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Little Red Schoolhouse out to put those with special needs in touch with nature

Julie Vandervort director looks netting from sample from Farm Pond outside Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center Tuesday May 28 2013

Julie Vandervort, director, looks in netting from a sample from the Farm Pond outside the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center Tuesday, May 28, 2013, in Willow Springs. The center will host a Nature is Accessible program on June 6. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 2, 2013 7:07AM



The pond is a natural attraction at the Little Red Schoolhouse — not just for insects and snakes, but for people of all ages who want to get up close and personal with nature.

But director Julie Vandervort realized that not everyone can reach into the pond, feel its water and see the creatures below the surface. So as the calendar turns to June, she and the Cook County Forest Preserve District will celebrate “Leave No Child Inside Month” with “Nature is Accessible Day” — a free event for children and adults with special needs.

The day is just part of a philosophy to more easily put those with disabilities in touch with nature.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 6, the forest preserves at the Little Red Schoolhouse, at 9800 Willow Springs Road, near Willow Springs, will be filled with activities that are within everyone’s grasp.

“We will bring the pond to them,” Vandervort said.

No registration is required.

This is Vandervort’s third year hosting “Nature is Accessible” and she’s always coming up with new, creative ways to help all people experience nature.

“Being out in nature is good for mind, body and spirit. We make sure we provide as much as we can,” she said, adding that she sees a lot of adults with mobility issues participate in this day, as well as children.

The day will allow participants to explore the pond, make animal tracks, play in the dirt, feel grass, sand, water and mud, make leaf molds, plant seeds and take a hike — activities to heighten their sense of wonder and discovery about nature.

“The pond is the busiest spot,” Vandervort said.

But to make it more accessible, huge tubs of pond water will be set up along the trail, within easy reach for all. Nets of all sizes have been adapted with handles that are padded, longer and wider, making it easy for all to grasp as they try to snare insects and fish.

They can get a bigger and better view of nature’s creatures with an easy-to-use microscope or large photographs.

For those who are wheelchair-bound or unable to bend down and touch the ground, she has grown grass in containers.

A “nature play” area will further encourage visitors to explore on their own and become more familiar with the natural setting.

Vandervort said she reviewed the nature center’s day camp activities and tried to look at them from the point of view of someone in a wheelchair, or with hearing or vision impairments. It was the same theory she applied when the new center opened here nearly three years ago, replacing the original Little Red Schoolhouse, which was not accessible to all.

She has researched accessible programs, and made sure that the new two-story nature center went beyond ADA requirements for handicap parking, sidewalks and rest rooms.

The building features an indoor ramp with a railing — instead of an elevator — with windows and photos along its walls to make it visually appealing to a small child in a stroller or wheelchair. All exhibits here are accessible, with easy-to-read signs.

“I wanted to make sure those with limited mobility and sight could enjoy exhibits. They are easy to manipulate, easy to get around, easy to understand,” she said.

Next year’s “Nature is Accessible” event should be even more fun as Vandervort plans to reconfigure existing trails to eliminate steep grades and make them more wheelchair-friendly. The forest preserve district also has partnered with the University of Illinois Extension Service to create an adaptive garden, featuring raised beds and vertical gardening.

A sensory garden also is in the works, to offer a variety of colors, textures and scents.

Inside, Vandervort also talks about increasing the size of the text on the exhibits to make them easier to read, and hopes to develop audio tours.

“It’s a great place to learn,” she said. And she wants to make sure everyone has the opportunity to learn about nature.

The Little Red Schoolhouse is the only Cook County Forest Preserve District site offering a “Nature is Accessible” event, spokeswoman Karen Vaughan said.

“Little Red Schoolhouse is the model for improving facilities throughout the forest preserves,” she said. “Nature should be available to everyone.”



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