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President's Letter: Making Nature Accessible at Little Red

One of the great strengths of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County is that its nearly 69,000 acres of preserves are within easy reach of the county’s residents, and free of charge. With thousands of acres in every corner of Cook County, including the City of Chicago, these natural spaces host millions of people every year.

The preserves must also be accessible to people of all abilities. Our facilities and grounds must be equally enriching to those who experience limits to mobility and those with other special needs.

The Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, in the southwest suburb of Willow Springs, is a case in point. The center’s new interpretive building was designed with accessibility in mind. The floorplan incorporates a ramp that allows access to the entire building without the use of an elevator.Staff worked with exhibit designers to position many elements, such as fossils, models of bugs and a giant shark tooth, in places they can be enjoyed at eye level by everyone.

The nature center’s smooth, wide trails are topped with crushed limestone to allow for easy navigation by those who use wheelchairs, those with limited walking abilities and parents pushing strollers. New specially designed picnic tables allow a person using a wheelchair to pull directly up to the work surface. At special events, these tables now serve double-duty for picnicking and learning activities.

In 2011, to promote visits by those with disabilities, the Little Red Schoolhouse initiated an annual event, Nature Is Accessible. Kids, parents, teens and seniors of all abilities have joined in the fun of investigating pond water under large magnifying lenses, experimenting with the buoyancy of natural materials and crafting nests and small animal homes using sticks and mud. According to nature center director Julie Vandervort, often all it takes is a few simple and affordable modifications to make standard nature center activities more accessible. 

The Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant Program offered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Conservation Foundation recently awarded funds to the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center to begin work on an accessible interpretive garden. When complete, the garden will allow children and adults to wander pathways lined with plants selected to stimulate all the senses. It will feature wide paths, easy-to-read signage and flowerbeds of various heights.

The Forest Preserve District will continue to work across the county to provide access to nature to all those who seek it. In some areas, there is more to do, but we are committed to a proactive and diverse approach to creating opportunities for everybody to experience wilderness.

Toni Preckwinkle, President
Forest Preserves of Cook County