What if children could play, jump, skip, run around and have a fun time all while understanding the importance of literacy?

United Way of Kern County is on a mission to make that a reality.

Smothermon Park in Arvin is the latest spot in Kern County to receive a Born Learning Trail. The trail opened to the public June 20.

Signs are scattered throughout the trail that have children reading and staying active.

"By age 3, the brain is 80 percent developed, so there’s a lot of learning going on. Kids are literally born learning," said Rachel Hoetker, education manager for United Way of Kern County. "It’s nice to tap into those early learning opportunities without even realizing they’re taking place."

This is Kern County's ninth trail. Other trails are located in Bakersfield, Buttonwillow, Delano, Taft and Wasco.

There are more than 750 trails nationwide in parks, libraries and other locations.

The Arvin trail, along with the eight other Born Learning Trails in the county, features 10 different stations with learning activities in both English and Spanish. Children are encouraged to talk, read, sing, dance and perform other actions as they make their way through the trail. 

Activities include going down a sidewalk-drawn hopscotch, rhyming, imitating animal sounds and reading signs that ask them to think of words that begin with specific letters. There are even activities for parents to get involved with their kids.

"We want to have parents spend time with kids and get that bonding going on," Hoetker said.

On Wednesday, Chara Yochum, a first-grade teacher at Veterans Elementary School, and her daughter, Addison, a first-grader, were enjoying a cool morning at Greenacres Park in Bakersfield. Without even realizing it, Chara Yochum said her daughter uses the Born Learning Trail in the park.

"She loves walking on the alphabet trail. We didn't even know that's what that was for," she said.

As a first-grade teacher, she tries to instill a love of literacy in her students, she said. Seeing United Way of Kern County do the same is special for her.

"I love that they're doing this," she added. "Literacy is so important, so I'm happy this is available."

Mother and daughter Danae and Phalen Rocco came to Greenacres Park on Wednesday to take advantage of the swimming pool. Although they were not aware of the Born Learning Trail in the park, Danae Rocco said, "We'll do it next time we're here."

The first Born Learning Trail was implemented at Friendship House in 2013. Since then, the United Way of Kern County has installed about one trail a year, Hoetker said. This year alone, however, trails have been installed in three parks: Delano's Morningside Park in March, Wasco's Cormack Park in May and Arvin's Smothermon Park. Each trail costs about $15,000 and sees an estimated 1,500 visitors per year.

Parks are sponsored by various organizations, such as Aera and Chevron.

During each trail's grand opening, once children complete the tasks at all 10 stations, they are given a free book to take home.

There are no other installations scheduled for the remainder of this year, but Hoetker said United Way of Kern County is "actively seeking sponsorships" and is open to any locations. 

"We will meet with the park department and say to them, 'You know your community best so you tell us what location would work best for you,'" Hoetker explained.

Other than the trails, the organization has a free Book of the Month club. United Way of Kern County will send age-appropriate books to every child, up to 6 years old, in a household.

"They’re spending more time with their kids, their home library has grown and they’re visiting their local library more," Hoetker said. "Not only do we offer these trails to them but we give them this literacy piece as well for free."

For more information on the trails or to sign up for the Book of the Month club, visit uwkern.org or call 661-834-1820.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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