Homeschooling: It's not what we do, it's how we live.

Texas Nature Challenge: The First 3 Missions

Well, we have 2.5 missions of the Texas Nature Challenge completed! We would have three, but along the way, we discovered a fatal flaw with the TNC program. More to come on that in a minute; first let me backtrack a bit.

A few weeks ago, we went with our homeschooling group to Heritage Village. I blogged about it here. On the way back, we stopped by the Big Thicket Visitor’s Center and picked up some info on the various programs that they have going on. We learned about the Houston Wilderness Passport and about the Texas Nature Challenge (which is basically 12 weeks to visit 24 state parks and do a mission assigned by the website). It all sounded so cool and like so much fun that we decided to play along.

Our first mission went pretty smoothly. The kids and I, along with my SIL, Bambi (long story and inside joke), and my niece and pre-school age nephew, and another friend of ours (whom we’ll call Rapunzel because of her beautiful hair) and her 3 kidlets (2 homeschoolers and an infant) met up at my house and made the 20 minute drive out to Village Creek State Park. I’d never been there, despite living so close, and I have to say that was pleasantly surprised! It’s a great area and very well-maintained. There are trails and camping grounds and it’s really lovely and definitely a place that we’ll bring the kids camping once fall arrives and the weather cools off a bit (a lot).

Our first mission was to do with learning about and identifying three different species of pine trees.

We had to walk quite a ways, but my ever-resourceful boys did find walking sticks, which naturally made the journey more pleasant. {wink}

It was so hot that we got back into the car to finish the paperwork. Once we were done, we all got back out and went in search of one of the two letterboxes that were hidden out there.

We didn’t find it – I did send an email to the box-placer to find out if it had been checked on since Hurricane Ike came through a couple of years ago. We were planning on finding two boxes, but the kids were tired – the mission and looking for the box took longer than I had anticipated (one of the previously mentioned flaws with TNC is the estimated time frame – they WAY understate them!!), so we opted to go in for lunch and come back another day to find the other box.

The boys and I went back on Thursday – just the three of us – and searched for the second box (again with no luck). The box placer did email me back on this one and said that he’d not checked it since Ike and so it may very well be gone. So, though we didn’t find letterboxes, we did have a very nice walk in the woods.

Skip ahead a week and this past Friday, my frequently-mentioned friend SFK and her two girls, Bambi and Bubba (my brother) and niece and nephew, and my sister’s daughter (Fred) went with me and the boys to Houston to work on the Hermann Park and Houston Zoo missions. I have to say that I was expecting the morning to be stressful and to my great surprise and delight, it went so smoothly.

Once we got into the park and found a parking spot (for which competition was high) and piled out, we had to take a few minutes to check out the map. It apparently didn’t help because after walking for about 20 minutes, we realized that instead of walking towards Lake Plaza for the Hermann Park Mission, we were actually walking along the golf course. After back-tracking and heading in the right direction, we discovered that the clues were not as self-explanatory or as easy to find a one might expect.

One of the first things it says to do is find the informational plaques that tell about the art displays. We found that one (it’s the work of French artist Bernar Venet), but the other questions were less obvious. We actually didn’t find the answers to the next 2 questions. Supposedly, they were on plaques in Lake Plaza, but we checked them all and didn’t find the answers. I even asked in the gift shop (which is one of the last places to find a clue in the mission) and the employees knew nothing about the Texas Nature Challenge – so no help there. I was annoyed by that – that the employees weren’t informed about the project. It seems that someone should have known something about it.

So we went to the next section – checking out the 40ft. tall water jets – then moved on to the ‘walk along McGovern Lake’ part. We walked to the monument and reflection pool, but that’s apparently not one of the clues – so at this point, we checked the map and found that one of the clues was clear across the park. We’d already been there for over an hour, in the heat with 6 hot and hungry kids – so we decided that the mission was not worth the effort – let’s go eat and then ride the train and call it done.

So we trailed back to the car and had our lovely picnic in the shade. After re-fueling, everyone was in a much better mood, so we went back to the train station and had a lovely ride around Hermann Park.

After getting on, we realized that the train now has sub-stations. The mission did mention that, but the train only comes around every 15 minutes – so to stop at the cross-street for one of the clues about a statue, we would have been stuck waiting till the next train, or left to walk forever and a day back to the other side of the park. So we were quite glad to have abandoned the mission at that point in favor of having a good time. Once we got home, I did look at the mission site and it gives a time frame of half an hour to complete. I say that is WAY wrong. It took us that long to figure out exactly where we were supposed to go to begin with. Maybe half an hour IF you’re familiar with Hermann Park – allow more (like half a day) if you’re from out-of-town.

So after that, we went to the Houston Zoo. I just love the zoo! Such fun! Before we went in, I went into Guest Services and asked about the Houston Wilderness Passport sticker for “Other Places to Visit”. They had it (yay!) so the kids all got their butterfly sticker for their passports. That’s 2 stickers now – we’re doing well!

We hit one of the indoor exhibits first, to cool off for a minute. They had some really neat kid-friendly features in that building, including a tube for the kids to crawl through under one of the aquariums.

The Zoo Mission was a little easier to accomplish. One thing I don’t like about the introduction of more technology to the zoo exhibits is that the information on the animals is a bit sketchier. In the past, there was a plaque by each animal enclosure or window with information on the animal(s) inside. Now, there’s a name, but the information is broadcast in patterns on a television above a group of windows/enclosures. You have to read fast because the info is only up there for a minute – or wait till it comes back around. When you’re trying to record information about the animals that makes it much more difficult than it has to be. Thankfully, the reptile house was the only on that was that bad – the rest was a bit easier. I did find that the map was a bit unclear if you’re looking for certain animal enclosures. As a general guide, it’s okay, but if you want something specific, it’s not the best map. We ran into trouble locating the jaguar (which was on the other side from where the map said it was) and the bald eagle (which was at the end of a little maze-thing in the children’s zoo and not at all clearly marked).  We ended up with me and Bambi writing everything down and just talking to the kids about it. Once we completed everything, we were looking for where to go to finish the last task, and again none of the employees knew anything about the TNC. Frustrating!! So I went back to Guest Services and found that the sticker we were supposed to get as a reward for completing the mission was the Wilderness Passport sticker that we got at the beginning of our zoo trip. {sigh}

Overall, I’m really happy with the trip. It was a great day, and we all had a truly wonderful time. I have to say that I am disappointed with the lack of support that the TNC seems to be getting from the entities that are supposedly involved – there needs to be some internal education and communication so that families who are participating can successfully complete the missions. I’d also like to see the mission lists revised to be a little more instructional, and to have a more accurate time frame listed. Parking, for example, at Hermann Park and the zoo is SO confusing! It would have been nice to have the mission say, “Park at….””. Even the zoo’s 45 minute estimation is way off – maybe if you run between exhibits and if that’s the only thing you do while you’re there. I’d like to see them update the age range, too – our oldest child on the trip was 9 and loves school and it was too much for her to do without help. Not that I mind taking my kids on learning expeditions where I do most of the work, but it’s nice to know that going in rather than learning it mid-stream.

Reading back over what I’ve written, it seems that a lot of this post is a complaint – I guess it is, but I do want to reiterate that we had a GREAT time working on all of the missions we’ve attempted thus far, even with the minor irritations related to the mission descriptions. Though that was one of our main reasons for going to the Houston, we did just enjoy being at the Park and the Zoo – so if you’re considering doing the missions, please don’t let my comments dissuade you. My goal here is to give our experience – and maybe cast a little more realistic light on them, not to say it’s impossible or that you shouldn’t do them. We’re going to give the HP mission another shot in a week or so – when we do the Natural History Museum mission. I just know to allow more time for that one {wink}.

Overall, I think we’re off to a great start with the TNC. I am excited about working on the rest of them – even if we don’t finish them “on time”, we’re still going to work on completing them all.

Warmly,

~h

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