Little Grassy Lake was created in 1940 by damming Little Grassy Creek, a tributary of Crab Orchard Lake and the Big Muddy River. It was built as part of federal relief efforts surrounding recovery from the Great Depression. The surrounding hills, forested with oak and hickory trees, did not offer good farming potential and the federal government condemned the farms to construct the lake.
In 1948 Dr. Delyte Morris transferred from Ohio State University to become president of SIU. During his presidency, Morris transformed SIU, adding Colleges of Law, Medicine and Dentistry. He also had a sincere and dedicated interest in an extensive outdoor education and recreation curriculum.
In 1949 Dr. William "Bill" Freeberg returned to SIU to establish a specialization after becoming the first in the country to complete a Doctorate of Recreation at Indiana University. Both Morris and Freeberg would soon work together to create what is now Touch of Nature Environmental Center.
At a national conference in Washington, D. C. in May 1948 a need for outdoor education as part of the national educational curriculum was recognized. In order to initiate a program of outdoor education at SIU, the Board of Trustees granted President Morris and Dr. Freeberg the authority to negotiate leases on land in the Little Grassy Lake area from the Department of Interior in 1949. Group camp areas were to be used by the University faculty and students.
By 1950, the Board of Trustees authorized options along the western shores of Little Grassy Lake, and the University acquired 150 acres of land from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
Lloyd Burgess (L.B.) Sharp was a pioneer in outdoor education. He was born in Kansas in 1895 and attended Emporia Normal School. He later worked for the Playground and Recreation Association of Michigan. In February 1923, Sharp began graduate studies in physical education at Teachers College, Columbia, Missouri where he completed his master's degree in 1924 and his doctorate degree in 1930.
In 1925 Sharp was hired by Life Magazine to oversee Fresh Air summer camps for New York City children, and later established similar programs in New Jersey and Connecticut. The camps taught children self-reliance and group relationships. He opened National Camp in 1940 and continued to operate it even after Life Magazine closed its Life Camps in 1951. Sharp continued National Camp under the newly created Outdoor Education Association.
In 1959 Sharp accepted a faculty position at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He relocated the Outdoor Education Association to campus and influenced the establishment of the outdoor experiential education facility Touch of Nature Environmental Center. National Camp closed in 1962. Sharp died in 1963.
In 1954, a Master Plan for the development of the Little Grassy Lake site was approved by the SIU Board of Trustees, and was accepted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in February. The development of the University's outdoor education program was sponsored jointly by the University and by the Educational Council of 100.
In July, 1954, a Department of Recreation and Outdoor Education was established. Part of the new Department's responsibility included the supervision and development of a camping program at the Little Grassy Lake Campus. William Freeberg was appointed Chairman of the Department.
In 1963, the Little Grassy Lake Campus was made a separate unit, no longer administered by the Department of Recreation and Outdoor Education, and the name was changed to Little Grassy Facilities. William F. Price was appointed Coordinator.
In 1968, Little Grassy Facilities became the central campus for the larger surrounding Outdoor Laboratory.
In 1969 Hank Schafermeyer, a forestry graduate student at SIU, with the help of Tony Calabrese, started the Underway Adventures program. Schafermeyer based the program off of the Outward Bound program, a week-long program giving coed youths and adults a taste of rock climbing, high ropes courses, team building and other outdoor activities.
In 1972, the National Park Service named Touch of Nature a National Environmental Center Landmark. This distinguished honor was only given to 11 sites around the United States with touch of Nature as the first of its kind in the nation.
In 1973 SIU's Outdoor Laboratory changed its name to Touch of Nature Environmental Center, getting its name from the William Shakespeare quote, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin!"
Beginning in July of 1974, year round programming was offered.
In 1978, soon after retiring, William Freeberg started the Friends of Touch of Nature, a group dedicated to raising funds and awareness about Camp Little Giant.
In 1980, with the cooperation and contracts with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the Department of Corrections, a Youth Advocacy Program was initiated. The program later took the name Spectrum Wilderness Therapy.
In 1980 Camp Little Giant was awarded the Eleanor P. Eells Award by the American Camping Association. The Eleanor P. Eells Awards are designed to honor programs that:
- Develop effective, creative responses to the needs of people and/or societal problems using the camp environment and encourage continued development of such ideas.
- Stimulate the exchange of creative ideas.
- Present to the public examples of positive contributions camp has made.
In 1991, in honor of his hard work and dedication, the Camp II dining hall at Touch of Nature was named Freeberg Hall. In keeping with Dr. Freeberg's lifelong pursuit, a living memorial in the form of an endowed scholarship fund has been established to provide financial assistance in two primary areas:
- To help underwrite camper fees for children and adults with disabilities who would otherwise be unable to attend Camp Little Giant.
- To assist undergraduate students majoring in therapeutic recreation who have demonstrated a commitment to working with people with disabilities.
In 1995, the Wilderness Education Association held their national conference at Touch of Nature. The keynote speaker was the legendary outdoor educator Paul Petzoldt.
In 1999, Camp Little Giant starts Dyna Camp, a camp for children with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In 2006, the Environmental Education Program starts Eco Camp. A weekly theme-based environmental day camp for children.
In 2009, the Underway Adventures Program starts Wild Outdoor Week (WOW) Camp. An adventure-based day camp for children entering grades 5-8.
In 2013, SIU's Department of Health Education and Recreation started offering classes at Touch of Nature. The classes include Land Navigation, Backpacking, Canoeing, Leave No Trace Trainer, Rock Climbing, Therapeutic Recreation and Wilderness Medicine.
In 2014, SIU alumni JD Tanner becomes Director of Touch of Nature Environmental Center.
In 2014, the Therapeutic Recreation Program started a fall respite camp for adults with developmental disabilities. The camp is a partnership with the Recreation Department, as well as being an experiential class for students studying Therapeutic Recreation.
In August 2015, Touch of Nature hosted Dawg Days, an extended orientation for incoming SIU freshmen.
In October 2017, Touch of Nature hosted Camp BETA, a residential camp for children with diabetes.
On April 6, 2018, Touch of Nature celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Special Olympics with Change the Game Day. Sledgefoot Lounge was renamed Burke Lounge after Justice Ann Burke who was instrumental in developing the first Special Olympics in Chicago in JUly, 1968.