By TONY CARTON | For The Prairie Advocate News
Nature: It’s more than just prairie grasses and birding. It’s the stuff of our lives - our food, our water, and our air - the beauty that surrounds us. It threatens us, it protects us; it benefits every phase of our lives, so last Friday, hundreds of young nature enthusiasts traveled to Palisades Park in Savanna to spend a day learning about and meeting Mother Nature at the 16th annual Soil and Water District Conservation Day.
Conservation Day is an annual event hosted by the Jo Daviess County SWCD featuring dozens of educational opportunities for area fourth graders.
Jo Daviess County SWCD Administrative Coordinator Mindy Pratt said 14 schools from a three-county area sent more than 500 students to participate in the day’s activities.
She said organizations including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as area farmers, the Natural Area Guardians, Illinois Extension and more provided hands-on learning experiences at some 20 stations scattered throughout Palisades Park campgrounds.
“Extension and the Guardians are doing a series of exhibitions near the entrance to the campground,” Pratt said. “The participants first learn to journal their experiences, and then move on to areas that are sharing stories and information about a variety of conservation practices.
Laurie Gothard participated in Conservation Day with the Master Gardener organization. The gardeners brought clusters of leaves and were helping the students identify various trees by their leaf patterns and shapes.
She said part of the Master Gardener’ exhibit would have the students make rubbings or tracings of the leaves and then enter those items into their journals.
“We are working with just 5 or 6 different types of trees today,” she said. “We want the kids to retain some of this information, so we are not overloading them with varieties. We will spend a little time with each species and then send the kids over to our piles of branches to find a maple or an oak or whatever their favorite might be.”
She said they’ve found the best results come from offering an interactive experience.
“We’re letting them choose their favorite leaves and trees and then helping them learn a little about that variety,” she said. “Today is a learning experience for us and the children and it’s been a lot of fun.”
West Carroll fourth grader Noel Randecker was tracing leaves at the exhibit operated by Master Gardeners Gothard and Linda Helgeson.
“The veins in the leaves distribute the foods in the leaf,” Randecker said. “They spread and have different patterns and nourish the tree.”
She said she was actively journaling her day’s activities and would be using that information when they returned to the classroom.
Chadwick-Milledgeville sent 32 students to Conservation Day and fourth grade teacher Shevawn Yochem said the experience was their “Outdoor Science Day.”
“First of all, I have to say it is an incredibly beautiful day to just be outside,” Yochem said. “We have come to this in earlier years and waited out the rain in tents.
She said her students were genuinely enjoying the hands-on learning experiences.
“Right now, we’re decorating tree cookies made from slices of tree trunks and branches,” said Yochem. “We’ve already visited a soil center and the leaf center. We will be journaling our experiences all day as we move from station to station. At the end of the day, we will be taking our newly gathered information back to our classroom and we will refer to those materials for the rest of our science year.”
West Carroll fourth grade teacher Jeanelle Strohmaier brought 27 of her students to Conservation Day. Strohmaier said her kids were very excited to participate.
“They are collecting samples of nature and putting them in their booklets along with the date and time the sample was found,” Strohmaier said. “Once that is taken care of, they summarize what they’ve seen.”
She said they would be continuing their learning experience in the classroom.
“We will go out, maybe in the different seasons and see what else they can find,” said Strohmaier. “We will probably keep this going all year.”