from CT DEP, which represented approximately 20% of all grants designated for open space purchases by CT DEP for 2004. Oversight of the area was assigned to the Monroe Conservation Commission whose first initiative was to conduct a comprehensive review of the property by the King’s Mark Resource Conservation & Development Area (part of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service). The King’s Mark review identified significant opportunities to leverage the land’s unique biodiversity (i.e., vernal pools, wildlife habitats, varietal forestation) for educational purposes at several grade levels.
Under the guidance of Hank Gruner, Vice President of Programs at the new Connecticut Science Center in Hartford and Project Coordinator of the Connecticut Amphibian Monitoring Project, a second study that examined the wetland resources on the property to determine the extent and quality of the vernal pools (eleven were found to be active) was conducted by the Southwest Conservation District, Inc. in 2006.
With this information, the Conservation Commission worked closely with Mr. Gruner, Diane Joy, Assistant Director of Parks, CT DEP, and Monroe Schools Science Coordinator Bonnie Maur, to pilot an outdoor education program that utilizes the natural resources found on the site and conforming to the State of Connecticut’s science curriculum standards. A successful field test of two fourth grade classes was conducted in May of 2007 by Mr. Gruner and his staff.
After $35,000 was raised from private donations under the auspices of the Monroe Conservation Commission, the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone was officially opened to the public in October, 2007. The funding was used to develop a comprehensive interpretive trail system with interpretive signs and a self-directed scavenger hunt, created by Mr. Gruner, centered on the theme of “How People and Animals Have Used the Land - Past and Present,” using the highest quality signage and eco-friendly materials. Twenty-eight learning stations covering subjects such as rocks and minerals, plants and wildlife, ecology, biology, and Native American and Colonial history were identified and developed by Mr. Gruner and Nick Bellantoni, CT State Archeologist. The construct of the park, including installing all signs and benches and creating a comprehensive trail system spanning over 4 miles, was completed almost exclusively by volunteers.
Visitors to the Discovery Zone can navigate three separate, flat-to-rolling, well-marked and well-maintained trail loops, between one to two miles in length, that are easy to traverse for children of all ages. The park has been featured in the Connecticut Post, the Hartford Courant and Parent Magazine. Through word of mouth, the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone has already attracted schools and groups seeking programs from as far south as New Canaan and as far north as New Fairfield Connecticut.
Adjacent to the Discovery Zone is Webb Mountain Park, a 170-acre rustic park featuring several blazed hiking trails and ten well-maintained campsites. Webb Mountain Park is believed to be one of the few overnight tent camping areas remaining in Fairfield County. The park was purchased by the Town of Monroe in 1972 and is a popular destination during Fall Foliage - best known for its dramatic overlook of the Housatonic River. Trails are designed for a more traditional hiking experience that can range from easy to difficult. Citing the park’s natural beauty, the Connecticut Post recently designated it as one of the top hiking spots in Fairfield County. A portion of Connecticut’s “Blue-Blazed” trail system (Paugusset Trail) cuts through Webb Mountain Park.
Vision and Strategic Plan
Based on the opportunities identified by the King’s Mark review and Southwest Conservation study, a vision emerged to establish Webb Mountain Discovery Zone as a resource for outdoor education and prototype for the Federal NCLI initiative on a local, regional and statewide basis.
This growing movement believes that the long-term secular decline in children interacting outdoors with nature (“Nature Deficit Disorder”) may contribute to growing numbers of children experiencing obesity, attention deficit and depression. In part this is a function of the increased proliferation of external, artificial stimuli such as computers, video games, television, etc. In addition, many outdoor venues have failed to adapt accordingly to this new reality and respond with more thoughtful, creative venues to capture the interest of today’s children at an early age.
Toward this end, the family scavenger hunt and interpretive sign system installed throughout the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone were designed with the intent to attract children outdoors at an early age to increase awareness skills when in a natural environment in a fun, hands-on and interactive manner. Embedded just beneath the surface are significant learning opportunities that in turn help to build familiarity with concepts children will be learning in school throughout their education – a theme informally coined “From Diapers to Diplomas”.
In this context, the two park entities complement each other by offering students a distinct advantage as they progress through their formal education process. For example, Webb Mountain Discovery Zone is an ideal venue for elementary through middle school curricula focused on subjects such as Metamorphosis and Rocks and Minerals, while more advanced studies in Forestation and Land Management can be conducted in either park venue for upper grades. The active vernal pools found in the Webb Mountain Discovery Zone provide an ideal field-based lab setting for more sophisticated secondary school curricula in Biology, Chemistry and Ecology. Further, the potential exists for offering in-depth science camps where students pursuing credits in relevant subjects can study at the Discovery Zone while camping at Webb Mountain Park.
In support of this vision, the goal of the strategic plan is to determine how to best provide outdoor education classes and programs for grades 1-12 for the Monroe and other regional school systems in which the parks’ natural resources can be linked to curricula and used to stimulate and advance students’ understanding of the subject matter and inspire them for future studies in the areas of science, history, the environment and the arts.