Nothing beats the experience of travel, but two Michigan teachers have come up with a way to help children in Michigan visit the state’s impressive natural resources and well-known landmarks without having to pack a suitcase.
Tracy Foster and Shannon Cooper-Toma, both teachers at Corunna Public Schools, were visiting Lake Michigan with a group of students a few years ago and it struck them that for several children in the group this was the first time they’d seen one of the Great Lakes.
The pair said the students were full of questions, “Are we at the ocean? Do sharks live here?” and the kids’ excitement got them thinking.
“Some of our kids aren’t traveling,” said Cooper-Toma.
Recognizing the importance of travel for both its educational purposes as well as its ability to inspire children to “dream big,” Foster and Cooper-Toma wanted to come up with a way to expose more of their students, and Michigan children in general, to travel and expand their horizons.
“We decided to create a book so children throughout the state could travel through the pages of our book,” Cooper-Toma said.
The pair created Benson, a Michigan painted turtle, to serve as a tour guide to the state. They’ve published two books so far, “Benson’s Adventures in Michigan” and “Benson’s Seasonal Adventures in Michigan.”
“He is our main character and he travels throughout the state of Michigan on these adventures and writes about it using the postcard format,” said Cooper-Toma.
Benson’s adventures have taken him from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to the Shinola factory and from Sleeping Bear Dunes to the Kilwin’s Chocolate factory, and to a slew of places in between.
Kids can follow along as Benson explores the state and experiences new adventures. They can also capture their own adventures.
Cooper-Toma and Foster designed the book so children traveling throughout the state with their families can write about their experiences just like Benson.
“We created postcard sets that correlate with our book,” Cooper-Toma said. “Families can purchase those as well and inspire their children to write about their own travels as they explore our great state.”
Each of the adventures in the book also includes “did you know” facts to teach young readers about the landmarks they are visiting as well as challenges to complete if they are able to visit the location.
To help encourage students to “dream big” each of the books also highlights a Michigan celebrity who did just that.
The first book includes the story of Ginger Zee, who was born in West Michigan and went on to work as chief meteorologist for ABC news after being inspired as a child by Michigan’s natural beauty. The second book highlights Michigan State University head basketball coach Tom Izzo.
To write their books, Cooper-Toma and Foster have spent a lot of time traveling around Michigan and taking in new experiences, and they’ve been able to bring several of their students along on these trips.
The pair said one of the best trips so far was a visit to Nature’s Kennel in the Upper Peninsula to try dog sledding.
“We’ve done so many unique things, but one big highlight was dog sledding,” Cooper-Toma said. “They loved that. That whole idea of teamwork and responsibility, seeing that in action, it brought abstract concepts to life. It was a unique adventure.”
The trip also re-enforced the importance of what they are doing. “When we traveled to the UP, we met a girl from Troy, Michigan, and she talked about how she read the story of Balto, and was so inspired by it and couldn’t get enough of dog sledding and how her parents took her on dog sledding adventures. This is exactly what we want to do with our book.”
Foster said another cool experience they were able to share with some of their students was a nighttime ferry ride under the Mackinac Bridge with a guide from Michigan’s Dark Sky Park.
“The narrator talked about the different constellations, folklore and taught the children different songs, and each of the children got a constellation map,” she said.
Cooper-Toma and Foster hope to encourage children to explore the world around them through their books, and to help encourage real world travel, the pair said families can check out Michigan Activity Passes using their library card.
The Michigan Activity Pass offers cardholders at more than 400 participating Michigan libraries a one day pass to explore – at no cost – hundreds of Michigan’s state parks, historic sites, cultural attractions, campgrounds and recreation areas simply by visiting their local library or the Michigan Activity Pass website.
“Our main purpose is we want kids to see what the world has to offer and dream big and to find new opportunities and what their niche is and what they are passionate about,” Foster said.
The authors are in the process of writing their third Benson’s adventures book; this one will focus on traveling across the country.