Curious About The Nature Around You? Certified Naturalist Program May Be For You

Curious About The Nature Around You? Certified Naturalist Program May Be For You

  • Nature Nearby is written by Naturalist Valerie Blaine, who is nuts about trees. She is also the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at

Dustin Howell and Jennifer Hoffmann explore Ferson Creek on a KCCN field trip at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve.

If you’re a regular on the trails in Kane County, chances are you’ve wondered about the names of the trees and wildflowers around you. You’ve probably puzzled over an insect or two. If your interest is piqued and you’d like to learn about all the cool things you encounter in nature, the Kane County Certified Naturalists program may be just the thing for you.

Food and fellowship are a big part of the Kane County Certified Naturalists program, as these happy campers show at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve.

The Kane County Certified Naturalists course is designed for adults who are eager to explore nearby nature. This year-long course helps students build a comprehensive knowledge of Illinois ecology, with specific emphasis on Kane County. Sponsored by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, the St. Charles Park District and the Geneva Park District, the program promotes natural areas throughout Kane County.

Kane County Certified Naturalists (KCCN for short) includes both indoor and outdoor learning experiences. It begins with six core classes in the winter, covering the basics of woodlands, prairie and wetland ecology. We examine the natural systems that tie these all together, and the integral role we play in stewardship.

Come spring, we head outdoors to get our feet wet (often, literally!). There are four field trips held in forest preserves and park district natural areas. The field sessions bring together the factual knowledge gained in the classroom and the tangible experience outdoors.

The initial year of study and exploration culminates in a graduation ceremony around the campfire. Graduates are feted with food (s’mores included!), official certificates, and lots of congratulations. KCCN alums and fellow “nature nuts” join in the celebration.

Kane County Certified Naturalists help at events in the Forest Preserve District and Park Districts. Here, KCCN Susan Frankel assists at the Maple Sugaring Festival at Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve.

The KCCN experience doesn’t end at graduation. In fact, graduation is just the beginning. Once the core classes are complete, KCCN graduates can choose from a wide variety of classes dubbed “Learn from the Experts” classes. These are offered all year, every year, covering a wide range of topics such as plant identification, glaciers, amphibians, habitat restoration, insect ecology — you name it! The classes are generally one to three hours in length and are held at various times and locations. You can pick and choose which work for you.

The KCCN community grows each year as graduates continue to take classes and volunteer throughout the county. Since the inception of the program in 2007, the number of active Kane County Certified Naturalists has grown to roughly 100.

Learning about the wonderful natural areas in Kane County is cool, but being a steward of the environment is even cooler.

“I love it!” said Kim Haag, a Campton Hills resident who graduated with the inaugural KCCN class of 2007. She is an active volunteer steward at Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve and a strong voice for environmental protection in the community. “The learning never ends, which is great,” she said.

Jennifer Stoner proudly displays her KCCN certificate with Valerie Blaine of the Forest Preserve District.

The testimony of “KCCNers” attests to the many benefits of the program.

Teri Schmidgal of Elgin said, “The classes and the field trips are fun and the content is accessible to learners with differing areas of interest — geology, biology, environmentalism, conservation, history or others. What I value the most is the variety of programs that are available in Kane County that have allowed me to explore the wonderful forest preserves and nature centers that are right in my back yard.”

The delight of discovering natural treasures close to home is a common theme.

“I had no idea of the diversity of habitats in the Kane County Forest Preserves,” said KCCN grad James Frediani of Batavia. “The best part [of KCCN] for me was discovering new places to visit that I didn’t know existed so close by.”

Sugar Grove resident Mark Musaraca echoed these feelings. “I was surprised to learn that Kane County had so much to offer. (All) of the places we toured for our field trips were just beautiful!”

Another “lifer” is Suzi Meyers from St. Charles, also from the first class in 2007.

Trish Burns of the Geneva Park District and Pam Otto of the St. Charles Park District present Marissa Happ with her Kane County Certified Naturalist certificate at the graduation campfire.

“KCCN allows you to keep growing in knowledge,” Meyers said. She cites the ongoing education and volunteer opportunities as a key part of the experience. “KCCN has been life-changing in so many positive ways.”

Volunteering is a natural progression for folks with new-found knowledge of our wonderful natural areas. Teri Schmidgal noted that KCCN motivated her to get out and volunteer in habitat restoration. “I met wonderful volunteer stewards throughout Kane County,” she said, “got in some good exercise, and applied what I learned in the program.”

Camaraderie is an invaluable aspect of the KCCN program. Gilbert’s resident Carol Mazur said, “Not only did I learn a lot about local forest preserves and native plants, I also met two fellow KCCN members I now can call two of my best friends.”

Trish Burns of the Geneva Park District points out fossils to KCCN students Luna Nino and Robin Solomon.

Indeed, many KCCN grads cite fellowship as one of the greatest benefits of the program. “It’s a wonderful community of nature enthusiasts,” Kim Haag said.

All would agree that the Kane County Certified Naturalist program is more than just a set of classes. It’s a shared exploration of nature. Corey Begalka of Elgin reflected, “This is a journey with kindred spirits discovering the beauty and challenges of Kane County’s wonderful natural areas, venturing to places you probably never knew existed in our area. The class is eco-therapeutic, healing whatever ails your spirit.”

St. Charles resident John Stern agreed. “This program has brought more balance to my physical and mental well-being,” he said. “There are memories made and retained forever!”

The 2018 Kane County Certified Naturalist course will begin in January. The Tuesday evening classes will be held at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center on Jan. 16, Jan. 23, Jan. 30, Feb. 6, Feb. 13 and Feb. 20. Each class runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Spring and summer field trips dates and locations will be announced the first day of class.

The fee for the course is $250, and includes a year’s worth of classes, field trips, and study materials.

Want to know more? Stop by one of our KCCN open houses where we will provide detailed schedules and answer questions. The first open house is scheduled fro, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, 3795 Campton Hills Drive, St Charles. The second open house will take place from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at Creek Bend Nature Center, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles. You do not need to attend an open house to apply.

Launch a lifetime journey of nature exploration with Kane County Certified Naturalists. Call 630-444-3190 or email for application information.

Kane County Certified Naturalist Carol Mazur helps plant trees on Earth Day at Fitchie Creek Forest Preserve.