Math teacher Julie Robinson wanted to share a new lesson with her students.
It was a simple equation that had nothing to do with their algebra class, but everything to do with their well-being:
You + outdoors = peace.
An outdoors enthusiast, Robinson believes a lack of activity often causes students to suffer not just boredom, but also problems like anxiety and depression. Actually, she thinks that applies to older folks as well, and she has the studies to prove it.
So, to get people on their feet and outside, she has created a remarkable website called Local OPAL (Local Outdoor Playing And Learning), or localopal.org. She isn’t selling ads or anything else — except the notion of embracing the parks, paths and play sites abounding in central Illinois.
Chances are, most folks have no idea of the scope of these outdoor offerings. As Robinson did research for the site, she was blown away.
“Oh, my gosh!” she told herself again and again. “We’ve got all these great places!”
Not a lot of people know about her website. But after Robinson spotted columns here about hidden tourism gems in the Peoria area, especially Grandview Drive, she thought maybe others might want to check out localopal.org.
It’s thoroughly impressive. She gives the lowdown — by name, location, type — on sites throughout Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall, Fulton and Mason counties. Hike? Bike? Camp? It’s all there. Kid-friendly? Dog-friendly? That’s in there, too.
Robinson, a resident of central Illinois all of her 56 years, has been teaching algebra at Richwoods High School for the past two decades. Between lectures on factoring and coefficients, she hears and observes students, who — in one of those mantras of youth — often complain, “There’s nothing to do.”
“Some of this is simply a hazard of the teenage years,” she says. “But I believe some of it is because they just don’t realize what’s in their backyards.”
Plus, as an educator, she has kept abreast of studies showing a rise of anxiety, stress and depression among teens. Robinson, a nature buff, believes youngsters get wrapped up in screens and other activities that keep them cooped up inside.
“I think, in my own humble, little opinion, they don’t spend enough time outside,” she says.
And studies (as noted on her site) back her up, showing that nature interaction can boost health, well-being and academics. If peace awaits outside, she thought, why not try to show students the way?
Coincidentally, she had a background in discovering the great (and local) outdoors. In 2018, she became involved with the University of Illinois’ Master Naturalist Program. For two weeks, she joined others in trekking to site after site in central Illinois, many of which she’d never heard of.
For example, there is Fondulac Park District’s Spring Creek Preserve, 262 acres off Illinois Route 116 with a variety of habitats that host 100 bird species. And there is Greater Peoria Canoe & Kayak Trail, which connects a dozen scenic areas along the Illinois River between Henry and Creve Coeur. And there is Horseshoe Bottoms, former coal-mining territory outside West Peoria that is being restored to its natural ecology (and is open only for once-a-month tours).
Each trip seemed like visiting a new world. Robinson kept gasping, “How did I not know this was here? How did I not know that was here?”
And if those places were unknown to Robinson, she suspected they might be to others, as well.
“I wanted to share all these places with my students and their families,” she says. “So, I began searching for information regarding all the local outdoor public access places they could go, regardless of who owned them: city, county, private, state, federal.”
She hoped to cobble together a short list of locations. But she quickly realized that the six counties overflowed with outdoor opportunities, each of which brimmed with historical and visitor information. So, she realized, the only efficacious approach would be a website.
The only problem: She is an algebra teacher, not a web designer. Still, she is an educator, so she educated herself on web design.
“It’s not really that hard,” she says.
The site is clean and clear, and bursting with information. Page after page, it’s a like a catalog of possible excursions, all year round.
On her Richwoods teacher page, she lists a link to Local OPAL. Some students have taken the leap from the website to the outdoors.
“The truth is, I bribe them,” she says with a chuckle.
In her algebra classes, kids can earn extra-credit “math money” to buy special favors like hall passes. So, she gives math money for students who go to Local OPAL locations. Some go not at all; some go all the time.
Those who give it a try tend to report back to Robinson about their adventures. Her favorite story involved a boy who took his grandmother out for a walk.
“She doesn’t walk as fast as me,” he told Robinson. “But the best part was just being with her and talking to her.”
Robinson loves stories like that. She gets excited when people — young, old, whatever — use her site for direction and inspiration.
“I just want people to go outside,” she says.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.