Meet a Naturalist: Alexis Lyons, helping people connect to nature
Alexis Lyons has always enjoyed being in the outdoors, but she didn’t realize she could turn her love of nature into a career until she was in college.
Lyons, who has been an interpretive naturalist at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon since 2022, said she discovered the field of environmental education when she was a junior in college. Since then, she’s taken advantage of job opportunities that have allowed her to teach in and about nature, dabbling in different topics to pick up as much knowledge as possible.
“I’m very new and young still in the position, and I’m finding that niche as I go along,” she said, adding that she has enjoyed being able to immerse herself in nature and learn about all the different preserves in her first year in the job.
Lyons doesn’t consider herself very outgoing, and because she’s more introverted, she never considered a job involving teaching. Early on in her career, though, she increasingly found herself in roles where teaching was part of the job, and she learned she enjoyed it — and that she was good at it.
She taught outdoor recreation while in college. Then, after graduating, she did a one-year fellowship where she worked as a naturalist teaching fourth- through eighth-grade students. When that ended, in the middle of the initial wave of COVID shutdowns, she got a job at a nature-based preschool. The feedback she got from coworkers was that she was a natural at teaching.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “Obviously it was very exhausting at times, but sometimes I still miss it.”
At Four Rivers, she often hosts the monthly Little Explorers program for preschool-age children. She enjoys the enthusiasm and excitement of the kids as well as the opportunity to go into depth about topics kids that age find interesting.
Now that she’s been leading Little Explorers for awhile, she’s been able to witness kids come into their own as they grow more comfortable. She recalls one young girl who stayed quiet during her first time at the program. Now she’s become a regular and is more talkative.
Working with kids in Little Explorers and through field trips and other education programs has allowed her to experience the joy and wonder kids bring to nature and also see them grow and become more confident.
One of her favorite experiences is seeing people come back to Four Rivers after visiting for a program or field trip. It’s rewarding, especially, to see kids have a change in mindset during their time there and be so inspired by it that they want to come back again.
“Sometimes kids you see in educational programs come back to you and bring their parents,” she said. “They were so excited that they want to share it with others.”
Since starting with the Forest Preserve District, she’s led a variety of public programs, and she has particularly enjoyed learning more about fungi and lichens so far. There’s plenty more she wants to dig into, though, and she looks forward to the opportunity, taking advantage of all the ways she can always be learning more about nature.
“It’s a broad umbrella, and I’m just trying to grab everything,” she said. “There’s so much I want to learn.”
When leading programs, Lyons always tries to include the message that learning is a lifelong process.
“I always like to start my programs by pointing out that I am still learning,” she said, adding that she invites people to share their knowledge and experiences on the subject as they go. “We’re all here to learn, including me.”
Knowing there is always more to learn might seem daunting, but Lyons views it as a chance to approach every experience as an opportunity to further educate herself.
“I’m never going to know everything, and there’s always going to be something else to learn,” she said. “That is exciting — and intimidating, but mostly exciting because no one knows everything.”
When leading a program, she hopes everyone takes away something new, be it new information about a topic or even a new perspective. She focuses on fun and tries to make everyone comfortable, so the atmosphere is inviting, not intimidating.
“Most people are here on their leisure time, so I want them to take something back. I want them to enjoy their time here and take one or two things away,” she said.
To develop a program, she often begins by thinking about the season. What is going on around us is a good way for people to easily connect to it because it’s more tangible. She asks herself what people will be able to see with their own eyes. “I feel like it’s much more well received when it’s happening right in front of you.”
Her ultimate goal for the people she encounters through her job, be it through field trips or public programs or visitors to Four Rivers, is for people to leave excited about nature and the outdoors.
“I want them to build a connection with the outdoors and care for it,” she said. “I go out there and find my peace, and I want them to find what they are looking for.”