Feature Article - October 2003
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Call of the Wild

From beautiful blossoms to bugs and guts, nature programs are growing as people return to their roots

By Margaret Ahrweiler


PHOTO COURTESY OF CUSTER STATE PARK

Along with that desire to reconnect with nature, outdoor programming has grown as park districts re-examine their mission, Dunsmuir says.

"We're changing the definition of recreation," he says. "Sure, soccer and baseball are recreation but so is bird-watching and exploring the natural world."

He notes that in Illinois, less than 1 percent of the native prairie ecosystems that once covered the state remains, so that scarcity has driven up interest.

Dunsmuir's district has served as a model for nature-based programming, with the star of its natural shows its 135-acre Lincoln Marsh Natural Area. In 1979, the district purchased the first chunk of acreage for the marsh when it realized that unspoiled areas, not just sports fields, would become scarce before anyone knew it and figured that programming possibilities abounded.

"Preservation and programming go hand in hand," Dunsmui says. "We had always talked about a teams course, and the Marsh was a good spot for that. We thought about school programs for environmental education—why go out of state when you could go to your own back yard?"

Through budget allocations and fund-raising, the district added a teams and ropes course, which it markets to schools, youth groups and corporations; nature trails; interpretive signage; and a shelter with a fire ring that serves as its main gathering site. With word of mouth and exposure from school programs, the Marsh staff has grown from one jack-of-all trades to a staff of six in peak summer months.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLOWBROOK WILDLIFE CENTER

Programming for preschoolers has grown most dramatically, says Kelly Joslin, interpretative naturalist at the Marsh.

"You can have a huge impact on children with their first experience in nature," Joslin says. "You want to foster that sense of wonder."

Preschool programming depends heavily on using the senses, acting out animals, small-fry songs and games, and general silliness with a nature bent. This fall, Lincoln Marsh Kids-n-Critters classes include Daddy Longlegs, Muskrats, a Mouse Walk and Winter Sleepers. In the summer, the Marsh hosts about 300 children from preschool through middle school for its popular day camps.

Joslin also promotes family programming to develop that same sense of wonder—and fun—among all ages. With the popular night hike series, groups ranging from babies to grandparents look for bats and owls, hear animal calls, find stars, and learn about nocturnal creatures, with plenty of activities along the way and a campfire with marshmallows or hot chocolate at the end. Family programs, Joslin says, help adults learn not to be afraid of the outdoors and feel that they don't need to know what everything is to enjoy themselves.

Dispelling those fears is one of the keys to leading people down the path to nature, notes Sandy Fejt, a naturalist with the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in suburban Chicago.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WHEATON PARK DISTRICT

While Willowbrook was originally founded in 1956 to care for injured and orphaned wild animals, it has changed its mission over the years to help DuPage residents understand those animal's place in nature and to dispel fears about them. Residents once called to remove a den of foxes from their backyard, Fejt says. Through the awareness created by nature programming, people now view the animals' place in a suburban environment that still supports wildlife.

Willowbrook has also found that self-guided programming helps visitors enjoy its facilities at their own pace, allowing them to make their own fun in short bursts appropriate for different age levels. Mailboxes with laminated, activity-filled sheets guide visitors through the permanent displays of wildlife and the nature area, with woods and pond, behind it.

Programming can also expand visitors' ideas of what makes nature fun. While it's easy to teach the "warm and fuzzies," nature professionals can show that nature can be fun beyond cute animals, says Fejt, who counts among her specialties teaching children the joy of bugs.