Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Isabel Riordan
Nine-year-old Kyndall Holtzhouser rubbed two sticks together, trying to build a fire that would save her life in the rugged wilderness. She piles sticks around a tree stump to create a fire pit, and helps other children place fallen tree branches in the right place to shelter them from the elements.
Children in the “Wilderness Wise” summer program at the Douglas-Hart Nature Center east of Mattoon spend five days “stranded’ in the woods and learn how to build a shelter, make fire, and find edible food and clean water.
The nature center, at 2204 DeWitt Ave., plays host to summer camps, many of which teach children wilderness survival skills.
Education Director Jennifer Day Tariq has been working at the nature center for five years, and said she believes that children need to spend more time outside rather than playing with technology all day.
“There is such a push right now with getting kids back outdoors,” she said. She stresses the importance of children getting into nature and using their imaginations when they play.
She says her young campers love their play area, which is just a small patch of land amid the forest trees with one swing. The children love to pretend and transform the area into whatever fantasy they would like. “They’re the ones creating the games,” Tariq said.
According to Tariq, the nature center sees 15,000 children throughout the whole summer. To keep up them, the nature center employs up to 40 junior counselor interns. Many of them once attended the summer camps, but are now too old. Becoming junior counselors is a way to still keep their connection with the nature center, but without doing the “little kid” activities.
Morgan Hampton, 15, is one of the junior counselors at the Wilderness Wise camp. There she watches over the children, helps keep them safe and helps the center directors during the children’s activities. She has been trained to identify poison ivy, poison oak, and poison hemlock to steer the children away from them. Hampton has enjoyed learning about plants from the camp.
This is Hampton’s second year as a junior counselor. “It’s a great way for kids to get into nature, instead of sitting inside, playing video games all summer,” she said.
Tariq said she hopes what the children take from the Douglas-Hart Nature Center will follow them the rest of their lives. She hopes their appreciation of nature will lead them to protect it on their own someday.