Why you should spend the night at Bartlett Nature Center

When my daughter’s brownie troop leader suggested an overnight at the Bartlett Nature Center for our girls, I thought she had lost her mind. What could we possibly do in a nature center for 12+ hours, sans technology, that would keep a group of 8- and 9-year-old girls occupied?

I agreed to chaperone this adventure, so I could see for myself.

Located in the James “Pate” Phillip State Park Visitor Center, the Bartlett Nature Center offers a large variety of programs to explore nature through activities, hands-on projects and games for Boy and Girl Scouts, schools, birthday parties, youth groups and the community.

We arrived after dinner on a Saturday, a gaggle of girls with fuzzy pillows, blankets and all things sleepover-related and filled with excited and three reluctant mothers trailing behind.

(Actually, besides the troop leader and co-leader, I was the only parent that stayed. Everyone else was smart enough to drop his or her kids off and run.)

What I didn’t realize is that the staff at the Bartlett Nature Center was ready to help our girls not only earn their Scientist At Home badges, but also have an incredible campout-like experience.

And by staff, I’m talking just ONE employee while we were there. The wonderful Chris, who wrangled all of these girls, got them to listen to her and had them intrigued and interested in everything that they were doing. It was great!

  • They made homemade ice cream from ice cubes, vanilla, milk, salt, plastic baggies and a LOT of shaking.
  • They did an experiment to see if eggs would float in regular water or salt water.
  • They made volcanoes with candy and two liter bottles of soda. (This was a big hit.)
  • They took a nature walk through the trails at night with flashlights.
  • They built a fire, roasted marshmallows and made s’mores.

There is a gigantic theater in the Nature Center, where we were able to put on our own movie for the girls to wind down at bedtime, which was like 11 p.m. by the time we finished with everything. This is where they chose to “sleep” as well.

In the morning, the girls had a light breakfast and were able to pet the large snake that Chris was wearing around her neck.

Yes, a snake. Although I’m not a person who enjoys that sort of thing, my 9-year-old was in heaven.

Myself and another mom brought our 6-year-olds along, and they had a blast participating in the experiments as well. When they were tired and wanted some time away from the bigger girls, there were puzzles and games about animals available, as well as a variety of live animals, such as lizards and snakes, for them to look at in their habitats.

Although I didn’t get to see much outside of the nature center during the day (we were gone by 7:30 the next morning), I spent a few moments talking with Chris and learned that hosting overnight adventures is a regular thing for them. And not just for kids either!

The surrounding state park has 4 miles of crushed limestone trails on 501 acres. Hiking, bicycling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are permitted on trails. A connector trail from the parking lot connects to the Illinois Prairie Path and Fox River Trail. Geo-caching is also a popular activity within the State Park.

The Nature Center staff has a vast knowledge of the natural world and other areas of science, technology and art. They have the ability to put together a unique field trip that promotes learning while having fun.

There is tons of information about all of the options available, from birthday parties to campsite and overnight options, on their website. An overnight at the Bartlett Nature Center is something I’d definitely do again with a school group, birthday party or scouting troop as it is such a unique experience.

I’d love to hear about any of your overnight adventures at unique locations!


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