From the first step, education coordinator Sally Patterson enlists the help of the students she leads through the green world of Lincoln Memorial Garden. "Everyone keep your eyes open: I only have one set of eyes. If we work together we can see a lot more." Before long a small girl squeals, pointing: "There's a snake!" Sure enough, a long, brown water snake is coiled in a low hawthorn along the lake, sunning itself. The other children gather around, eyes wide.
The second-grade class from Palmyra is taught by Peg Heinz, who says this is exactly the type of experience that the children will build on back in class. "They learn to use all their senses out here. Sally is great about getting them to see and hear things for themselves. We use this as the basis for an 'experience writing' project, where they put into words what they learn."
Each year the education program at Lincoln Memorial Garden hosts more than 6,000 school children from all over central Illinois. Patterson says that many of these children have no prior experience in nature as an environment for learning. For her, seeing the budding awareness of the abundance of life held in a hardwood forest or meadow is the biggest reward of her job. "You can just watch it dawn on them. They begin to see how humans can impact the environment when they realize how much is actually going on in the woods. Hopefully this will lead them to make decisions later with a positive ecological impact."
The children aren't the only ones who take something positive away from the experience. Volunteer interpreter Bob Naugle has been leading hikes for five years, and he says he makes fresh discoveries on each hike. "This was something I wanted to do when I retired. I came out here and was trained as an interpreter." He has learned a lot about wildflowers and trees, but he says the children are the ones who keep it interesting. "We always tell them. . . if they see something to let us know. Once a boy saw some movement under some ground cover. I moved the leaves and there was a six-inch praying mantis with a death grip on a small snake. That was something."
Lincoln Memorial Garden, a not-for-profit organization, receives its funding from a variety of sources--state and federal grants, private and corporate memberships, as well as individual donations. The students each help with a $2 donation to the Garden after their tour. The education programs at the park run year round. During the winter, when it's too cold for nature hikes, Patterson takes her show on the road, doing in-school education programs. During the summer, when school is out, the Garden hosts a very popular summer camp.
After the hike, the group moves into the education room at the nature center to look at feathers and snake skin under a microscope and displays of mounted animals and birds. They also settle down to a visit with the resident box turtles. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, they watch as the turtles eat a lunch of juicy worms. Before they leave, Patterson reminds them to return. "If you come back it two weeks, everything will be changed," she promises. "There will be new flowers blooming, new animals about. That is the good thing about the forest, it is always brand new."
Lincoln Memorial Garden is open every day from sunrise to sunset. The nature center and gift shop are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tusday through Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, except during special events. To get to the gardens, go south on Interstate 55, then take the Chatham / East Lake Drive exit (#88). Go east on East Lake Shore for two miles. The Gardens are at 2301 East Lake Shore Drive. Call 529-1111 for more information.