Bringing Conservation Home
Beneath a canopy that barely keeps out a steady downpour, a group of nearly 30 children and adults crowd around a long, narrow box filled with gray plastic sand. Among them are Natalie and Tim Anderson, two young homeschool students from Columbia.
On both sides of a stream carved into the grit is a model farm complete with toy cattle and a silo. The children clutch the sides of the stream table with eager hands, just waiting to wreak ecological havoc on the mock landscape. Behind them flows the real thing: the Missouri River.
The kids are on a special expedition as part of their membership in Runge Conservation Nature Center's Conservation Kids Club. Kids Club facilitator Jan Syrigos estimates that 25 percent of the members are homeschooled. For those kids, events like this form a major part of their families' approach to learning about conservation and science. The high percentage also reflects the effort on the part of the Missouri Department of Conservation to reach out to homeschoolers with programs and materials.
The abundance of homeschoolers in Missouri reflects the national trend of more and more parents embracing alternative educational options for their children. Ginger Gray, Conservation Department Education Curriculum Coordinator, estimates that homeschoolers comprise the majority of participants in the Conservation Frontiers program statewide. Also, at least 500 homeschooling families subscribe to the K-1-2 student newsletter that is distributed four times a year to schools and homeschools.
"We consider homeschools the same as other schools," Gray said. "Some materials are easier to adapt than others, but they're all available to homeschoolers on an equal footing with the other schools in Missouri."
Across the state, conservation nature centers estimate homeschool participation in programs like Little Acorns, Conservation Kids Club and Discovery Squad at rates of 10 percent to as much as 50 percent. Both the Rockwoods and August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Areas have chapters of their Frontiers Club that consist entirely of homeschoolers.
"Our Frontiers program opened a year ago in August," said Shanna Raeker, a naturalist at Busch Conservation Area. "Then we got interest from homeschoolers, so we opened a day chapter for them. There are 12-15 kids with their parents and siblings that meet once a month. We do activities out of the Frontiers book, and they're doing a lot of the activities on their own, too."
The homeschooling Frontiers chapter at Rockwoods Conservation Area, in Eureka,