New naturalist program aims to bring southern Illinois kids outdoors

Amanda Patrick
Shawnee National Forest, U.S. Forest Service
January 31st, 2014 at 4:45PM

With declining budgets in the public school system, there has been a steady decrease in school fieldtrips in recent years. This plight further widens the disconnect between children and nature.

To help bridge the gap between the schoolroom and the natural world, the Shawnee National Forest will offer a new school program this year called Naturalist in the Classroom.  The program will be piloted to third- through fifth-grade students in Union and Alexander counties located in southern Illinois, and will focus on two themes – forest ecology and wetland ecology.

Forest Service employees will visit the classroom several times during the semester to cover topics, such as the role of water, the function of wetlands, forest functions, and tree identification, or subjects identified by the teacher.  Naturalist in the Classroom will culminate in a one-day field trip at a Forest Service site with Forest Service natural resource and conservation education professionals to show students how what they learned applies in the field and in national forest management.

There will be hands-on activities and games from various national curriculums, such as Project Learning TreeProject Aquatic Wild and WOW! Wonders of Wetlands will be used.

Naturalist in the Classroom aims to strengthen and expand the Shawnee’s environmental education program, get kids outdoors, and assist local educators in meeting Illinois’ learning standards.  Schools benefitting from the program are located in areas with high unemployment and have some of the highest underserved populations in southern Illinois.

“We are really excited about implementing this new program in local schools,” said Allen Nicholas, forest supervisor at Shawnee National Forest.  “There are so many barriers to getting children in the outdoors these days.  We hope the Naturalist in the Classroom project will be the bridge in getting kids into the outdoors, as well as connecting them to the expertise of our natural resource professionals.”

The spring application deadline is Feb. 5; the fall application deadline is Sept. 5.