It was 1930 when the first organized children's programming by the San Diego Natural History Museum took place. That was the year a cooperative effort between the Museum and the City schools first established a program assembling and loaning large collections of nature exhibits to the region's schools. At first only the country schools benefited from the efforts, since for a time the city schools refused any financial support to the education program. Then in 1931 the Summer School of Science for children was started. The County Supervisor of Nature Study and SDNHM Entomologist, W. S. Wright, with Frank Gander as his assistant, ran this program. In time this would grow to be one of the largest public programs at the Museum, and would include not only the summer classes but the Junior Naturalist Club, which held sessions throughout the winter as well.
The Summer School of Science was normally an eight-week program, running from July through the end of August. Classes were offered for children grades 5-12, and the children registered according to the grade that they had completed the previous year. Class size was usually maintained at about 20-25 students. Each class met at least once a week, with lessons often comprised of "games, quiz contests, movies and demonstrations." Children in the 5th and 6th grades had their occasional outings during their class meetings, while the children in grades 7th through 10th had theirs on Fridays, and grades 11th and 12th had theirs on Saturdays.
In 1939 the educational programs at the museum gained a powerful ally when Charles Harbison became the director of the Junior Nationalist Program and the Summer School of Science. Back in his high school days, Harbison had not only been interested in biology, but had delved into acting as well. This was never more evident than when Harbie was in front of a class of eager Junior Naturalists. Under his animated instruction, children learned about everything from trap-door spiders and California butterflies to Cooper's Hawks. Some of the student outings included trips to places like the seashore to observe tide pools, or right in Balboa Park for "fossil collecting." Occasionally there were overnight trips so that the students could learn about constellations and astronomy.
Harbison was involved with the educational programs (later to be renamed the Museum's Young Naturalist Classes) from 1939 through 1949. This, of course, included the war years during which the San Diego Natural History Museum building was closed to the public, since the Navy was using it as a hospital. In 1943 Harbison was informed that he had two weeks to find an alternate place to run classes due to the Navy takeover. Harbison managed to run the nature classes, clubs, and summer school from the nature study rooms he helped establish at the Brooklyn School, located at 30th and Ash Streets. Later the headquarters of the classes were changed to the Dewy Elementary School before returning to the museum in 1948.
With the reopening of the San Diego Natural History Museum in 1949, Harbison for a time sought employment elsewhere due to funding issues, and relinquished his title as director of the Junior Naturalist Program. Mr. Thomas H. Pagehart, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley was selected to take over Harbison's educational work. Harbison returned to the Museum in 1952 as Entomology Curator. Though he did not continue as director of the Junior Naturalist Program, he frequently helped with demonstrations for schools and open houses through the 1960s.
Today the San Diego Natural History Museum offers a multitude of educational programs including adult programs, lectures and films, docent school outreach, overnight expeditions, children's classes, family programs, and nature walks. Harbie's early efforts developing nature classes and programs laid the foundation for the diverse educational programs that the museum is able to offer today.