Peek inside special nature exploration kits offered by the Forest Preserve District and you’re likely to find skulls, skins, scopes and surprises to entertain and educate students, Scouts or home-schooled kids.
These 11 free Environmental Education Resource Loan Kits are available for checkout for two-week intervals from the Sugar Creek Administration Center. The kits are teeming with interesting nature-themed projects, tools, information and activities.
Kit topics are: Illinois Fossils, Illinois Insects and Spiders, Illinois Invasive Species, Illinois Prairies, Illinois State Symbols, Illinois Tree Trunk, Mammals of Will County, Native Americans: Lives and Lifestyles, Pioneer Life, Urban Ecology, and Water and Wetlands.
The first six kits were created by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the other five were created by the Forest Preserve.
“This is a great free resource that includes tools and educational materials that you don’t have to go buy or can’t get ahold of," said Jessica Prince, the Forest Preserve District’s education and outreach supervisor. "It’s all available to you in one box. The kits are strong curriculum-wise, but you don’t have to use them in a formal educational way. You can just go out and explore.”
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The kits are geared to all ages and all kinds of learners.
“Tactile learners can hold a skull and poke at it,” Prince said. “Auditory learners can listen to recordings of animal calls. And there are storybooks for younger learners. The diversity found under kit themes makes them very eclectic and robust. There is something for everyone in each kit. It’s kind of a bit of fun in a box.”
Each box has a different set of tools, books, specimens and focus. You can find a real walking stick specimen in the Illinois Insects and Spiders kit along with crime solving insect activities, a net and a monarch lifecycle poster.
The wetland kit includes nets, 3.5-gallon buckets, a thermometer as well as dragonfly, turtle and frog puppets. “You could put aquatic bugs in the trays and look at them with hand lenses, or you could listen to frog calls on the CD,” Prince said.
The Illinois Invasive Species kit has replicas of purple loosestrife and garlic mustard; a zebra mussel mania activity; and DVDs, CDs and photos of the state’s most unwanted invaders.
If you want help identifying trees, the tree trunk kit contains a 10-meter tape measure, calipers, a clinometer (for measuring angles), a hand lens and lumber samples. The box has sub-kits on: How a tree grows, seed identification, topographic maps, tree biodiversity, tree identification and tree ring dating.
The state has distributed its kits to a wide variety of institutions around Illinois, so teachers and other kit-seekers don’t have to travel far to get one, Prince said. Kit details can be found on the Forest Preserve’s Educator Resources Page.
While teachers, Scouts and home-school parents are the main users of the kits, libraries, grandparents and day camps also have taken advantage of the materials.
“Once people find out about the kits, they’re very appreciative of what they have to offer,” Prince said. “They’ll come back and look at other ones. We also see teachers who borrow the same kit once a year because it becomes a part of their curriculum.”
In 2018, the Manhattan school district checked out the Illinois Tree Trunk and Illinois Insects and Spiders kits, and 300 students learned from them.
Each kit comes with a binder of instructions, and they are all aligned with national learning standards. “So a teacher can look at this and realize they will be able to meet a certain standard if they use the kit and complete the activities within,” Prince said. “They are very much education based.”
Starting in March, a new IDNR pollinator kit will become available. It will replace the state’s fossil kit, which will still be available locally from another agency.
“The new kit is a good fit for the District, which offers many programs that focus on pollinators,” Prince said.
Prince would like more people to know about the resource loan kits and to use them to educate themselves and their students or children. The kits provide a great self-paced way to learn about nature in the comfort of a classroom or home, she said. And they also include the tools needed to explore the great outdoors.
“It’s fun stuff, and it’s a good program,” she said. “Where else are you going to get kits that include jawbones and furs? So get them from us, and get them for free.”