A preschool class at The Nature Institute in Godfrey included a trip to a still green pond.
Teacher Patty Brown was the only one who ventured into the swampy-looking water.
How does it feel to be up to your shins in duckweed?
“It’s something that I love to do,” said Patty, who is enthusiastic about all things that involve nature. “It’s revitalizing. I wear water walkers. I can wash them off and there you go.”
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The hour-long Knee-High Naturalist lesson, “A is for Amphipod,” started inside the lodge with kids and parents or grandparents learning the basics. An anthropod is a small shrimp-like creature that lives in water.
“They’re called side swimmers because they look like they are swimming on their sides and they are,” Patty told the kids. She explained how the little creatures are used to determine water quality. Their absence or presence tells scientists how clean water is.
“The water is green because they are in it,” said Patty. “They don’t like to live in dirty water. What else might live in the water?”
“A turtle,” said Sage.
“An alligator,” said Max.
“What do you think, Avery?”
“Mmmm, a dolphin.”
“Jude, what do you think?
The $5 class, held on the second Wednesday of the month during the school year, includes a nature lesson, a walk, a snack, and a free book, compliments of a Kohl’s grant. That day’s giveaway was “Are You A Dragonfly?” by Judy Allen.
“The books are environmental education books that can be passed down,” said Patty, of Bethalto, who started as a volunteer 13 years ago and is now education director. A biologist with an environmental education degree, she has helped build the program at The Nature Institute, located on 450 acres along the Mississippi bluffs.
She and her assistant, Ramona Puskar, share a passion for educating kids about the world around them.
“We want to give them that experience so they learn to love nature and being outside.” said Ramona, 28, of Medora.
“Most of the time, the parents are learning, too,” Patty said.
Ramona stacked paper cups in front of her to show how a food chain worked, how one creature is dependent on another.
“You know what?” she said to the little ones. “These little critters are part of a food chain, a pyramid. What do you think the bottom of our pyramid would be?”
Amphipods, of course.
“They are so tiny, we have to keep them in water. See these guys swimming around. That’s what we are learning about.”
And where might you find amphipods? Beneath duckweed, flowering aquatic plants that float on or just beneath the surface of still or slow-moving water.
They moved up the food chain.
“What kind of insect bites you?”
“Crocodiles?” said a preschooler, thinking big.
“Mosquitoes bite us and we don’t like that,” said Ramona.
“We had them in our sandbox when it rained,” said Stella Cowan.
“They are important in our food chain,” said Patty. “Everything eats a mosquito. Dragonflies eat mosquitos. What if I take the mosquito out of the pond? (The food chain) will fall down. Just like that.”
Next stop: The pond.
Kids — some in rubber boots — headed down a short gravel hill to the still green water that looked less than inviting. It was a changeable day, with fat dark clouds threatening one minute, the sun shining the next.
“Don’t get too close to the water. We don’t want you to get too muddy,” Patty said. “What’s the first thing you all see in the pond? What color? All that green stuff is duckweed.
“If you listen closely, you can hear it quack,” said the teacher who makes a great duck sound.
All was quiet. Then a small voice spoke up: “That was you.”
Next thing they knew, Patty had waded in to scoop up critter-filled water. The kids, in turn, dipped miniature nets into her bucket, then spread their take on rimmed, white metal pans to look at snails, tadpoles and dragonfly larvae. They used magnifying glasses to spot the smallest creatures.
“All kinds of things live under the duckweed,” Patty said, holding a predaceous diving beetle in the palm of her hand. “Some people eat duck weed. Want to try it?”
There were no takers. The class was ready for a real snack.
Even the snacks had a nature theme. What looked like a little blue pond with fish was a rice cake with a coating of cream cheese, tinted blue, and topped with goldfish crackers and broccoli and chives vegetation.
Terri Cranmer, of Alton, watched her grandchildren dig in. They attend many Nature Institute events.
“They are home-schooled,” she said. “This is part of their home schooling.”
Amanda Laux, of Fosterburg, brought 4-year-old son Max.
“I saw it on Facebook that friends were coming,” she said. “I figured it was things he would like.”
Max’s favorite part?
“When I got a bug out of the pond.”
When: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month.
Cost: $5, register no later than the Friday before.
Next month? B is for brumation (a type of hibernation for snakes).
Other events: After-school nature program for first- through fifth-graders for two hours every other week; Moonlight hike, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27; Adult nature club, 7 p.m. Oct. 28; Forage for Fall Fungi class that includes tasting recipes, 9 a.m. Oct. 10; Enchanted Forest on Oct. 16 when summer camp staffers come back and put on animal costumes; the “animals” come alive in the woods. The fall fundraisers, $5, includes crafts, games, face painting, hot dogs and chili: Evil Forest on Oct 17 for adults. For $10, “come out and we will scare your pants off.”
Take a hike: The longest trail, 1 1/2 miles, includes two overlooks of the Mississippi River. (Trail maps are available there and online.) There’s also a playground made of natural materials.
Hours: Dawn to dusk. The lodge is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Contact: 618 466-9930 or email@example.com