Set a group of teachers loose in Forest Park to discover nature, and it’s a sure bet that their students will be the recipients of some great learning opportunities.

The Voyage of Learning Teachers Academy offered by Forest Park Forever is a summer program for St. Louis area teachers where they learn how to utilize Forest Park for various learning activities. They then take this knowledge back to their students.

Jean Turney, education coordinator of Forest Park Forever, said the academy gives teachers in the Metro St. Louis area – preschool through high school – an opportunity to learn how to use Forest Park as an outdoor classroom.

“It’s a collaborative venture with the institutions in the park, including the Art Museum, History Museum and research library, as well as the Department of Conservation and Missouri Botanical Garden,” she said.

“We focus on Forest Park as a place to look at the different ecosystems in the park such as forests, wetlands, prairie areas, and the aquatic areas,” she said.

To recognize upcoming Earth Day activities, the academy recently held a “Rendezvous” of the participating teachers with the Missouri Department of Conservation at the Visitor and Education Center in Forest Park.

Wildlife photographer Danny Brown, who takes many of his photos in Forest Park, was on hand exhibiting his photography. Student art, based on Brown’s work, will be on public display in the Visitor and Education Center through April 22.

Nature Study in the Classroom

Heidi Stuart and Heather Erwine, both first-grade teachers at Jackson Park Elementary in University City, attended the Voyager Academy last summer and used their knowledge in their classrooms.

Stuart said they take their students outside during every season, making observations and trying to connect them to nature.

“We adopted a tree and looked at it in each of the seasons,” she said. “Then they did portraits of their tree.”

Erwine said when they take students outside, they pay attention to the sights, smells and sounds.

“Besides studying trees, we also have a butterfly garden where they observe the butterflies in the different seasons,” she said.

Stuart and Erwin praised the Voyager experience and said they learned to appreciate more of what Forest Park has to offer.

“We were out there eight days in July, the hottest part of summer, fishing and using compasses to find our way around the park. This was way outside our comfort zone,” Stuart said.

Art Show

Brenda Hente, a teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School in Olivette, attended the academy last summer. Hente has also worked with amateur naturalist Mark H.X. Glenshaw, known as the Forest Park “Owl Man.” Her seventh and eighth grade students will display art projects based on 10 of Brown’s bird photos at the Forest Park Visitor and Education Center.

“We made ceramic pottery pots of owls, paper maché waterfowl birds, some watercolor and some multi-dimensional projects,” she said. “The students have worked very hard and their projects are stunning.”

Three of Hente’s students shared what they had learned from doing the art project.

Eighth-grader Mariah Bryan painted owls with oil pastels and said she gained a new appreciation for nature.

“You can look at a bird, but you can’t really notice it until you capture it in a still life,” she said. “When you paint it, you realize how hard it is to get the colors and the shades. You look out and you see all these majestic creatures God has made, and it makes you appreciate wildlife.”

Alana Chandler, also an eighth grader, said most of her project also involved owls.

“They’re so majestic and such beautiful creatures,” she said. “Even though I like being inside, when you’re outside you see more things and it’s interesting to study birds.”

Seventh-grader Jacob Meyr has liked birds since he was young.

“I like going on the bird walks and learning about the different birds in Forest Park,” he said.

With their new appreciation of nature, the classes will be able to get a close-up view on five days in April and May when they go to different areas in Forest Park.

“We’ll devote one day each to study the ecologies of the prairie, forest, aquatic, grassland, and then nature and art study,” Hente said. “We’ll also do a volunteer project for the park. This is from the Voyagers class last summer and incorporated into this year’s plan.”

The Art Show and Voyagers Rendezvous promoting Earth Day is an example of one way that a teacher took the Voyager Academy experience and shaped it to her classroom.

“It is neat to see the different ways that teachers take this experience and shape it, and Brenda is the perfect example of that,” Turney said. “As an art teacher, Brenda took the natural areas of the park and the photography of Danny Brown to inspire her students to delve more into the realities of nature and to look at it closely, then create art forms that are were inspired through that.”

The Dennis & Judith Jones Visitor and Education Center is located at 5595 Grand Drive in Forest Park, just east of the Missouri History Museum. Student artwork will be on public display through April 22.

For more information on Forest Park Forever or the Voyager Academy program, visit forestparkforever.org.