Amidst Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place order as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Palo Alto families are finding comfort in their community through a teddy bear scavenger hunt.
Inspired by the children’s book “Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen, communities all over the world are placing stuffed bears in their street-facing windows as a part of a game for kids to play while practicing social distancing. Several Palo Alto parents, such as Crescent Park resident Heather Kenealy, were motivated to bring the bear hunt to their own neighborhoods.
“I thought it (the teddy bear hunt) would be something fun for families to do together and get outside,” Kenealy said.
Kenealy said she asked her neighbors through an email group if they would be interested in participating after hearing about the idea from a friend in Singapore and did not expect the overwhelming response she received.
“People just went crazy for it,” Kenealy said. “I think we had almost 20 people say they put bears in their windows just three minutes after I posted the first email.”
It did not take long for Kenealy’s neighbor Wes Christensen to jump on board and volunteer to make a map of the bears’ locations in Crescent Park.
“The email traffic became a little overwhelming,” Christensen said. “I thought if we had a map, everyone could send their addresses just to the map maker and not burden the whole group with so many emails.”
As a retired software engineer, Christensen said he thought making a map for the bear hunt would be a fun project to keep him busy during self isolation. However, he said he initially struggled with fitting all of the locations on one image of Crescent Park.
“It turned out to be a lot more of a challenge than I imagined,” Christensen said. “It pretty much took over my life for two days.”
Christensen said he was grateful for the help of his fellow Palo Alto resident Pete Cockerell, who was also making a map for his neighborhood, Duveneck-St. Francis. Cockerell said he shared his strategy of using GeoSheets, a program where you can insert addresses in a spreadsheet that translates into an interactive map, with Christensen.
After overcoming the technical errors, Christensen said he spent the rest of his Friday staying up all night to make the bear hunt map for Crescent Park. At 5 a.m. the next morning, Christensen said he posted the first version of the map to the neighborhood group, which had markers for 92 addresses with bears in windows, cars and on front-porches.
“It’s been fascinating and gratifying to see how quickly and enthusiastically people have adopted this idea,” Cockerell said.
Palo Alto mom Meredith Tan said she took her 2-year-old daughter on a bike ride to hunt for bears and they both loved it.
“(My daughter) thinks it’s a lot of fun and gets really excited when she sees the bears,” Tan said. “It gives me a really nice sense of community.”
According to Cockerell, who is a father of a third grader, quarantining with young children can be arduous and overwhelming at times.
“Anyone with children knows what a challenge it is to keep them positive and motivated during this strange and terrible time,” Cockerell said.
Although Tan said she acknowledges the struggles of quarantining with kids, Tan said she is grateful to have time to do activities like the bear hunt where she can spend time with her family and live in the present.
“We’re getting into a rhythm where we take our time and create our own adventures and fun,” Tan said. “It’s kind of a time to reflect and ‘stop and smell the roses’ instead of constantly going from one thing to the next.”
Crescent Park resident Terri Weber, who said she put a stuffed dog in her window after hearing about it from her neighbors, said she thinks the bears are more than a scavenger hunt for kids and instead act as a symbol of community during isolation.
“I think there’s an emotional aspect to (the coronavirus), and by having a sign of solidarity with the neighborhood, it shows that we are all in this together,” Weber said.
For 11-year-old twins Sabrina and Zachary Terman who are both fifth graders at Addison Elementary School, the bear hunt inspired them to continue to make people smile when picking a topic for their school’s Inquiry Fair, a project that asks students to answer an experimental question of their choosing.
“We were brainstorming ideas for the fair and (Sabrina and Zachary) wanted to do something positive and heartwarming similar to the sentiment behind the bear hunt,” said Nadine Terman, the twins’ mom.
Terman said that her kids often make light-hearted videos to get a laugh out of their family and friends, so they decided to create a series of seven short videos to imitate the “warm and fuzzy” feeling that the bear hunt offered to many community members. In their experiment, titled “The Happiness Project”, Sabrina and Zachary Terman said they tested to see if their videos improved the viewer’s mood by asking participants to rate how they felt on a scale of one to ten.
“When we looked at the responses of people participating, we saw that people who felt like a two (at the beginning) were a ten at the end of the video,” Sabrina Terman said. “It made me really happy to see the change in their happiness levels.”
In the fourth video of their experiment, the twins said they documented their bear hunt adventure and filmed short clips of the different types of animals on display. On their walk, Nadine Terman said they ended up stopping at their neighbors’ houses to chat from a distance.
“Not only did we do a bear hunt, but we also had a little neighborhood get-together,” Nadine Terman said.
Zachary Terman said he believes the Palo Alto community should try to focus on the positive aspects of our situation, like the bear hunt, and do what makes us happiest.
“When I’m stressed, I like to read and spend time with my family,” Zachary Terman said.
As of April 9, Christensen said over 180 homes have bears or other stuffed animals on display in Crescent Park alone, with several hundred more in the Midtown and Duveneck-St. Francis neighborhoods. Some homes have upwards of 20 bears in their windows, whom Christensen awarded “medals” for their efforts.
“The thing that surprised me the most was how important connectivity is to so many people,” Christensen said. “There’s a lot of people who are feeling very stressed right now, and I think (the bear hunt) was almost a lifesaver for them.”