DeLand, Fla. — A colorful poster reads: ``The real classroom is outside. Get into it!'' It all began in 1976 when a group of students representing over 35,000 pupils in the Volusia County (central Florida) school district met with concerned citizens of the community to plan a project to celebrate the nation's Bicentennial.
Together they decided to take a 200-acre parcel of unspoiled woodland and develop it as an outdoor classroom for use in science and environmental studies, and as a stimulus for language arts, social studies, art, music, and mathematics. The students raised more than $50,000, and the state's Bicentennial commission awarded a grant of $10,000.
``I want every child to have a `magic arrowhead' experience in his life,'' states Hugh Strickland, the park's manager and naturalist, referring to the time his interest in the environment was aroused as a young boy when he found an arrowhead in a nearby waterway.
The former state park ranger and interpreter teaches students in kindergarten through sixth grade by probing, question-and-answer discussions. ``Lectures and rote learning are not part of our program,'' he says, ``but developing thought processes and character building are. Every new life experience shows youngsters that they need not accept the philosophy of `I can't do that.' We show them that they can!
``With the population in this county expected to triple in the next 20 years and its accompanying skyrocketing consumption of water, our young people need to think about and be sensitive to what's going on in their environment,'' he concludes.
According to the park's brochure, ``The Bicentennial Youth Park is a nature center in the strictest sense of the term. Homo sapien is a visitor upon entering the gates, and other life forms have the `right of way.' '' The swampy marshlands and flat piney woods are filled with cypress trees, saw palmetto, exotic vines, and Spanish moss hugging wild magnolias.
A large pavilion serves as the meeting and study center, movie house, museum, and, on rainy days, as the picnic grounds. Stuffed animals and birds, live snakes, tree and rock specimens, and water creatures all pique the children's interest. Art and music activities are conducted here, too. (One of the favorite songs is ``To Be Wild.'')
Those in the third through sixth grades can make arrangements to camp overnight. Before they leave in the morning, the students participate in one last activity: Each child is given a piece of paper and told to draw a picture about something that has impressed him.
``I know you don't have much space to work with,'' Strickland tells them, ``but this world is a crowded place, and we don't always have as much room as we would like. You each get one crayon, but that's the way things are in this world. There usually aren't enough resources to go around.''
A creative writing project under the Volusia County ``Writing Across the Disciplines'' program resulted in a 1985 magazine entitled ``Florida Wildlife: Residents and Residence.'' It contains 50 winning essays, poems, and drawings selected from nearly 700 entries. Each winner received a certificate of achievement, a button showing the youth park logo and the words ``I Can Write Well,'' and an invitation to a special activity day at the park. Students in the creative writing class at Daytona Beach's Mainland Senior High School helped in the magazine's publication.
In the early stages of park development, local high school students, and some in the Youth Conservation Corps and Comprehensive Employment Training programs, felled trees, treated the wood, and built a boardwalk which now extends more than 3,000 feet. (At the same time, they also earned academic credit for environmental study.)
The study stations in the park have thatched roofs called ``chickees,'' made in the manner of Seminole Indian structures. Weaving the palmetto fronds to make these waterproof roofs over the wooden platforms takes much patience and skill, say many of the students.
A solar water heating unit which pumps water into the restrooms was designed by the staff at the Florida Solar Energy Center at Cape Canaveral, funded by a state environmental mini-grant. It was assembled with the help of the DeLand High School Bulldog Construction Company, composed of crews of industrial arts students.
The staffing and maintenance of the park are now under the supervision of the Volusia County School Board, and the park's success depends upon its many volunteers. Phil Gokey, a retiree who has been involved since 1977 and is one of the few paid workers, recently built an aviary that houses two owls and was funded by recycling aluminum cans.