The Springs Coast Environmental Education Center holds the kinds of surprises that are just not regularly found in classrooms such as a stuffed bear, a crystal-clear spring and a manatee skeleton.
It is a treat for students when it is their turn to go for a visit. Last week, Patricia Doyle's Pine Grove Elementary School fourth-grade class took the trip.
The 23-acre center is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and leased to the Hernando County School District. It is directed by teacher-on-special-assignment Cheryl Paradis, who conducts the classes with the indispensable support of Jessica Ballew, who wears many hats at the center.
The fourth-graders were moved from one activity to the next, learning about the water cycle, habitat, food chains and natural observation.
The center has classrooms that are very conducive to particular topics. When they arrived, the children went into the water cycle room. The walls were painted blue and cloudy, with printed words identifying precipitation, condensation and evaporation. A painted sun hovered, its important role included in the processes.
One wall has a huge map of Hernando County and various displays showing water facts, ways to conserve water and deterioration times for commonly dumped trash items. After a water cycle lesson, the students played a game, earning tokens by finding answers to questions by searching the room's walls.
"That's a really fun game for them and they get a lot of information without knowing it," said Ballew.
The next activity was outside the classrooms along the wall on tables and benches. Each child was given a big plastic blue water drop and instructed to roll a giant die with its sides listing different places water can be found. With each roll, the children were instructed to stay put or move to new destinations and pick up cards from them.
After many switches from one spot to another, the students used their cards to make bar graphs (the teachers managed to work some math into the game) and looked at the places water is mostly found. They moved among stations representing the aquifer, a lake, soil, the ocean, a glacier, a river, clouds, plants and animals.
"I'd love you to visit all the places on planet Earth," said Paradis, telling the children she expected them to pick up about 10 cards. As it turned out, water is most often found in the ocean, glaciers and clouds.
Some of what the students saw and heard appeared to sink in. "I learned that 75 percent of the Earth is covered in water and I learned that water can seep through the rocks and I learned that fertilizer can affect the aquifer," said Mallory Thompson, 9.
Christina Smith, 9, picked up the same lesson. "Water, when it hits the rocks, gets cleaner and the cleaner it gets, the deeper it goes," she said.
"I've learned that some of the Earth's water comes from an aquifer," said Jasmine Clarke, 10. And Alivia Kaltenbach, 9, said "that the aquifer has to be clean."
After following the travels of water droplets, the students followed Paradis out to see her crape myrtles and learn how she waters them without using water from the aquifer. She collects rain in rain barrels and showed the students how she distributes it to the plants using hoses. Then she invited the students to make a water conservation pledge and sign her rain barrel.
They moved into another classroom, which looked more like a natural history museum. They were given time to circulate and take it all in, looking at stuffed animals — a bear, a deer, a raccoon, a limpkin and duck, a snake, a bobcat and others. One counter held a manatee skeleton.
This room was a popular place. Jasmine particularly liked the bobcat. "He's furry," she said.
Mallory liked the bobcat's furry socks, as she called its paws, but that wasn't her favorite. I like the raccoon," she said, "because of the black spots on its eyes and tail."
Christina liked the deer and the room was her favorite part of the morning. "It was when we went in and saw all the animals and we got to pet them."
Then the students were gathered to listen to Paradis tell them about the scrub habitat, reproduced in the room and waiting for them for real outside. She used cards to demonstrate a food chain and then grouped the children to try to put together food chains themselves. Anyone struggling was welcome to consult the placards by each stuffed animal that described what they eat.
As they gathered for lunch before their half-mile walk into the scrub, Paradis explained what she hopes the students took home from their visit. "I want them to walk away knowing we have to protect and conserve the water," she said. "I hope that they go home and pass it on."