Ms. Liana offers kids an affection for nature

 The Nature Circle

What: Ms. Liana guides pre-school children into the Nature Circle as they explore the natural world with story time, hands-on activities and crafts.

When: 10 a.m. Mondays though May 31

Where: Audio-visual room at the Long Hunter State Park office, 2910 Hobson Pike (South Mt. Juliet Road), 7½ miles south of I-40

More info: Call or email for reservations: 885-2422,

Lessons coming up: Feb. 1: Groundhog greetings, Feb. 8: A snowy day, Feb. 15: Healthy hearts, Feb. 22: Something fishy here

 Nature Buddies invade Long Hunter State Park on Mondays

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Liana Dranes is no earth mother nor is she Mother Earth.

But the Mt. Juliet aquatic biologist, known as Ms. Liana, is as equally in touch with children as she is with nature. For the past year-and-a-half she has nurtured a nature program for pre-schoolers on Monday mornings at Long Hunter State Park that leaves children and their parents thirsting for more.

Ms. Liana and her young protégés, aka Nature Buddies, study everything from the water cycle and rainbows to such flora and fauna as wildflowers, trees, butterflies, rabbits, frogs, bats and dragonflies. She is able to teach the youngsters with a style that creates immediate interaction, and her friendliness beams like sunshine from her face. Before class begins, during craft time and after class she has a one-on-one conversation with each child.

“I love my job, but I guess I was craving some sort of a creative outlet,” said Ms. Liana about how she conceived the Nature Circle. “I also love spending time with my three children hiking and hanging out at Long Hunter State Park. With the boys those bonding moments don’t come as often now that they are becoming teenagers. But when we’re out on the trail and hiking together, we talk about random things, funny things and memories.

“I thought that if I could come up with something to teach children about science and nature, then I could give back in a way something I am passionate about and something kids could learn from.”

Her efforts prove impossible to miss for those who see the dynamo in action.

“Ms. Liana is the ultimate volunteer. She is a member of the Friends of Long Hunter, and her children and she take part in our programming here, and as a result she created the Nature Circle. It has proven to be the most popular program we have ever had at Long Hunter,” said Park Manager Thurman Mullins. “She is selfless and donates her time and that includes her family. She is a remarkable young lady. We’re blessed to have her.”

Working for ESC Lab Sciences, formerly Environmental Science Corporation, in Mt. Juliet for the past 19 years, Ms. Liana, 43, and her husband of 17 years, Billy Dranes, who manages the wastewater plant in Lebanon, have three children: Seth, 14; Jake, 12; and Anamaree, 7. Born in Poplar Bluff, Mo., Ms. Liana spent her teenage years in Loudon, Tenn., and earned her biology degree at Middle Tennessee State University.

The volunteer teacher prepared her program specifically with pre-school age children in mind.

“Children are like little sponges. They are so bright and so eager. If they could grab hold of a love of science and nature, they can carry that on into their school lives and adult lives,” she said. “So we do things to help reinforce that throughout the year.

“We will study environmental science. The kids are just hungry for this. I’ve shown them litter such as cigarette butts and plastic bags and how they pollute the creeks. We talk about the food chain. They see it come alive,” Ms. Liana said.

Her Nature Buddies flock to the park from such places as Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro, Old Hickory and Antioch. A parent or grandparent must attend the session. Most of the adults are moms, but there are a hand full of dads and one grandfather on this Monday as more than two dozen youngsters sit in the middle of the room on a large colorful rug adorned with lots of critters. (Guess who found the rug and donated it?)

The children place silver stars beside their name on a roll on the wall, and each wears a name tag. Placed on tables shaped like a giant “U” are glue, construction paper, Crayons and yarn -- enough ingredients for 30 children to make a craft project.

“Each Monday the kids already know what the theme is going to be. We open with share time where the children bring something related to the theme so they feel like they are bringing a part of themselves to the group. This is the first time a lot of these children have been in a group setting. They might bring a stuffed animal or a picture they drew. They get up and stand by me. We have discussion and then we read our first book, a non-fiction book,” Ms. Liana said.

“We usually have an activity like a hands-on or demonstration to help them understand a concept. Then we break away for our craft activity. We always have a craft related to the theme. Some learn better from story telling and listening, some learn from the activity and others learn from hands-on. Then they come back to the rug and we all sit crisscross-applesauce and do our story time. We usually close with a fiction book that brings out something about themselves, and there will be some questions to help develop their critical thinking.”

Today, the subject is snakes, and a ranger from Radnor State Park has brought three live snakes for the children to observe. To kick things off the kid share books with illustrations of snakes or show off toy-stuffed snakes or rubber snakes.

“Snakes are reptiles,” Ms. Liana says. “Can you say reptiles?”

“Reptiles!” echo the children who are all eyes and ears.

As she talks about snakes, she proceeds to teach about vertebrates and uses a book about snakes to teach about the backbone in a human. “Snakes have scaly skin and are cold-blooded,” she informs them.

Later the ranger takes a corn snake out of its cage and allows the children to touch it if they wish. Most of them do touch.

Mt. Juliet’s Jeff Knop has brought his daughter Chloe, 6, and son, Giles, 4.

“Chloe has been to eight Nature Circles. She comes every time school is out. Giles has only missed once this year,” Knop said. “I think Ms. Liana is just excellent at teaching the children on their own level things about nature. They talk about it at home and every week they ask to come back. She’s absolutely terrific and relates to the kids. Every time I come, I learn something, too.”

Amy Scruggs of Old Hickory joins daughter Katherine, 5, for their second year of attendance. “She has so much knowledge and experience and is able to communicate with kids,” Scruggs said of the teacher. “I find Katherine retains so much of what she learns here. We love Ms. Liana. She’s wonderful.”

“It’s about nature,” said young Katherine of the Nature Circle. “It’s fun with Ms. Liana. Some snakes have rattles, some don’t.”

“It’s fun because we get to do a lot of neat stuff,” said Hunter Williams, 6, of Gladeville. “Ms. Liana is my friend. I like Ms. Liana. I like learning about nature.”

The gifted instructor occasionally uses puppets named Rocco the Raccoon and Olivia the Otter.

“I am a stuffed animal lover, and I know that for a lot of young children a puppet helps draw them in. If I see one of the children is kind of shy or one of the children is crying, I can come over with Olivia and say, ‘Would you like to pet Olivia?’ and try to get their mind off what is troubling them. Or I can say something like, ‘Rocco was shy too when he first came here,’ and they will start petting him.’ So they can identify with them.”

Ms. Liana has a sort of selfish motive for her passion of teaching nature to youngsters. She wants her children to observe that their mother walks what she talks.

“I want my own children to see, ‘Hey, Mom believes in something enough that she wants to make a difference.’ To me and my family the Nature Circle has become our outreach for nature and what we believe in. They are directly involved in selecting the nature books and crafts.

“I enjoy the fact that my daughter can look at me and see me like I’m her hero. With the nature and science she sees something that I do and believe in. She has a strong figure and can say, ‘Wow, my mom does this.' When it comes to Nature Circle, she says to her friends, ‘This is my mom. She does the Nature Circle.’ I love the fact that my boys can see how it started, and how you can continue on with something. They see that when they see these young children learn when they come visit.

“It’s wonderful being with the children and seeing their enthusiasm and how excited they get about coming and learning about nature and knowing they are going to carry that with them. I believe nature doesn’t give up. It has an incredible capacity to heal and change in response to things that happen. And when we learn about the animals, we can say what does this teach us about ourselves not to give up? And their parents come with them and stay, so seeing the parents and grandparents that attend with their children, it’s neat to see them working together on something.

“I always tell the children, take what you learn and share with your brothers and sisters and friends. They are nature lovers at this early an age. They say to me, ‘I’m a Nature Buddy.’ They’ll carry that with them for a long time,” said Ms. Liana, one of Mother Nature's chief promoters.

Ken Beck may be contacted at