Bringing Conservation Home
sand. On the ride back, the two mothers exchange contact information and make tentative plans for a play date.
Such networking among homeschoolers is common at these programs. "I've gotten some of my best resources from the women I've met at Springfield," Siebert said. Connections are easier to make when the group is all home educators. Several of the conservation nature centers around the state offer programs specifically geared toward homeschoolers, and all present their public school programs to larger homeschool groups when asked.
Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood offers two programs each month aimed specifically at homeschoolers. They are offered at the same time, each for a different age group.
"Normally we have a waiting list," said Powder Valley naturalist Colleen Scott. "Each group can take 15 to 20 children. It's always a full house.
"We try to have related topics so the kids can share information with younger or older siblings," she added. "This summer we had a hike. One of the little boys was really tickled to find out that birds will urinate down their legs to cool themselves off. When he told his mom, his older sister said, ‘Oh yeah! I learned that. Birds do that; turtles do that.' It was really neat to see them sharing information they'd each learned at their own level."
Teaching the different age levels of homeschoolers is a persistent challenge for the naturalists, particularly when the parents are reluctant to split the children into separate groups.
"That's been our biggest challenge in working with homeschool groups, accommodating the wide range of age groups and keeping their interest," said Wendy Hayes, Interpretive Program Supervisor at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center in Blue Springs.
The center has long offered public school programs for homeschool groups, Hays explained. The problem was presenting a fourth-grade program to children ranging in age from 3 to 18.
"Homeschoolers need a program that is more generalized," she elaborated. "We've recently started a monthly homeschool program that helps fill this niche."
Presenting programs designed for public school students to homeschool groups requires another adjustment.
"We always try to beef up the curriculum," said Rockwoods naturalist Kari Lanning. "If you have a group of homeschoolers age 7 to 8, I always bump it up two grades from the school groups. It seems as though the kids are a little more advanced in their schoolwork."
Parents say they build on the lessons these programs teach. Sandra Spaeth of St. Louis says her children receive a wealth of information from the programs they attend at Powder Valley Nature Center.
"We did a build-a-bath-house class a few months ago," Spaeth said. "We later tied all of that into a cave study we did on a camping trip. We talked about the bats in the cave, studied different kinds of bats, read Stellaluna, etc. We just continued what the Missouri Department of Conservation started."
Once back at Runge, the kids hike along one of the nature center's trails. Natalie and Tim chatter about previous excursions, both with the Kids Club and with family. The children return to listen to a William Clark impersonator tell the story of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, then write using pages of Clark's journal as a model. They end their day making fish prints.
The wide range of activities reflects the teaching philosophy the Conservation Department wants to encourage in parents.
"A lot of homeschoolers that I've talked to use Department of Conservation materials to teach conservation. However, they also use it as supplemental materials for their science curriculum," Gray said. "We're working really hard to get people to realize that conservation is a topic that can be used to teach across all the subject areas."
To spread the word, Jeff Cantrell, an MDC education consultant in Neosho, holds a yearly curriculum fair for homeschoolers at which he spreads out all the educational material the Department provides.
"The fair gave you different ways to think about conservation and see it from their standpoint," said Donna Ryan, one of the parents who attended. "He gave us different ideas on how to use it."
Looking back over the day at Runge, Carol Hansen reflects on what her children have gained.
"I think Runge developed an appreciation of the outdoors that carried over," Hansen said. "It teaches kids to respect nature. It's a good support system."
For information on MDC educational materials and calendars of events, visit the Department's website.