The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

September 1, 2013

Nature's lessons

Education center offers instructors new possibilities

The Commercial-News

---- — DANVILLE — For instructors Lara Darling and Jeremy Parrish, the new Kennekuk Environmental Education Center offers a variety of improvements, including larger classrooms, bigger office areas and a presentation area allowing kids to get up close to a wide range of taxidermy animals and scenes.

The ribbon-cutting for the long-sought education center is only two weeks away and Outdoor School instructors Darling and Parrish are excited about the prospects and improvements that new building holds.

Walking through the building Thursday, both admired the larger spaces and imagined the bonuses that will come as a result.

“Your imagination can go wild really: What kind of things can I do here?” Parrish said of his classroom, which is about double the size of his current classroom

“That’s the exciting thing — the possibilities are kind of endless,” Parrish added. “Whatever you can think of we can try to do here. It’s a blank canvas.”

Phase 1 of the 34,000-square-foot structure includes two classrooms, office and storage space and a kitchen. For Outdoor School, the facility replaces the Nature Center — an old restored home.

Plans for the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center have been a part of the Vermilion County Conservation District’s master plan since 1995 and an item for the district’s foundation since 2006.

The ribbon cutting is set for Sept. 15 with Outdoor School slated to begin the next day.

While Darling admits the Nature Center holds a lot of memories for her during the 14 years she’s been with the conservation district, the opportunity for a new education center is an enticing one.

“We don’t’ spend a whole lot of time in the classroom,” she said. “This is called Outdoor School and we try to spend as much time as we can outdoors.

“But on those days where you have to keep the kids in the classroom, this is going to be so much more conducive for learning, so much more productive for learning,” Darling said.

“I’ll be looking forward to my first rain day,” she joked.

More than 60,000 students have completed Outdoor School at either Forest Glen County Preserve or Kennekuk County Park in the last 35 years.

Both instructors admit they’ve started thinking about ways to expand their lesson plans. Parrish is considering learning stations in his classrooms, while Darling is thinking about activities that allow the kids to move around in the classroom.

“There are so many activities that require space that I would love to use to interact with the kids, but you need a little extra space for that,” she said. “You need set up space and you need space for the kids to spread out and do the activities.”

Learning, however, will not be restricted to simply the trails or the new classrooms. Part of Phase 1 of the project includes the construction of a large display area for taxidermy animals or other displays that Parrish is looking forward to, noting that students are very hands on.

He said a full body taxidermy bison will be among the first animals to be exhibited in the display area. Parrish said he hopes they will be able to switch out the displays to focus on various parts of nature, such as lake and stream habitats.

“Lots of time when you’re out hiking in the forest, you’ll see plant and trees because those things aren’t going to move,” Darling said. “But when you talk about wildlife, you might see squirrels and you’ll hear the birds. You might even see a deer running off in the distance. But in here we’re going to have the taxidermy display, we’re going to have the raccoon; we’re going to have the possum, the turkey. That way those kids can actually see them.”

Ironically, one of the interesting things both instructors look forward to in the new facility is — indoor plumbing. Past students used outdoor bathrooms and faucets to wash their hands while attending Outdoor School.

“That’s the first thing that it’s going to offer: a more comfortable Outdoor School experience for the kids,” Parrish said, noting that there was only one male and one female bathroom before.

“If we can get them through the bathroom quicker, we can get out on the trail quicker and give us more time,” he said. “There are times we’re running short on time and we want to get this in and this in and we don’t have the chance.”

Darling said it could take as long as 15 minutes to get the kids through the restrooms one at a time.

A kitchen at the education center will also allow for safer storage of the kids’ lunches each day. Darling remembers the first time dogs ate two of the lunches — which are kept outside on a bench — while the class was hiking on a trail.

Fundraising is continuing for Phases 2 and 3 of the project, which include a permanent museum, 5,000-square-foot conference center and a 1/5-acre roof garden atop the structure. All this combines with a recently built handicap accessible nature trail nearby.

Phase 2 would include the addition of 40 feet on the southwest side of the building, allowing the current classrooms to be moved there and creating space for a temporary museum in the education center.

It was a little more than a year ago that the Vermilion County Conservation District was approved for a $1 million grant for the building — a major step in allowing construction to begin. The grant was given by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development.

Dedication Ceremonies to dedicate the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, in Kennekuk County Park, west of Danville on Henning Road. A walk-through of the new facility will be given by staff following the ceremony.