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WHEN NATURE IS YOUR CLASSROOM

The traffic on I-275 hums in the distance, growing ever fainter as the cicadas sing their nature song. The warm afternoon breeze carries the spicy scent of a red bay tree as a tiger swallowtail flutters past a cluster of royal fern.

Walking along the mile-long elevated boardwalk, a recent visitor to central Pinellas County's Sawgrass Lake Park wonders what kids from the Disney World generation would think of all this "passive recreation."

As if on cue, an American alligator appears just below the first scenic overlook. Body dangling deep into the gray-green swamp water, eye fixed, jaws clenched into a menacing grin, he seems to ignore the tasty Florida gar schooling inches away. Immediately to the right, first one, then another Florida softshell turtle paddles quickly past as if on urgent missions, pointed snouts sticking proudly into the air.

Oh yeah, kids would think this is cool. So what are you waiting for? Your parents will love the free admission to all county parks, the easy access (five minutes from the 54th Avenue I-275 exit) and the chance to leave the noise and stress of city living behind for an afternoon.

This is the best theme park of all: Nature. Appearing daily.

A home for herons and more

Sawgrass Lake Park thrives as a haven for animals and an education center for people, thanks to the work of three groups committed to providing high quality of life: the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Pinellas County School Board and the Pinellas County Park Department.

In 1972 the Sawgrass Lake area began its role of providing flood protection to the city of Pinellas Park. The water management district built a water control structure that allows water to drain from nearby communities into the lake and the swamp (which act as natural purifiers for the "run-off" water), and eventually into Tampa Bay. The structure's gate can be opened or closed to adjust water levels throughout the park. This way, the park is protected from flooding while still duplicating the wet and dry seasons that would naturally occur.

Pinellas' river of grass

Sawgrass Lake Park gets its name from the marsh plant that grows abundantly along the lake. Its long leaves, lined with sharp points like a saw blade, definitely make sawgrass a hands-off plant. Florida naturalist and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas brought fame to this plant with her book Everglades: River of Grass. Like the Everglades, the maple swamp area of Sawgrass Lake is sometimes flooded and at other times is completely dry _ ideal conditions for this plant, which can grow to 6 feet or more in height.

Environmental education

Francia Smith isn't really a former Pinellas County schoolteacher, because she still is a teacher; it's just that her classroom is, well, a little different these days: right here in Sawgrass Lake Park. Students travel by bus and enter a room bursting with animal skeletons, nets, buckets, binoculars, microscopes; let's just say Bill Nye the Science Guy would flip over this place! Then, after a lesson in water management and a few important words about the great stuff found in the park (oh, and Smith always talks about the great spiders the kids will encounter), it's off to nature's classroom where the real learning happens.

Smith reports that most kids reboard the school bus promising to return for a second visit with their families. This is exactly what Smith hopes for; after all, preserving our natural areas is the responsibility of everyone.

Binoculars, brochures and boardwalk

We asked Smith how kids and their families could get the most out of a Sawgrass Lake visit. Her first recommendation was to bring a pair of binoculars. "An inexpensive pair works fine," says Smith. The binoculars help kids focus on the natural happenings they may miss otherwise.

Sawgrass contains 400 acres of maple swamp, oak hammock and aquatic areas, home to 89 species of animals! How many of these 15 mammals, 17 fish, 14 amphibians and 43 reptile species will you encounter? How will you know what they are when you find them? Before you head off to the boardwalk, stop at the education center. The park's museum collection houses specimens of many of these animals.

Also at the education center you can ask for the Sawgrass Lake Park Self Guide, a detailed, station-by-station guide to both the sawgrass and maple trails. Stations corresponding to numbered paragraphs in the booklet are posted along the boardwalk.

Bird watcher? The varied and abundant plant life around Sawgrass Lake provides migratory birds with food and shelter. The park is located within a migratory flyway, so a variety of birds passes through seasonally. Two hundred species of birds have been identified in the park.

So it's time to grab your binoculars and head off to Sawgrass Lake Park. You might want to check out the sites below to make the most of your visit.

Sawgrass Lake and much more

www.co.pinellas.fl.us/bcc/park /sawgrasslakepark.htm _ Great pictures and general information about Sawgrass Lake (Pinellas County Park Department)

www.ficus.usf.edu/docs /common/nat-1.htm _ Descriptions and photos of some of Florida's common natural areas (Environment Information Center)

www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/ppr /publications/files/kids.htm _ Southwest Florida Water Management District's Kid Page

Holly Atkins teaches seventh-grade language arts at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg, where she is the language arts department head. Atkins, who has been a resident of St. Pete Beach nearly all her life, has been an instructor at the Poynter Institute's Writers' Camp and is the proud teacher of local and national award-winning student writers.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To let us know what you think about this series or to find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8969. For past stories, check out www.sptimes.com/nie and click on the Kids Only area.

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