Eyes Wide Open: Discovering Nature in Jacksonville’s Backyard

Remember being nine? Third grade was a magical time of discovery, before the rigors of fractions in the fourth grade, when butterfly wings wore straight pins and quartz crystals shaped many girl’s wedding imagination. It’s a building time that should be in every child’s educational experience. You can still lasso rainbows when your eyes are wide open.

The Tree Hill Nature Center has welcomed third grade students from Duval County schools for field trips for many years. These students get a hands-on experience of the work they do in the classroom. They get to investigate and see, first hand, concepts such as the difference between native and non-native species of flora and fauna and the differences between mammals and reptiles, specifically warm blooded vs. cold blooded animals. Their guided trail walk highlights these concepts and more. They are able to see, up close, native species during the Animal Encounter with time allotted for them to touch and ask questions about the species. The luckiest of students will see these same animals, living freely, during their nature hike. For many of the students, this is their first chance to explore the woods, and they are shocked to find out that 50 acres such as these exist in Jacksonville. It is a wonderful example of place-based education where students are able to make connections about big ideas to their own backyards.

A new addition to the educational programs of Tree Hill Nature Center now includes a field trip opportunity for Duval County kindergarten students. Tree Hill has thoroughly enjoyed working, regularly, with this age group. The model remains the same, allowing students to explore and investigate during the guided nature hike and come face to face with native species during their Animal Encounter. Yet, the differences in approach and content are what make the new program age appropriate. As they go through the woods, there are a few main points that are highlighted.


In kindergarten students are learning about different senses, and Tree Hill is a great place to practice using different senses. What do they smell when they are near the butterfly garden versus under the pine trees? What do they hear when they cross over the Joseph A. Strasser Boardwalk versus what they hear when they are visiting the chicken house? The list goes on and on.


Where do people live versus animals? What kind of bed does an animal use? These types of questions are so valuable in helping to build critical thinking, and they can also play an important role in creating empathy and an environmental ethic.


Living vs. Nonliving: While on the trail they can more fully explore and consider what it means to for something to be living or nonliving. What comparisons can be made between people and plants? What does a turtle or an opossum need that we also need?

There are many amazing benefits to working with a very young population, the least of which is not their curiosity. A program such as this allows the educators at Tree Hill a chance to reconnect with the preserve in a way that sometimes gets forgotten. Taking time to just look at the colors, to hear what is around us when we stand silent for a moment. These small acts can be centering and grounding, so I encourage you to explore like a kindergartener the next time you are out for a walk or hiking in the woods.

About Katie Salz