LAKESIDE — The woods are again filled with the laughter of children during Mighty Acorns outings.

The River Valley Elementary program  began its second year of exploration, learning and pitching in on Oct. 18 at Robinson Woods Preserve.

The inaugural New Buffalo Elementary Mighty Acorns session was held on Halloween (Tuesday, Oct. 31) in the recently established Chikaming Open Lands Turtle Creek Preserve — located literally right behind the school.

Mighty Acorns, an environmental education curriculum that engages students and teachers in field studies and hands-on learning opportunities, was created by The Nature Conservancy and is now run out of the Science in Action Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. It consists of both in-class work and field trips to local natural areas (Local field trips are led by Chikaming Open Lands personnel).

Elementary school teachers handle the classroom work, with a teacher kit including a curriculum guide, flash cards, handouts and more provided by the Field Museum.

Sherrie Bender, a fifth-grade teacher at River Valley Elementary, said the Mighty Acorns program is very hands-on and ties in perfectly with the district’s science curriculum. She noted that the students were learning about producers, consumers, decomposers, omnivores, herbivores and carnivores in the woods on Oct. 18.

“They’re looking for species, they’re identifying species with their field guides, looking at attributes and really studying things in their natural habitat,” she said. “One boy said ‘It feels so good to get back out in the woods!’”

Bender said the experience of being outside helps students learn “so much more” about the natural world, adding that they experience “something new and different” every time they visit.

One of the fifth-graders spotted a deer though the supplied monoculars, and forest-floor denizens ranging from various insects to a fungus that resembled “brains” were examined up-close.

Each participant has a Nature Exploration Backpack (supplied through a grant from the Harbor Country Rotary Club) filled with magnifying glasses, bug boxes, field guides, notebooks, portable habitats and those monoculars.

Students divide into three groups which rotate between exploration, stewardship (River Valley fourth-graders removed invasive barberry plants on Oct. 18) and a fun game designed to impart knowledge about the natural world.

During the Oct. 18 field trip with fifth-graders, Chikaming Open Lands Education and Outreach Coordinator Casey Struecker organized “The Great Food Chase” game which was played around an iconic old oak in Robinson Woods.

“It’s about food webs and interactions between plants and animals and how they survive,” she said.

A few students volunteered to be carnivores, omnivores or decomposers, with the rest as herbivores trying to sprint to the “safe side” while picking up food and avoiding being caught by predators. “Safe zones’ provide some shelter, but as the game goes on the habitat may become more degraded by various activities, lowering the number of safe places to hide.

As one group was getting ready to move on, a student shouted out “That was awesome!”

Struecker joined the Chikaming Open Lands team in April of 2017 and is now in charge of the local Mighty Acorns effort.   

“I really like it. It’s fun to see the kids interested in it,” she said. “And it’s nice to see that when I ask them a question the teacher has already taught it to them.”

Struecker said third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from both school districts will have field trips in the fall, winter and spring.

For younger participants, including those from River Valley who were involved last year, “they’ll get to see those they planted that have grown” during earlier stewardship efforts.

It’s a whole new world for New Buffalo students who are just beginning Mighty Acorns.

Struecker said the curriculum is the same as it is for River valley, but it’s a different woods. She noted that there will plenty to do when it comes to stewardship because the Turtle Creek property is home to “a lot of invasives.”

“The Oriental bittersweet (a vine that chokes out native plants) is really bad out there, so we’ll be there with the loppers cutting those,” she said.

Indeed, the first group of New Buffalo pupils taking part (fifth-graders) were busy getting removing many of the small vines from Turtle Creek on Oct. 31.

While Development and Marketing Manager Jen Thompson, Executive Director Ryan Postema, and Accounting and Program Coordinator Stacey LaRocco established the River Valley Mighty Acorns program (and are still involved this year), Struecker took the lead in getting the New Buffalo effort off the ground.

She said COL staff played one of the Mighty Acorns games with New Buffalo Elementary teachers to help introduce the program.

“Their eyes lit up and they said ‘This is great, the kids are going to love it!’” she said.

Thompson said New Buffalo teacher training took place in September.

Both River Valley and New Buffalo, the teachers are all in, they’re really excited to do it,” Thompson said.

Struecker said the Mighty Acorns program is aimed at the third through fifth grades because “that’s the age they start to lose connection with nature.”

Thompson said it’s amazing how many of the kids say they haven’t spent much time in the woods before the Mighty Acorns field trips.

Struecker said Mighty Acorns is taught all over the Midwest and reaches about 600,000 students.

Thompson said she thinks coming back to Robinson Woods Preserve (and the adjacent Flynn Woods Preserve) year after year while doing plantings and clearing trails will impart a sense of ownership.

She said the River Valley fifth-graders “know the trails, we took them back on one that they helped create last year,” she said. “They all know where they’re going, they know what to look for ... and they’re so excited to show you all the things that they’ve found.”

Pat Fisher, president of the Harbor Country Hikers and a Mighty Acorns volunteer, recalled one of the students from last year going from not wanting to do very much to being excited about participating in exploration activities.

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