Wildlife Prairie Park program creates junior naturalists

By Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

Wildlife graze on a snow covered field at the Wildlife Prairie Park on Feb. 8. Winter may be here for another six weeks, but junior naturalists are studying wildlife and looking ahead to summer programs. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Prairie Park)

Eva Kirschbaum has fond memories of learning how to identify animal tracks as a child, and she’s hoping a whole new generation of kids will make similar memories as part of Wildlife Prairie Park’s Junior Naturalist program.

“This is a great program to help kids realize they do have an interest in something other than video games and to give them something fun and interesting to do besides sit in front of electronics,” said Kirschbaum, the park’s membership and marketing coordinator.

The year-long monthly program started in January and runs through December, but kids in grades first through eighth can sign up for any number of sessions at any time. Cost per child is $10 per session for non-members and $6 for members.

Parents are asked to stay with their children at a cost of $3 for non-members or free for members. Participants are welcome to walk the park’s trails after the 90-minute sessions.

The February session meets from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, with a “Happy Homes” topic. The park is located in Hanna City, about 10 miles west of downtown Peoria.

“This month is all about the different habitats animals live in,” Kirschbaum said. “We have a beehive they’ll get to look at up close and personal. And then we go outside and see animals like the badgers and how they dig tunnels to make their homes. Every animal has a different type of home or burrow or something they live in, and we’ll get to see different examples of those habitats.”

Participants in a summer day camp at Wildlife Prairie Park take a break after catching butterflies at the park in Hanna City. Registration is open for the park’s monthly Junior Naturalist program, which will include sessions on animal tracks, plant diversity and bugs. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Prairie Park)

Revamped last year, the program awards participants a badge for each completed session, as well as a take-home booklet. Every session involves classroom activities and time outdoors unless the wind chill dips below 20 degrees, so participants should dress for the weather.

“First, they do an inside portion with a hands-on activity that usually will involve an animal, and then we go outside and apply what they learned in the classroom to something in the park,” Kirschbaum said. “The hands-on portion is always the most popular with the kids. Little kids don’t like to sit in their seats very long and listen to somebody talk at them. They want to be shown and allowed to do it themselves.”


Other upcoming sessions include “Animal Tracks” March 3, “Conservation in Action” April 21, “Bug Life” June 16, “Pond Study” Aug. 18 and “Herpetology” Dec. 15.

Seven-year-old Aliyah Bauer is looking forward to the March program. “My favorite part is when we get to learn about animal tracks and then look for them in our yard,” she said.

“I like bringing my kids to the Junior Naturalist program at the park because it helps them better understand the animals and environment around them,” said Adrienne Bauer, the park’s animal and program director and a mother of four. “The unique aspect of the park is that the main focus is Illinois, so it allows my kids to see things and learn about things that they can see in their own backyard. The program also allows them to interact with other children and get outside.”

Nine-year-old Alexander Bauer said he enjoys seeing the animals and learning about nature, while 8-year-old Aries Bauer likes making new friends through the program and being outside.

A group of kids get an up-close-and-personal look at a turtle during a program at Wildlife Prairie Park. Registration is open for the park’s Junior Naturalist program, which membership and marketing coordinator Eva Kirschbaum said can pull kids away from their electronics and help awaken an interest in nature. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Prairie Park)

Wildlife Prairie Park is also hosting an Adventure Camp open to grades kindergarten through eighth from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on President’s Day, Feb. 19. Cost is $50 per child.

“This is our first time doing (a school holiday camp), though we had planned to host one on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day that got canceled because we lost power at the park and the roads were really bad (due to a snowstorm),” Kirschbaum said.

“It’s a lot more cost effective than maybe daycare or a babysitter would be, and the kids are getting to play outside and getting to know other kids their age. They might make a new friend and they might find a new hobby or it might spark a passion for nature,” she added.

Kids at the Adventure Camp will be divided by age groups and will have the opportunity to go sledding, build a snowman or fort and learn animal track identification outdoors, weather permitting. Indoor activities will include a snow bubbles experiment, milk jug igloo crafts, an animal program, indoor star gazing and slime making.

Kirschbaum said she hopes the Junior Naturalist program and the Adventure Camp will help open kids’ eyes to the joy and wonder of nature.

“Electronics are fine and can be helpful in moderation, but it’s almost heartbreaking to see kids who are sitting inside all the time staring at a screen or talking to their friends through a screen,” she said. “We need to break that habit and show them that there are other things out there.”

Advance registration is required for both the Junior Naturalist program and the Adventure Camp. For more information or to register, visit the website www.wildlifeprairiepark.org or call (309) 676-0998, Ext. 312.





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