Will County Master Naturalist Amy Gibson points to deep, heart-shaped tracks in the soft mud of a leaf-covered ravine in Pilcher Park. She asks the fourth graders clustered around her, "what do we have here?"
Two boys zig-zag through the group and eagerly shout, "don’t you remember, you taught us. These are deer tracks, and it looks like they are heading this way. Come on!"
They scamper onward leading 40 of their classmates trying to find more tracks with Master Naturalists right behind them. This is Kids n Nature Adventure in a nutshell.
Kids n Nature Adventure
Kids n Nature Adventure is a unique nature program that is a partnership between the University of Illinois Extension Will County Master Naturalists, Joliet District 86 Grade Schools and the Joliet Park District. This 27-week immersive program is offered after school and during the summer to 4th-grade students of six underserved Joliet schools.
After school in the fall and spring, students are bussed to the park to join Master Naturalists and park staff to learn and experience the natural world. In the summer, they come two mornings a week.
Contrary to some beliefs, underserved youth are rarely outside out of concern for their safety, Outside can mean gangs and guns, so their free time is spent mostly indoors. Many have never even been to a park.
Pilcher Park is less than 10 miles from their homes and is free and open every day of the year and most of the students, and their families, never knew it existed — until Kids n Nature.
The Benefits of Experiencing Nature
At the first session, the students are tentative, even sometimes fearful of nature — wide-eyed, holding hands, quietly walking down center of the paved path.
But within a few weeks of learning and exposure to the natural world in a safe environment with caring, knowledgeable adults, they are transformed — climbing trees, splashing in the creek, rolling down hills and turning over a rotten log to see who they can find. And the Master Naturalist volunteers are right there with them along the journey to cultivate and develop a lifelong love of nature in these students.
Teachers remark about even bigger changes they see at school.
Students in the Kids n Nature program often:
- Show increased teamwork and empathy skills
- Improved concentration
- Emerging leadership behaviors at school.
The Kids n Nature program has also seen some long-term changes in beliefs and behaviors. Many of the former program participants have returned to be junior leaders and even later, in high school to do their community service at the park.
The ultimate embodiment of the Kids and nature program is with the family. Students report that they have encouraged their parents to take them to the park so they could show and share all they have learned. As one student so aptly said -
“I didn’t even know nature and that I love it. And I will take care of it for the rest of my life.”