Severson Dells Notes: Hands-on nature education at Severson Dells

Editor’s note: The following was adapted from an annual breakfast speech.

By Don Miller

Education Director, Severson Dells Nature Center

Severson Dells Nature Center is a community of people who promote the mission of “linking people to nature through education and research.” We strive to immerse all people into nature.

We have a touch table that, when we bring a student into the museum room, they gravitate to the classic piece of furniture. Immediately, the kids start picking things off the table for a closer look. And almost as instantaneously, an adult will say, “put that down, don’t be touching that.” The student, or one of the staff, will then point to the sign over the display that says, “touchables, please touch.” Then, there is no holding back the students from handling everything on the table. And not enough time to answer all the questions, but it is outside where the hands-on nature education really takes off. While the education systems are focusing on “leaving no child behind,” Severson Dells wants to “leave no person inside.”

We do that through our education programs!

Have you ever waded through an ocean of bluebells? Well, we offer hikes through a bluebell forest that feels that dense and fluid, and also to sand prairies, and into the oak woods.

Our monthly youth groups—the Coyote Clan and SEEDS—focus on the lost art of unstructured play in the out-of-doors. We offer “critter day” and ecotourism travelogues as well as numerous classes and programs so people can learn and then share their knowledge with others.

What Severson Dells Nature Center can do for visiting teachers is bring things to life that they can only talk about in the classroom. Reptiles are in the curriculum of many teachers. Learning about local snakes is a great way to study characteristics of that type of animal. In the classroom, an instructor could read from some of the resources that are out there. For instance, using the brown snake as an example, the description reads from the Reptiles and Amphibians of Illinois Guide as the following: “Brown snake is a gray or light-brown snake with two rows of small, dark spots on the back. On some individuals, back spots are connected by side bars to form a ladderlike pattern.” And so on. Or, a teacher could show a picture or slide of the brown snake to help the students have a better idea what they look like. Or, the students can have a hands-on experience.

Hands-on nature experiences can, in some, cause anxieties. Others may be afraid as to how something might feel or how it may react to us; we fear the unknown, and have preconceived ideas as to what things might be like. There is certainly anticipation when it comes to hands-on nature learning style.

However, let’s get back to the snake lesson. We have listened to words from a book, we can see a picture, but would you not agree if we could hold a snake, maybe touch a snake for the less adventuresome, wouldn’t that be a memorable life experience?

To see a snake up close in person, to see its rib cage pulsating in and out, to see it while one holds it in their hands and it sticks a sensing tongue out at you. To feel that the snake’s scaly skin is not slimy or gross, but soft as silk, wouldn’t that be the ultimate way to learn about a snake?

So, Jackson School students, bring out the boxes to each of the tables, please. (Give to the table captains.) Anybody’s hearts racing a little? Anxious? Anticipating, hopeful?

Table captains, open the box! [Inside are magnifying lenses.]

We have given you the tools to learn about snakes. It is hands-on; it is up close and personal. So, the next time you are really holding a snake, you can get a great look at it.

We have a group of old-timers who come to hike Severson who call themselves “The Whale Watchers.” They look for whales and, in the 60 years of their existence, they have never once seen a whale. But when they are looking for them, it is amazing what they do find. And that is what we hope for you with your new magnifying glass—that no matter what you are looking for, you see what is right in front of your face.

Thirty-two thousand elementary students in our region could potentially make a visit at the Dells but don’t take part in our programs. At our current capacity, we serve more than 5,000 students, primarily in kindergarten through sixth grade. We work closely with each teacher’s curriculum to bring alive the books that they are using in the classroom. As well as meeting state learning goals, we make sure the kids take the time to develop an appreciation and an awareness of the beauty around them. It’s a solid approach, but don’t forget about the 32,000 elementary students who aren’t visiting the Dells.

For many of the students we work with, this is their only exposure for this type of experience. Seventy percent of the students who visit from the Rockford Public School system qualify for their free or reduced lunch program. They are disadvantaged, in many ways.

I’m proud we work with more than 17,000 people of all ages and interests who come through our program yearly. In a community region that has more than 300,000 people, there are many who don’t come to visit, who stay inside, who don’t walk in the woods, who may not know the riches to be found.

Our community is losing environmental education at an alarming rate. Funding has disappeared from other programs, and that is why Severson Dells has to remain strong and vibrant. The whole nature of childhood has changed. The scary thing is the adults in this room may represent the last generation to have a widespread memory of unstructured childhood play in nature. We can’t let that happen.

Allow me to share some of our dreams…

We would love to continue doing more programming at the Pecatonica River Forest Preserve Center, as well as other sites in the county. The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District has three purposes: preservation, conservation and education. Severson Dells Nature Center will be the catalyst/genesis for the expansion of the third purpose—education—throughout the county.

We have a target of growing our endowment to $3 million so we can provide these valuable services to the next generation and the ones after that.

We would like to partner with more area schools and community organizations in programs rooted in hands-on experiences, making them connect and develop a sense of belonging to this region.

On my desk at the Dells is a heavy, black, old microscope. It was given to me by Dad, who received it from his parents when he graduated from college in 1947. It was a portal to another world for me at the age of 7 or 8. To look through it and discover what stuff was swimming in the pond water he brought home, or looking at hairs we had pulled out of our heads only to laugh about that, later wishing we had those hairs back, and even sticking our finger with a needle to look at blood cells.

But looking back, by the time I had peered through that microscope as a young kid, my folks had already exposed me to canoeing local rivers, helped me learn some wildflowers, put names on birds coming to the feeder, and let me play all day in a vacant lot by our house.

We have given you today a magnifying glass that may open another world for you. But the real gift you already have within, that being the sense of wonder and discovery, and a youthful heart that allows for unstructured play in nature. Make sure you share that gift.

Let Severson Dells be your guide in hands-on nature education. Come out and explore and learn with us, and we will open new worlds to you.

We greatly appreciate your support of our mission; please help us out by sending donations or becoming a member. Severson Dells Nature Center, 8786 Montague Road, Rockford, IL, 61102, or call (815) 335-2915 or visit for more information.

From the November 4-10, 2009 issue

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