Zion Nature Center Has Promoted Hands-On Learning Experiences For 17 Years

Photographer: Michael Durr

Nearly two decades ago, a group of individuals came together to voice their concerns that there was a growing disconnect between families and nature. The group teamed with the Zionsville Parks & Recreation Department to create a small community nature center that would serve to ignite a passion for nature among the Zionsville and Central Indiana residents.

In May 2002, the Zion Nature Center opened, housed on the grounds of Eagle Elementary. Though the center was initially volunteer-run, it’s now run and staffed by the Parks Department. According to Mindy Murdock, a Park Naturalist and Nature Center Manager, through the years, the center has evolved and changed.

“Our main purpose is to encourage the community to take an active role in the native environment,” Murdock says. “We do that with our educational and inquiry-based programs and activities.”

Everything they do is very hands-on because they espouse the idea that you can’t learn if you aren’t touching and feeling and exposing yourself to nature.

“We want families to let go of that museum mentality of ‘look but don’t touch,’” says Murdock. “When it comes to nature, everything shouldn’t be behind glass.”

This is not to say that visitors should be pulling plants out of their roots, but it’s okay to feel a flower or to gently pick up a toad.

“We want folks to be respectful and appreciative of nature,” Murdock says.

In addition to the 2,500 sq. ft. nature center, across the parking lot there is also a 10-acre park called the Zion Nature Sanctuary, which includes a half-mile wooded trail, a wetland and a creek.

The slogan for the Nature Center is, “Discover your backyard,” which is why they include exhibits that focus on local Indiana forest, meadow and aquatic habitats. They also have several educational animals on display, including turtles, snakes, frogs, lizards and salamanders. In addition, they have tables set up with animal furs and skulls as well as microscopes.

“It’s amazing to see how few people know how to use a microscope, but once we teach them, it’s their favorite thing,” Murdock adds.

The Zion Nature Center offers close to 200 programs for kids and families, including a mix of school programming as well as Scout and 4-H programs and summer camps. They also recently added adult workshops in gardening, photography and birding.

“We don’t want people to feel that the nature center is just for kids,” Murdock says. “It’s for anyone in the community who wants to learn or have a deeper appreciation for nature.”

August 10 is CreekFest, a celebration of education, recreation and conservation that combines the annual clean-up of Eagle Creek from 9-10 a.m. with the festival that runs from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on Elm Street Green, which includes environmentally-themed activities and entertainment.

“In the past, we’ve had the DNR out with fishing equipment and kayak demonstrations,” Murdock says. “The Stormwater Department of Zionsville and the Nature Conservancy have gotten involved as well.”

A part of CreekFest is CreekStomp, which invites community members to play in a section of Eagle Creek with nets and buckets to see what they can find.

“People get soaked and the kids have a ball,” says Murdock, who estimates that roughly 500-600 participated last year. They also added a rubber ducky race where people can purchase and design a yellow duck, then release it into the creek and see who wins.

“Half the fun of that event is watching the park and street department staff trying to wrangle all those ducks out of the creek,” says Murdock with a laugh.

In the fall is the fifth-annual dog-walking spree called Tails on the Trails, which encourages people to walk on at least six of the eight trail systems in Zionsville between September 1 and October 31.

“We found that people tend to have their favorite parks they frequent and don’t always know about the others that are around so this initiative is designed to highlight all of the places in Zionsville that’s great for dog-walking,” Murdock says.

By registering for the walks, people become eligible to win prizes at the completion of the spree. People can either walk on their own or join others for a group-led hike each week.

“The group hikes are great for anyone who isn’t comfortable hiking alone or for those looking for socialization,” Murdock adds.

Every August they also celebrate National S’mores Day by building a campfire and taste-testing various s’mores recipes.

“There’s not a lot of education to it, but it’s fun,” Murdock says.

Plugging into nature offers many benefits such as decreased anxiety, depression and obesity rates. Murdock invites the community to come explore the Zion Nature Center to gain a new appreciation for nature.

“We have some pretty cool stuff in Indiana,” she says.

Open on weekends, rain or shine, Zion Nature Center is located at 690 Beech Street in Zionsville on the grounds of Eagle Elementary. For more information, visit them online at zionsville-in.gov/270/Zion-Nature-Center or call 317-873-8950.

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