Living textbook

Environmental Learning Center
Paddling through the mangroves on the Indian River Lagoon is one of the activities offered at the Environmental Learning Center. JASON HOOK

Vero Beach natural preserve protects unique ecosystem through educational programs

BY KERRY FIRTH

A visit to the Environmental Learning Center lets you take a walk on the wild side and see the beauty of Florida before the influx of development.

The 64-acre nature preserve, founded in 1988 by members of the Pelican Island Audubon Society, provides a natural habitat for birds, fish, crustaceans and mammals native to the Indian River Lagoon that surrounds the campus. The lagoon is one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America and home to 4,300 different species of plants and animals, 36 of which are endangered or rare.

extensive network of boardwalks through mangroves
Visitors to the Environmental Learning Center can stroll an extensive network of boardwalks through mangroves. ENVIRONMENTAL LEARNING CENTER

In accordance with the ELC’s mission to educate, inspire and empower all people to become active stewards of their environment and of their own well-being, there are plenty of activities that immerse visitors in the beauty and solitude of nature, including group yoga, forest therapy for self-healing in nature or exploration of the secrets of the surrounding waters.

Whether exploring solo, with a friend or with the entire family, the ELC has a multitude of programs and experiences for everyone to enjoy.
Bring a cell phone because the sprawling campus offers walking trails with 13 interactive stops that will teach about the environment and the unique habitat when a number on a sign is dialed.

Rhian Smith, an ELC environmental educator
Rhian Smith, an ELC environmental educator, introduces a group of school children to a winged resident of the Vero Beach center. ANTHONY INSWASTY

Carol Edwards, an ELC volunteer, and a young visiter
Carol Edwards, an ELC volunteer, and a young visiter explore the center’s 145-gallon touch tank that offers up-close views of marine animals. ANTHONY INSWASTY

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCES
The Discovery Station Interactive Museum is home to the largest brackish water aquarium in Indian River County. The 145-gallon touch tank offers an up-close view of some of the marine animals that occupy the lagoon.

Visitors can touch horseshoe and hermit crabs and gently stroke a fragile star fish or sea urchin while learning more about that life and habitat. Three additional aquariums and immersive floor art has even more marine life and dioramas displaying the wild mammals and reptiles that live on the grounds.

Proceed down the boardwalk that gently winds through the mangroves to the waterfront dock and watch the dolphins and manatees as they cavort in the cove. Canoes or kayaks are available for rent to venture out into the lagoon solo or with a guide.

If paddling sounds a bit challenging, a two-hour tour on the ELC pontoon boat is available to view stunning vistas and listen to informative talks about the inhabitants of the lagoon and mangrove forests along the way. Depending upon the weather, there might be a visit to the Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge or Sebastian River or a stop-off for a splash on a spoil island. Morning, afternoon and sunset departures are available and the boat is wheelchair accessible.

The ELC has a variety of wellness programs that provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of life by embracing the healing power of nature. Daily yoga, qigong and tai chi classes improve balance, tone muscles, improve flexibility and ground the mind, body and spirit. A meditative walk through the forest or butterfly garden might improve physical and mental health while connecting with nature through the five senses.

Wellness workshops that are offered provide the perfect retreat for a group of friends or office colleagues who need to unplug from the pressures of modern life. These retreats are tailored to the needs and interests of a group and can include wellness classes, water activities and environmental workshops. Full and half-day retreats are available and led by trained professionals.

the Environmental Learning Center
School children engage in outdoor games like cornhole during their visits to the Environmental Learning Center. ANTHONY INSWASTY

Visitors on the ELC’s pontoon boat Discover
Visitors on the ELC’s pontoon boat Discover will usually find dolphins and manatees in the lagoon during the two-hour excursion. ENVIRONMENTAL LEARNING CENTER

MEMBERSHIP PERKS
Environmental education is the fundamental goal of the programs offered on the campus. Monthly nature walks through off-campus preserves are included with a yearly membership. Each month members explore a different conservation area in the county with an experienced naturalist to learn even more about its natural habitat. Guest speakers are also invited to address members on pressing environmental issues.

Young parents and grandparents can introduce their toddlers to the miracles in nature during the Little Wonders Nature class, a free nature enrichment and early literacy program for children 18 months to 4 years old.

Learning in the natural environment provides a rich context for language skill development, and the ELC campus offers an array of learning opportunities integrated with access to all the natural features like a freshwater pond and mangroves. Studies show that activities in nature support the development of physical, emotional, social and cognitive skills.

Thousands of Indian River County school children have benefited from yearly field trips to the ELC for the past 30 years. During the third grade Splash Day, students muck all over the campus learning about the fresh water pond, the Indian River Lagoon and the mangrove forest. Once they reach fourth grade, they expand those experiences during Lagoon Days where they learn how everything in the natural world fits together, interacts and is interconnected. Many will have the opportunity to wade in the lagoon and seine for marine life for the very first time in their lives.

Youngsters express their enthusiasm for the seining activity
Youngsters express their enthusiasm for the seining activity that is part of their summer camp program at the Environmental Learning Center. JASON HOOK

Home schoolers have the unique opportunity to participate in nature-based programs for students ages 7-12. The ELC education programs are STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] oriented and integrate Sunshine State Standards. ELC environmental education professionals strive to inspire these students to nurture their love of nature and become young stewards of the environment.

A summer camp counselor instructs young campers
A summer camp counselor instructs young campers on the correct way to seine along the shallows of the Indian River Lagoon. ENVIRONMENTAL LEARNING CENTER

YOUTH SUMMER CAMPS

Barbara Schlitt Ford, executive director of the Environmental Learning Center
Barbara Schlitt Ford, executive director of the Environmental Learning Center.

For those students who become hooked on nature through field trips, the ELC has Lagoon Island Adventure summer camps for students in first to sixth grade. These weeklong camps allow the children to explore the mangroves, canoe and go spoil island hopping in a pontoon boat.

The ELC is constantly adding programs and expanding the opportunities on its campus. Local artists are invited to showcase their works in the ELC galleries each month. Guided bike tours along jungle trail are scheduled and young entrepreneurs sell their wares on campus the first Saturday of every month.

The Environmental Learning Center is making a push to let the public know that the center is for all ages, not just schoolchildren.

“We like for the community to think of the Environmental Learning Center as an extension of their own backyard,” Barbara Schlitt Ford, executive director of ELC, said. "It’s a place where they can come to relax, celebrate and connect with nature.”

And the new Thomas R. Schidel Education and Event Pavilion will soon be available for large scale events and concerts with the capacity to host up to a thousand guests. It will also be available to rent for corporate events and weddings.

ELC’s ultimate goal is to deepen the human connection with nature and to understand other species on the planet so all humanity can live in harmony with the rest of the natural world. The best way to do that is through participatory, immersive and nature-based experiences accessible to all.


IF YOU GO …

What: Environmental Learning Center
Where: 255 Live Oak Drive, Vero Beach
When: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and weekends, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
For more information: Visit www.discoverelc.org or call 772.589.5050.

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