DANVILLE – The Vermilion County Conservation District is bringing the great outdoors into homes across the area as well as some out of state.
Even before Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker earlier this week extended the statewide stay-at-home order to April 30, the conservation district’s environmental educators who lead activities for local school groups already were brainstorming ways to keep schoolchildren engaged and learning during spring break.
“Before the shelter-in-place order began, we knew we didn’t have any school groups coming in to our parks because of spring break,” Environmental Education Supervisor Lara Danzl said.
The idea to record educational videos around the conservation district’s parks came from Program Secretary Amy Steeples who had seen similar educational videos about animals posted on social media by a zoo.
“Our director, Jamie Pasquale, said it looked like something we could do since we can’t do any programs at the parks right now,” Danzl said.
Danzl and the other environmental educators Jennifer Krainock, Susan Biggs Warner, Lisa Witsman and Mollie Pletch try to post a photo or fun activity once a day on the Vermilion County Conservation District’s Facebook page.
“We post on Facebook once a day so we don’t overwhelm them,” Danzl said. “We’ve been posting resources online and videos of crafts kids can do at home.
“As soon as things start to green up, I’m going to do something on the signs of spring,” she said. “Our newest environmental educator, Jennifer Krainock, has been developing a nature bingo game.”
One type of post that has proven popular is when Danzl posts photos of various locations around Kennekuk, Forest Glen and Heron parks and asks the public to guess the location.
“Some people guess the exact location,” she said. “It’s a testament to how much people love our parks.”
Another favorite activity was a backyard nature hunt and a sensory hunt. The backyard nature hunt sent children outdoors to scavenge for clovers, spider webs, bugs, rocks and acorns. The sensory hunt entailed seeing, feeling, hearing and smelling different outdoor elements.
“Those scavenger hunts were shared all over,” Danzl said. “We even had people in Arizona doing our scavenger hunts.”
Danzl, with the help of her professional photographer husband, Rick, has been recording short three-minute videos that she posts about once a week.
“I focus on one topic at a time and get people engaged and get them interested in plants and animals,” she said.
One of her recent videos introduced the public to skunk cabbage.
“It’s the first plant to come out of the ground in February,” she said. “It throws off so much heat, it melts the snow around it.”
Danzl’s second video entailed a repurposing craft project.
“I repurposed a glass jar and glued tissue paper on it to make it look like stained glass,” she said.
Environmental Educator Susan Biggs Warner posted a video she took of Canada geese at Heron Park.
“All the educators are submitting videos,” Danzl said.
The conservation district hopes the posts and videos will keep the public interested in nature and active at home.
The district’s parks are still open, although its buildings are closed to the public.
“People have been acting responsibly,” Danzl said. “People have been appreciative and grateful that we’ve kept the parks open.”
A few popular events, however, have been canceled or postponed, such as the maple syrup open house that was set for March 15 and Conservation Olympics that had been set for May 8.
“We’re trying to postpone and reschedule as much as we can,” Danzl said. “The pancake mix for the maple syrup open house was donated to a food pantry.”
This year’s Conservation Olympics, which was expected to draw 400 schoolchildren from all over the county, has been canceled.
“It would have been irresponsible to have that many people gathered,” she said.
The daily social media posts and videos seem to have been a hit with the public.
“For people who can’t get out to the parks, they are enjoying what we are putting online,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot more Facebook followers, so we know we’re connecting to people.”
In fact, Danzl is considering creating longer videos that can be posted to YouTube.
“There are so many opportunities to teach people about the outdoors,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can and keeping connected with people.”