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, meets afternoons and has about 35 members, said naturalist Kari Lanning. The evening chapter is also about 50 percent homeschoolers.
"Mostly what I've heard is that they come to programs like this to get the hands-on experience, and at home they do the book work," Lanning said.
How homeschoolers use the programs varies by family. Janiece Siebert, a homeschooling mother in Carthage, uses a textbook-based science course at home, but relies on the Conservation Kids Club at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center to round out her 11-year old son's curriculum.
"They have experiments in science," Siebert said. "They've studied snakes, reptiles, tracking, fur-bearing mammals. The experiment part is essential. It's like doing lab work with science; it deepens their understanding of it."
In southwest Missouri, Elliott Frederick, age 7, has attended the Springfield center's Little Acorns and Conservation Kids Club for several years. His mother, Sheryl Frederick, relies on the program to guide his science education.
"I learn about as much as he does, really," Sheryl said. "He basically gets all his science through the Department of Conservation and Prairie State Park (managed by the Department of Natural Resources). Generally they cover most of it, more than I can."
Back at the stream table, Naturalist Andrea Putnam begins a lesson on stream erosion and conservation. By the time she is finished, the kids have straightened the stream, drowned a couple of plastic cows, demolished the silo and learned the importance of careful farming practices. Tim and Natalie Anderson plunge in with the other kids, sculpting the stream into a new course. Beside them, their mother, Theresa Anderson, asks questions and occasionally prods her children for an answer. While the kids play in the water, Putnam holds up for inspection a shovel-nosed sturgeon, an ancient species of fish that inhabits the river where they will soon venture. Natalie soaks up the information. These events, she said, help her identify the plants and animals she encounters in the natural world.
As rain continues to fall, volunteer leader Judith Lambayan shepherds her group through the mud to the boat ramp where an MDC johnboat waits to take them on the river. Anderson starts chatting with the woman across from her, Carol Hansen, and quickly discovers that she has also homeschooled her children. The boat beaches on a sandbar. Tim and his new friends march off with sticks to leave their marks on the 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.
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