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Training Programs Prepare Group Leaders for Nature Adventures

A group of Opportunity Knocks participants sitting together in a forest preserve

On its own, planning a nature excursion can seem daunting. How do you determine the best route for a hike or paddling trip? What gear is needed for camping? How do you prepare for contingencies? Now imagine planning an outing for a group of youth.

Fortunately, the Forest Preserves of Cook County offers a series of free or low-cost training programs that empower individuals to successfully lead trips into nature with a group: Camping Leadership Immersion Course (CLIC), Day Hiking Leadership Training, and the Greater Maywood Paddling Program.

“We have already been doing [outings in nature] when we found out about these programs. But we are not experts on the Forest Preserves. So, the trainings allowed us to do [our trips] better, to know how to facilitate proper trips into nature, and to utilize the gear library,” explains Kim Meares-Surprenant, program director with Opportunity Knocks (OK), a nonprofit based in River Forest that strives to provide new and exciting educational opportunities for young people—called Warriors—who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In addition to learning critical skills for leading a group outing, adults who complete a training program receive supplemental learning materials, gain access to a set of specific gear for the activity, and more. “These training programs are designed to help reduce barriers to accessing the outdoors,” explains Brian Arnoldt, program coordinator with the Forest Preserves.

At Opportunity Knocks, each program fulfills one or more of the five main pillars: voice, interdependence, experience, wellness, and social.

“When we think of wellness, there is a physical aspect of it, but there is also that mindful aspect. Being in nature is just a very healthy way to be well. And being in the Forest Preserves is a way for us to explore nature in a beautiful setting,” says Meares-Surprenant.

Having completed all three of the Forest Preserves’ training programs, Meares-Surprenant appreciates using the Preserves as a calming setting for OK Warriors to experience new things and considers nature to be a “learning lab.”

“We are practicing experiential learning at its best. We are developing our skill sets in working together as a team, planning and preparing. We are learning how to relax in nature; and we’re learning about nature in general by going on hikes and exploring different plants and seeing wildlife,” shares Meares-Surprenant.

Learn more about leadership training programs

To learn more about Camping Leadership Immersion Course or the Day Hiking Leadership Training, email experience.camping@cookcountyil.gov.

To learn about the Greater Maywood Paddling Program, email experience.kayaking@cookcountyil.gov.