How Forest Park Is Our Community's Greatest Outdoor Classroom
Forest Park Forever Education Coordinator Ellie Stevens thinks of the Park as a place where people from throughout the St. Louis Metropolitan area can come to play, learn and grow with each other.
“I’ve met and learned alongside of people from all parts of the St. Louis metropolitan area in the Park,” Stevens says. “No matter where people are coming from, people can connect to the Park, especially the natural spaces.”
For Stevens, Forest Park offers tremendous opportunities for education and for furthering Forest Park Forever’s mission of restoration, maintenance and conservation while bringing people together to connect and create memories.
Stevens joined the Forest Park Forever team about a year and a half ago. Since then, she has been working to build on the spirit of inclusiveness that is a part of the Park’s many educational programs, which is now reflected in the new look of the Learn section of Forest Park Forever’s website.
“We tried to identify categories of community members that we connect with every day and restructure the programs and our site with those groups in mind,” Stevens says. “Every time we connect with a group of learners, we want to connect them to incredible Park experiences while strengthening their understanding of what it means to take care of the natural resources in the Park.”
A good example is the popular Voyage of Learning program. Partnering with about ten different organizations, from the Saint Louis Zoo to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Voyage of Learning for years has brought educators to the Park to learn how they can enhance classroom experiences. Educators obtain skills to create new outdoor learning experiences for their students.
“Voyage of Learning has been connecting teachers to the park for 19 years,” Stevens explains. “We invite educators to join us for this year’s Voyage of Learning 1 program and we are also excited to announce a brand-new program for Voyager graduates. Voyage of Learning 2 builds on the prerequisite program to guide educators as they develop their own immersive, project-based learning experience with Forest Park Forever.”
All the hard work builds up to Voyage of Learning 3, in which educators gain first-hand experience teaching in the Park while providing a memorable summer program for St. Louis City children.
These 3rd-5th grade children, this year coming from the Adams Park Boys and Girls club, will spend time exploring the Park’s 180-acre Nature Reserve — but it will be more than fun and games. They will actually be working Forest Park Forever’s education team to help develop strategies to encourage more people to venture into the reserve.
Teens can apply to participate in Nature Works (applications for 2019 are now closed), Forest Park Forever’s innovative high school workforce development program. Nature Works brings students from around the metropolitan area to the Park for a paid summer internship.
“Of all the things I do in the Park, one of my great privileges is working with Nature Works interns,” says Stevens. “It is incredibly uplifting for me to see young people experience working in nature for the first time, taking risks and stepping outside their comfort zones. It is truly transformative.”
One common experience is near and dear to Stevens. An entomologist by training (she holds a Ph.D. in science), she delights in seeing Nature Works students who were afraid of bugs at the beginning of the summer come to appreciate the complex insect societies around them every day.
“They’ll get right in the thick of it, asking questions and learning about things they hadn’t thought of before,” Stevens explains.
Nature Works participants learn about more than nature, though — they also learn valuable life skills, such as how to interact with adults, fill out tax forms and even give an elevator pitch.
“We don’t make any assumptions about what they may or may not know, we just try to coach them through the process,” she says.
Adults and families can also participate in educational offerings, such as Heart of the Park Walking Tours, Wildflower Walks, Horticulture Classes with the Experts from Forest Park Forever and Beginner Bird Walks.
“Our birding program is a great example of how we make all of our learning initiatives specific to the St. Louis region,” Stevens says. “Its strength is our partnership with the St. Louis Audubon Society, whose members provide a strong network of experts who can explain why Forest Park is such an important greenspace as part of the Mississippi Flyway.”
Forest Park Forever’s educational programs benefit another community, as well — the staff members, like Stevens, who can be seen working in the Park every day.
“It’s so exciting to have the opportunity for visitors to interface with the people who have the experience and knowledge that comes from working in Forest Park,” she says. “Recently we had a workshop on how to design plant containers. Our staff members provided incredibly helpful information and practical solutions.”
Stevens’ hope is that everyone who connects to Forest Park through an educational program will become an advocate for the Park and for wild, green spaces throughout St. Louis.