Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Bringing the Classroom Outdoors"

That is the motto of Nature's Academy, based out of Fort Desoto Park, FL.  My boys and I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in their Island Adventure program this week, an adventure they will not soon forget.  We go on ALOT of field trips and they both agreed that this ranks up there in the top 2 that they've experienced so far.  That's a pretty good testament to Nature's Academy!  The morning started out at 9am at Fort Desoto's East Beach in the Tierra Verde area of Tampa Bay.  Fort Desoto Beach was voted the #1 beach in America in 2005!  After exploring it all day, I can see why. 

We began by taking a nature walk throughout the different native Florida habitats:  Oak Hammock, Dunes, and Mangroves.  When I say "nature walk", I don't mean, "Oh look kids, it's a pinecone!"  I'm talking serious, hard-core learning presented in an interactive fun way.  All along the paths, our guide (and President of Nature's Academy), Dana Pounds, provided us with binoculars and shared her wealth of knowledge on everything from gopher tortoises, to "toothache plants" of the Native Americans, to orb weaver spiders!  The spiders were out in droves that day.  The kids asked questions about controlled forest burns, invasive exotic plants amongst other things.  You could really see their minds working.  It's amazing the learning that takes place when you get out of the classroom.

After our nature walk, we drove across the street to Nature Academy's facility, what looks like a former parks/rec building that has been transformed into a classroom with jarred specimens, brightly colored posters and a very vivacious yellow lab, Ginger.  She was so happy to see the children come by and visit!   Outside the classroom, there were tables set up for groups to do their shark dissections.  It is so cool to explore the inner-workings of God's swimming creatures, to see how they are designed for survival, for camoflague, to adapt to their changing environments.  Sharks have an unbelievably large liver and a very "marble-y" eyeball.  They hardly smell weird at all!

After lunch, the group got to participate in a diversity study down by the shore.  In 45 minutes, the kids collected over 2 dozen different marine species, including Solomon's giant blue crab!  Of course, Dana knew all the names and particulars of every species that they caught, including the latin names ( off--LOL).  My son, Denver told me that the most amazing part of the day (and I thought he was going to say the dissection) was actually how many diverse species were in that small section of the Gulf of Mexico.  It sure makes you want to work harder to keep the oceans clean and safe so that all the little cowfish and pipefish and sea slugs can continue to thrive.

The finale of the day was a coastal cleanup (we collected 5 pounds of trash in 5 minutes--we weighed it on a scale), followed by some fresh-cut watermelon from Dana's husband, Jim.  Very appreciated as the day got a little warmer!  Jim was fantastic--he provided coolers of ice-cold bottled water for us everywhere we went, set up supplies for every activity, and attended to my son Solomon's bloody nose during the day!  He and Dana make a perfect team.

And for all you Type-A teachers (that would be me), Nature's Academy provides a full sheet of Sunshine State Standards, Student Objectives and Projected Outcomes for every stage of the course AND a well-written Post Test to survey how well the student absorbed the information from the day.  This is an optional test that you can print and give your children for the ride home or the following day.  They are written at about a 5th grade level, in my opinion.  If your children are younger, you can do it as a group activity.

So you may be wondering if our leader, Dana, had her leg bitten off by a ferocious Great White during the course of her Marine Biology career.  That would make a cool story. But it's not true.  She will tell you herself that she contracted a rare form of cancer and had to have her right leg amputated a number of years ago.  Starting Nature's Academy has allowed her to continue to live her dream--studying nature and teaching children so that they might develop the same sense of wonder about the ecology in their own backyards and beaches.  But her story gets even more interesting....The same "gel sock" that she uses to attach her prosthetic leg, is used by Winter the dolphin, star of the upcoming movie, "Dolphin Tale".  In fact, Winter and Dana share the same doctor (played fabulously by Morgan Freeman in the film), who developed the technology to create a comfortable way of attaching a prosthesis to skin.  Dana never knew the path that her life was going to take.  Isn't it amazing that someone with a passion for undersea animals has crossed paths in such a way with a very spirited and determined dolphin?  God works in some pretty mysterious ways.

If you are in the central Florida area, check out  The price of their programs for homeschool and school groups varies depending on location and activities, but the one that we attended was $35 per child, $10 for accompanying adults, with a 10% discount for siblings.  Believe me, you will gladly write the check with no hesitation.  The value of the program is unbelievable.  I hope you'll join me in supporting Nature's Academy!


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