Four Guinea Pigs; a Sugar Glider, Parakeet, Tarantula, Blue-Tongued Skink, Dwarf Hamster; and Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches

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This is the resident list of the Exploration Center at the Shirlee Green preschool of Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s another of Karen Lucy’s innovations. On occasion, Millie the pot-bellied pig visits with her friend Ruthie, also a pig. A skittish hedgehog is slowly being socialized for eventual residency.

The hedgehog was in Karen’s office during our phone interview. A father of two active young boys had bought the shy animal a few weeks before. The hedgehog and the boys didn’t mix well, so Karen got the frightened animal. He’d spent his first few days rolled up in a corner hissing. Yet within a few weeks it had started sitting in Karen’s lap, and walking across her desk. She predicted that it could be socialized into the Exploration Center by the fall.

We often think of most preschoolers as impulsive or impatient. These are the years to begin laying the foundations for developing social skills and self-regulation.  Children at this age are often impatient. Yes, they are often impatient to learn about everything around them. Yet, as we’ve learned from accounts of behavior in Nature Explore Classrooms, nature has a calming influence on many children. “Problems in self-regulation” seen indoors often dissipate in the outdoor classroom. At Shirlee Green, as in many other schools, time in the outdoor classroom is used to calm children. And as we’ve seen in many preschool Nature Explore Classrooms (the Fourth Street Early Learning Center in East Los Angeles, for one) children have an inborn empathy, and can develop social skills naturally—in the right environment.  Karen uses nature and animals to facilitate children’s innate, emergent social and self-regulation skills.

And the shy hedgehog in Karen’s office is a great teaching partner for this learning.  Like flowers or vegetables, this hedgehog can teach the patience needed to engage with slow, long-term change and growth. Of course only a few children can visit him at a time. And they have to be as gentle as possible. And they’ll have to wait a long, long time before he can live in the Exploration Center. Again, the fingerprints of Mindful Teaching and intentionality are all over this learning experience. “Patience is such a hard virtue nowadays to teach,” she says, “but the animals offer that message to them so much easier.”

When the children’s guide for these experiences is someone who knows animals as deeply as she does children, the dimensions of learning expand exponentially. As Karen told me, while children are developing socialization skills from their interactions with the animals, the animals themselves are also learning these lessons from the children. The two-way socialization learning the children are having with the hedgehog is an endearing example of Mindful Teaching.

Karen told me that animals at Shirlee Green offer tolerance, acceptance, and dependability, and lessons in responsibility and nutrition.


She told a charming story of how the animals taught children about nutrition. When she opened the Exploration Center the children asked if they could feed the animals.  They saved up their extra snack food for a few days, but were troubled when told that animals don’t eat processed cheese and fruit snacks. ‘What do they eat?’ asked the children. “Let’s find out,” said Karen. She went down the list of animals describing the vegetables and fruits they eat. “I had phone calls from my parents asking, “Why are my kids asking for fruits and vegetables?”

Karen noted that the animals communicate to the children when they open the door to the Exploration Center. The sugar glider comes out of his pouch. The guinea pig moves to the edge of his cage and speaks. The animals are socialized to the children.

While other children might think of guinea pig sounds as just sounds, children at Shirlee Green have studied their various vocalizations. Wheeking, chutting, purring and rumbling are just some of these sounds the children study via the internet. This helps them better understand what the guinea pigs are communicating to them.

We cherish and understand (or think we understand) the many looks and behaviors of our beloved pets, especially our dogs. But we rarely take the time to see that other animals are communicating with us, as well. The children at Shirlee Green will see that their mindful and nurturing behaviors will influence the hedgehog. He will learn that they are not a threat.  His behaviors toward them will change. As they learn about the hedgehog, children will be learning about themselves, and about each other. The hedgehog will be increasingly socialized towards the children, and eventually to the other animals in the Exploration Center. In Karen’s world of Mindful Teaching, we’re all in it together.

When we see animals and nature with mindfulness and act with intentionality, we see the full world around us more clearly. When we see with open eyes, hear with open ears, and feel with an open heart, we access this world. It’s the world as Karen understands it; the world of nature she shares with her very fortunate students.

I think they’re on to something.

A 140 Pound Pot-Bellied Pig Walks Into a Preschool, and…

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant
232323232-fp83232-ydnjthgqubwsnrcgu-58--nu=4635-75--6-;-372675-7;-238ot1lsiYou might think this is the opening line of a strange preschool joke. It isn’t. It’s from days in the life of Karen Lucy. Karen is the Director of Early Childhood Education in the Shirlee Green preschool at the Jewish Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri. And the pig is Millie. When Millie was an adorably cute piglet Karen brought it to her previous preschool. Consumption of pork is prohibited by Jewish dietary laws, so Karen had asked the rabbi if bringing a pig to the preschool was ok.  “Where could it be safer?” was the reply. For two years the school raised the pig.  Children played with her outside. Families took her home on weekends. And now Millie visits the children at Shirlee Green.

By the end of my interview with Karen I’d been treated to a journey through an engaging world where children develop intellectually, socially and spiritually through interactions with nature that flow from indoors to out. Karen has been using animals in educational presentations for over twenty years, so an animal in her classroom is not just a class pet. When she mixes children with animals and nature, her deep understandings of them all go into the blend.

As we spoke, I kept hearing a profoundly playful and spiritual relationship to animals unfolding in the conversation, so I asked Karen about her childhood. She had grown up in rural southern Missouri, where her father was a farmer and miner.

Large families run in her family; her father had twenty siblings, and Karen was the youngest of ten. “We had very little growing up,” she said, “but I never realized that we had so little. We had one another and we were always outside, always outside. I just had that love [of nature] instilled in me as a child and I hope the same for these children.”

Back at Shirlee Green, children from six weeks to 5 years (pre-kindergarten) attend classes primarily in one wing of the Temple, and use their Outdoor Kitah (Hebrew for classroom) for learning outside. But they can use any part of the building or its large grounds for learning experiences.

Now going into her fourth year at the school, Karen was charged with instituting change when she was hired. Shirlee Green had forty-six students when she started. Today it has one hundred twenty. The school had a traditional playground back then.  It has the Outdoor Kitah now.

Karen discovered Nature Explore when our Resource Guide was sent to the school.  She had been planning a natural outdoor space, and thought, ‘why not do it in a way that we gain recognition for what we’re doing.’ Participation in last year’s Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute brought more ideas and engaging contacts. Karen’s Outdoor Kitah has gained recognition among Jewish preschools in the area, and she always recommends Nature Explore to visitors.

The entire Shaare Emeth community, both preschool children and adults, practice “Mindful Teaching.” Intentionality and purpose are the foundations of this form of teaching and learning. Before entering the Outdoor Kitah children stop in the Gathering Area to discuss what they intend to do in the space. This helps them to slow down, to be more aware of nature and to become thankful for this space. They are reminded that this natural area is a blessing that inspires thoughtfulness of action. In Mindful Teaching, Karen says, “There’s always some critical thinking involved.” Children know what they are doing and understand that they are working towards a goal, however brief or long-term. They know they are connected to something larger than just the moment.

“It’s a different generation of parents and also children that are entering our preschool,” she says. “When you have a generation that’s raised with instant gratification and all this technology… I love technology. But like everything, in moderation it’s best. It’s difficult because we as a staff are finding that children are missing a lot of the patience that is needed just to gain focus.” So Karen might prepare the children for entering this special space by asking them what they hear.  Yet she doesn’t stop at asking if they can hear the birds, she’ll ask them what they think the birds are saying to them. The children, not wanting to miss these messages, slow down and pay close attention. The message she gives the children is, “You are entering such a sacred place, it is so special that you just have to slow down, and really think about what we’re doing. Listen all the way around, and listen to every animal out there. There are many that you can’t see that are saying something to you, even some below ground.”

Another expression of Mindful Teaching is the connection between preschoolers and the temple congregation through the use of the Mitzvah Garden in the Outdoor Kitah. The Hebrew word ‘mitzvah” means a good deed that is done from religious motivations. Mindful of a responsibility to the larger community, and to those less fortunate, the Congregation Shaare Emeth opens its doors to feed and give overnight shelter to families on the first Monday of every month. Food grown by children in their Mitzvah Garden is either served fresh, or frozen to share on these days.  Through their work in the Mitzvah Garden children learn about the life cycle, nurturance and care of living things, where food comes from, and much more. And they also become aware of the spiritual meaning of service that they share, through their garden, with their elders and with the homeless.

In our next blog post, we’ll follow Karen inside. Fasten your seat belts!

Garden of Wonder: How Gardening and Greenhouse Activities Facilitate Learning

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

This is the third in a series of “Roots in Research” blog posts, in which we summarize key findings of research conducted by Nature Explore staff and our colleagues at other institutions.

DSC_0007_2A few years ago, researchers explored preschool and kindergarten students’ learning when they were engaged in hands-on activities in the garden and greenhouse areas of a Nature Explore Classroom. They found that when young children are invited to dig in the dirt, experience plant life cycles and taste the fruits of their efforts, magical things happen. Teacher co-researchers noted that through gardening, children learn to communicate with others, manage and convey their emotions, and develop skills that will help them become successful lifelong learners.

Here are key benefits of gardening that you might observe and experience in your own Nature Explore Classroom:

–Involving children in gardening at an early age gives them the opportunity to develop a sense of wonder about the world and understand their role in caring for the environment.

–Close observation of children working in nature shows us their sophisticated exploration and understanding of how the world works.

–Experiential learning outdoors gives children opportunities to feel more connected to nature.

–Through experience and teacher support, children learn to take risks, develop self-confidence, and process their emotions gaining mastery over their fears.

–Outdoor classroom time in nature provides meaningful, hands-on learning and the skills children develop will help them be more successful in school and in navigating their world.

–Experiences in the natural world, such as gardening, provide a holistic approach to teaching and learning.

Are you looking for tools to help bring gardening to your Nature Explore Classroom? Our Resource Guide is the place to start!


Source: The Seeds of Learning: Young Children Develop Important Skills Through Their Gardening Activities at a Midwestern Early Education Program (2007) by Miller, D. L. Applied Environmental Education and Communication 6: 49-66.

Connecting all the Pieces in a Nature Explore Classroom

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By Diann Gano, Owner/Director of Under the Gingko Tree

C2011_61201_Under the Ginkgo Tree 03As we enter our sixth year of our Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, I often find myself reflecting on how our program has grown along with the little bodies that visit it each day. Discovering Nature Explore was like finding that one puzzle piece in your 5000 piece puzzle that connects all the sub groups together. For us, it is the perfect puzzle piece. Each piece brings us more continuity, more flow, more direction, more growth. Just like the big puzzle sitting on the table, it draws us back in to add more pieces or re-arrange another section to try a new idea.

As we remove more and more of our old ideas, our vision and our passion return to our classroom puzzle.

There are less plastic pieces and more natural materials. We discover that we don’t need all the extras. The earth gives us what we need to learn. Rocks and leaves, pinecones and acorns replace play food, art supplies and cars and trucks. Those pieces are still in our program, they just aren’t as important as they once were. Imaginations grow as the children discover a rock or an acorn work quite well, as they use them for money, or a soup ingredient or a cell phone. The environment looks calmer and less cluttered. More natural. This is the perfect environment for little brains to grow and learn in every day.

This fall, we will find ourselves without two of our favorite little friends as they leave us for kindergarten. Always bittersweet. Always sad, but always exciting. They leave with letter recognition that came without worksheets or flashcards. They can find a letter in nature daily, be it in the form of a tree, a twig, a rock, or a water print on the ground. They will leave with the social skills of spending hours and hours outdoors discovering and problem solving with their friends. They leave with hours of risk taking adventures that will find them full of ideas and confidence to take on new risks in kindergarten. They leave us full of imagination and creativity and critical thinking skills. They leave us with kindness towards others and the earth. They will leave.

They will return. They will return on school breaks and summer days. They will return to their puzzle world the same way we return to the big puzzle on the dining room table. They will add new pieces and new ideas and new skills. We love this big puzzle. Always changing, always growing. We are in no hurry to complete this puzzle.

The Wonder of Connection

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by Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation

392_116A few years ago our past Research Director, Dana Miller, gave me an impactful essay she had written titled “Legacy of the Aspens.” Here’s a part of it:

The wonder of the Aspens is their interconnectedness. The largest grove of Aspens in the U.S. covers approximately 106 acres in Utah – 47,000 trees. This expansive grove is, in reality, one living organism – all of the trees stem from one original tree. This is possible because Aspens reproduce through their roots. As their roots grow and spread, additional trees spring up. In essence, the original tree gives life over and over again.

 A single Aspen tree’s impact extends far beyond its lifetime. The Aspen’s legacy is the life it gives – all of the trees that grow because of the original tree’s roots. The trees that spring up outlive the single, original tree and similarly continue to reproduce, but all of the growth remains connected to that first tree as the growth multiplies.

 I think this same principle applies to the work we do as we help children enjoy enriching connections with the natural world as part of their daily learning. We have no idea the far reaching affect each child’s strengthened sense of wonder and feelings of stewardship will have on future generations. We have no idea how one idea we shared – perhaps even through this online community – will impact others and begin to grow as it spreads and strengthens.

We are all connected – through this good Earth we share, through our love and concern for the children in our lives, and through our interest in each other’s ideas. I look forward to learning and growing together with all of you. I can’t wait to see what new growth will come from our interconnectedness.






*Originally posted October 2011


Outdoor Classrooms: Grounding Children in Reality

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

*Originally posted February 2015

8752810-hand-holding-the-earthSoon, a new form of Augmented Reality (AR) technology will be available for educational, business, and home use. Through the senses of sight and sound, AR vividly blends the real and virtual worlds. We believe that children who have frequent, meaningful contact with nature will be better able than their peers to balance attractive technologies with other educational and recreational interests. Also, they will be better able to differentiate AR’s strengths from its limitations. These are yet more reasons why we believe that ALL children could benefit profoundly from daily contacts with nature.

In past blog posts, we met a child who preferred outdoor play to watching videos before dinner—only after his exposure to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. We met two sisters who asked for binoculars and clipboards for Christmas, so they could deepen their outdoor explorations. And we met the device-dependent students on a multi-day nature field trip to an area where their smartphones wouldn’t work. After exploring the terrain, swimming, and watching buffalo for three days, they didn’t miss their phones. I think we would agree that all these children have the possibility of finding a healthy role for technology in their lives; a balance that is often difficult for many other children to develop.

Now, fast-forward to the (near) future! Windows 10, a free operating system upgrade for PC platform computers, will soon support AR functionality via the use of the “HoloLens” visor. You’ll be able to see and adjust translucent holograms (three-dimensional images made of light) projected into the real world.

With this technology, you’ll be able to walk around the room, interacting with both the real and virtual worlds at the same time. You’ll be able to manipulate a hologram’s size, position, and more. An example of AR’s usage is in toy design. A holographic representation of the toy is projected against an environment in which it will be used. Its dimensions, colors, etc. are adjusted by the designer’s hand movements, which result in the actual design modifications sent to the manufacturer. Many of us will soon be watching films on a screen size we customize with a few hand movements. Rumor says that the HoloLens goggles will be released as soon as the technology has matured to where the average user can control its functions consistently.

Yet more basic AR is already used in educational products. Some of these products are designed for very young children. If you can hold a smartphone or tablet computer, you’re old enough for Augmented Reality. For example, by holding a smartphone or tablet computer over a specially encoded book page, a three-dimensional image will appear. I’ve seen a cartoon-like dinosaur, which can be rotated and viewed at all angles, hovering over an encoded page. I can’t imagine this experience not being enormously engaging for a small child.

AR technology holds fascinating potentials for education. iPads and other tablet-style devices have long been used in preschools and elementary schools. Increasingly sophisticated AR, in some form, will probably soon find its way to very young children in homes and schools.

But what does Augmented Reality really have to do with Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms? A lot; IMHO (in my humble opinion). In fact, I believe that early experiences in an outdoor classroom can actually augment augmented reality—by keeping it honest.

The hologram of a flower, seen from all sides against the background of a real room, is still not a real flower. The hologram-flower would be engaging and fun to play with, but it will lack the visual complexity, aroma, and texture of a real flower.

Why should the extra qualities of a real flower matter when we can conjure fun flowers seemingly at will? After all, we often substitute texting for real conversation, despite the fact that texts carry only a fraction of the rich information of face-to-face dialog.

Today, we can easily find three- and four-year-olds whose first close-up experience with a flower is in an outdoor classroom. Like a hologram-flower, a real flower (in the ground) can be experienced from all angles. Unlike with the real flower, you’ll be able to change the shape and color of a hologram-flower. If you are designing a toy flower, these capabilities could be useful. But they are of limited usefulness for the ever-churning intellect of a small child.

If I were a normally inquisitive four-year-old who was closely experiencing a flowerbed for the first time, here are some of the questions I’d be asking myself:

“Why are they stuck in the ground? Why are some one color and some another? Why do they have different shapes? Why do the red ones smell different than the yellow ones? Are these like the ones I see at home? These flowers aren’t in water like at home—how do they drink? Why are there bugs on these flowers? Why does the teacher say to be careful with them? Do I have crayons these colors? Why does this leaf feel fuzzy, while the other doesn’t? Why are flowers colorful, when the trees and bushes aren’t? What will happen if I pick one?” Etc., etc…

To see, touch, and smell a variety of flowers in an outdoor classroom is to unlock a treasure chest of inquiry, to raise questions and theories, and to invite stories and drawings. Isn’t this exciting engagement with the beauty and complexity of nature an excellent grounding that will help place Augmented Reality into a proper context?

When the boundaries between AR and RR (real reality) are clear, the true benefits of each can be appreciated. And this is exactly why outdoor classrooms become even more critical to a child’s development as our societal engagement with virtual worlds deepens. With the scaffolding of experience that a wise adult can add to a child’s explorations in nature, the ideal foundation for further learning results. Children with rich grounding in nature will differentiate between the virtual and the real. They’ll know the limits of what can be learned about the real through the virtual. They’ll also, I suspect, be better prepared to reap the true benefits of Augmented Reality.

How Do Children Learn in Nature Explore Classrooms? Let us Count the Ways…

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

This is the second in a series of “Roots in Research” blog posts, in which we summarize key findings of research conducted by Nature Explore staff and our colleagues at other institutions.

468_128An increasing body of research has documented the powerful role of play in children’s development and the importance of getting children outdoors. Our researchers have discovered that Nature Explore Classrooms encourage children, families and educators to connect with nature in meaningful ways and to play authentically; this play, in turn, yields rich learning opportunities.

In short, for young children, play is learning and intentionally designed outdoor spaces provide powerful contexts for growth and development. Peek into a dynamic Nature Explore Classroom and you will see:

Social skills blossoming. As children work together to build a bridge with tree cookies and wooden beams, they intuitively learn to work in harmony and partnership with their peers. Creative play fuels natural cooperation, and celebrations of mutual accomplishments cement newfound friendships.

Intrapersonal skill developing. Observers of Nature Explore Classrooms noted countless opportunities for children to develop intrapersonal skills including initiations, expressing preferences, problem solving and critical thinking. These powerful skills fuel traditional learning throughout the school years.

Language and literacy skills flourishing among children of all ages. It’s butterfly day in a Nature Explore Classroom. After days of careful observation of a Monarch chrysalis, the children watch in real time as she breaks free and stretches her wings for the first time. As they gasp with delight, they also experiment with rich vocabulary (transformation, reveal, milkweed) and clamor to share their words with their peers and teachers. Later, the children sketch the butterfly and annotate their sketches with descriptive language. Such an activity is but one example of how the natural world fosters an appreciation of language and the development of literacy skills.

Profound development of kinesthetic skills. Climbing. Crawling. Leaping. Planting seedlings. Lifting and rolling heavy logs to build a fort. Nature Explore Classrooms are alive with opportunities for both gross and fine motor development.

Visual-Spatial learning happening around every corner. A great deal of our earliest research focused on the powerful development of visual-spatial skills that occurs in Nature Explore Classrooms. When children work with blocks and related materials, they practice construction skills, convey their knowledge about structures and systems, share emotions, make visual analogies, and develop important social and verbal skills. Happily, natural building materials—from rocks to cicada shells to giant fern fronds—are free and accessible to even the youngest architects. When it comes to finding unique materials for block play, the natural world will never disappoint.

The genesis of science learning. The connection between science learning and Nature Explore Classrooms is both obvious and profound. Time outdoors allows children to connect with seasons and cycles, closely observe plants and animals, and delight in tending their own gardens and orchards. Paired with thoughtful conversations and educator-led activities, this time in nature provides a hands-on introduction to science concepts.

The beginnings of math knowledge. Both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Association for the Education of Young Children call for young children to learn in realistic contexts and to study the world in which they live. In Nature Explore Classrooms, children develop key math concepts as they interact with the environment, each other, teachers and materials. Natural and living materials unique to outdoor classrooms contribute to math learning, and daily opportunities outdoors allow children to use their whole bodies and physically experience math concepts.

Source: Young Children’s Authentic Play in a Nature Explore Classroom Supports Foundational Learning: A Single Case Study (2013) by Miller, D.L., Tichota, K. & White, J.

Water Conservation in Your Nature Explore Classroom

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By Heather Fox, Nature Explore program Director of Communications and Outreach

Water PlayIn most regions, the long days of summer lend themselves to water play. While water is refreshing and fun, it is also a precious natural resource. So how do we balance our desire to conserve with the joy of learning with water in a Nature Explore Classroom?  Here are 5 tips to keep you splashing.

1) Consider the water cycle in your Nature Explore Classroom. There is no new water and every time we use it there is a chance it will be changed. I’ve heard children describe this by saying, “It is raining the same water dinosaurs once drank.”

2) Find a dual purpose for the water you use. For instance, if you want the children to cool down in a sprinkler, you can water your grass at the same time. Empty leftover water from snack into a planter bed, or drain water from your water table into a dry creek bed or flower garden. Have children help with this task and describe how water nourishes all living things.

3) Think about water quality. While water barrels have traditionally been used for collection, consider the water source. Sometimes run off from a roof is not safe for children. If this is the case, fill rain barrels with water from a faucet and allow children to dispense when needed.

4) Focus on physical properties. Watch how water displaces loose fill or mixes with clay or mud. Use clear containers whenever possible and see, feel, and touch the changes. Always be aware of local licensing or accreditation requirements regarding use and disposal.

5) Look for natural occurrences. Dance in the rain, shape the snow, and celebrate the sleet. Plant local vegetation and seize every opportunity to be in the natural elements with children. Have appropriate clothes on hand to take advantage of various weather conditions.

We know that hands-on experiences with water help children internalize the physical properties of the natural world. Try some of these tips or see the Learning with Nature Idea Book for more ideas on how to incorporate water into the daily lives of children.


Cultivate the Resiliency in Every Child

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

DSC00358Resilience. Means of developing resilience have been studied for decades. Some believe that children need to be taught to be resilient; others that children are born with an innate capacity for resilience. Which is it? Do adults, having learned how to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges have the skill-set to teach resiliency to children? Or are children innately resilient? Is the best way to elicit this skill development more a matter of finding the best environments? Is it a bit of both?

During my recent visit to the Nature Explore Classrooms at Warren Village, in Denver, I saw “resiliency development” in action during simple play. In the last post we met children playing “owie” with a visiting adult. Using washable paint pens, they made owies on the woman’s hand. But then the “resiliency” part of the play emerged. The children comforted her, and fixed the owie with imaginary bandages. Nurturing and social skills are components of resiliency, and they were originating from within the children. No lessons needed.

Most of the children at the Warren Village Learning Center are emerging from homelessness. “At-risk” children have been a core sample for decades of academic study of resiliency. For children in this Nature Explore Classroom, the ability to develop resiliency is not just important, it is a survival skill.

And here the children were developing resiliency naturally, through play. Something innate seems to be going on. One might think that such at-risk children would face compromises to developing resiliency.

Then I remembered another child I’ve known at Warren Village. Mark was emerging from a spirit-crushing environment. His impulsivity and awkwardness ensured that his outdoor experiences on Warren Village’s original, traditional playground were punctuated by real owies. By expressing his feelings of helplessness physically, and through the violent example set by his father, Mark had been a danger to himself and his family. If any child should have had barriers to finding “innate resiliency,” Mark should have been a textbook example. And in the traditional playground, Mark was anything but resilient.

But then Warren Village built the first of its Nature Explore Classrooms. Suddenly Mark had new and interesting challenges that he could explore on his own terms. His dangerous clumsiness was tested when first jumping off rocks and swinging on an overhead wooden pole. He mastered swinging and jumping skills. Pam, his mother, said that the space became his castle, that he became Superman, and that the Nature Explore Classroom was his laboratory for growth. As he gained confidence in his developing motor control, his social skills improved through play. As play in nature helped Mark gain newfound mastery of motor and social skills, he rapidly moved from hitting his mother to helping her. Of course he had the skilled support of his teachers and therapists during this period, yet his mother still believed that without play in the outdoor classroom, Mark might not have become so resilient, social, and helpful. Something innate seems to be going on here, and nature (along with skilled teachers) seems to have contributed to its flowering.

Then I remembered another child who, like Mark, had responded to environmental challenges with anger and despair. Antonio’s mother was going through a bitter divorce. He had a very rough start at the Fourth Street Early Childhood Center preschool in East Los Angeles, California. Teacher Edith Figueroa told me that when first at the school Antonio would hit teachers. In their Nature Explore Classroom he stepped on bugs and tried to break plants. Edith cautiously introduced him to the garden. As he grudgingly planted seeds, he told her that they would never grow, because, “everything dies.”

Within days, upon seeing tomato plants beginning to lift above the soil, Antonio started to become their caretaker. He quickly grew to be protective of the plants.

Two months later Antonio’s mother came to the school’s office, crying tears of gratitude. Over those eight weeks Antonio had become caretaker of the plants at home, she said. He then became her caretaker, telling her that she could “go to the park” (the Nature Explore Classroom) with him when she was having a bad day. She asked if she could spend time there. They said yes. She did. After her time in the Nature Explore Classroom with Antonio, she said, “Now I know why my son never wants to leave.”

We may be tempted to theorize as to why the simple act of gardening, paired with the attention of caring adults, contributed to such a rapid and powerful change in this young boy. Maybe his seeing the actual beginnings of the plant growth contradicted a deep-seated fantasy that nothing good can happen. Maybe he simply felt responsibility for having brought about this new life through planting the seeds; a new feeling for him.  Maybe he was desperate for a new beginning within himself that the seedlings represented. Maybe if he could care for these plants he could show caring for his mother, fixing her sadness. What we do know is that Antonio felt the natural space to be calming and healing for him, and thought that it could be so for his mother.

Behind all the maybes is a simple fact that held true for both Antonio and Mark. Nature provided a healing environment for two boys who had been out of control. Nature didn’t judge, or try to correct. Nature didn’t express an attitude towards them that they could use as a sign of rejection. Nature didn’t try to soothe them with promises that they would feel better.

Nature was simply there for them. Materials in their Nature Explore Classrooms gave them a wide variety of options for self-exploration through play, on their own terms, under the care of knowing adults. Maybe, on some elemental level, given the right environment, children innately know how to heal themselves, how to self-develop resiliency. Seemingly against all odds, these two boys certainly discovered resiliency within themselves.

Mark and Antonio are vivid examples of children who had seen themselves as helpless to change their difficult environments. Anger and hopelessness were rational responses while they lived in environments chaotic beyond their control. In Nature Explore Classrooms they learned to be in control. Their transformations in self-image, from hopelessness to helpfulness, allow different futures for themselves and their families. The toddlers playing “owie” in Warren Village’s infant/toddler outdoor classroom are on the same journey. Their travel is more gradual, but it is also a journey toward a more resilient present and future; towards their best selves.

Whether resiliency skill-building happens in simple group play, or starts in a very dark place for the individual child, the examples described here suggest an innate strength that, for these children, were found and developed during experiences in nature. For Antonio and Mark, whose caretaking behaviors transferred from school to the home environment, their transformative self-discoveries were life-changing. Their new, resilient behaviors rippled throughout their environments, enveloping others in the transformations.

How we see children determines how we are when we’re with them. If we see young children as needing us to teach them skills in resiliency, we will treat them certain ways. If we see that children have innate strengths that flower in the right environments, we can facilitate their journeys.

Nature + natural materials + freedom of self-directed play and exploration + caring adults = physical/intellectual/ spiritual growth; and, yes, resiliency.  Naturally.


Healing “Owies” at Warren Village

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

The other day I had the pleasure of visiting the Nature Explore Classrooms at the Warren Village Learning Center in Denver, Colorado, for the first time in almost a year.  Separated by the main walkway to the school are two distinct spaces, one for infants and toddlers, the other for older preschoolers.  Both were bustling with activity.

Warren Village provides temporary housing for families emerging from homelessness.  Most of its residents are families headed by women.  Some of these families are escaping domestic violence, and all have faced severe hardships.

Two years ago, the Warren Village Learning Center had a traditional playground.  One, large, state-of-the-art, multi-functioned climbing structure, securely footed in earth that was hidden below inches of safety flooring, was the site of play.  By current normative preschool standards, this was a good space for children, and Warren Village was fortunate to have it.

Yet numbers and images on the climbing structure’s surfaces, apparently there for educational use, were irrelevant for the children.  Running, climbing and sliding were their basic options.  Children who had endured emotional bruising (and sometimes physical, as well), when outdoors with only this climbing structure, ended up in highly physical play.  The environment simply promoted gross motor skills development to the exclusion of other kinds of learning or play.

Warren Village’s caring teachers interacted playfully with the children, but also had to be observant for situations requiring intervention.  Redirecting behavior, and soothing bruised feelings were among the limited options for teachers on that playground.  Highly physical play, often reflecting emotional bruising in children’s backgrounds, was the option for children.  The healing that did happen on that playground was through the teacher’s skills during interventions.

Back then, who could have imagined a nature-filled outdoor classroom?  Warren Village’s outdoor area was what playgrounds were, and are, across the country.

If you visited the Nature Explore Classrooms at Warren Village you might see occasional conflict.  But conflict is now rare compared to the level I saw on the old playground.  Most importantly, what little you might see can be addressed with a variety of healing responses, as opposed to the very limited options for intervention available on the traditional playground.  Learning and healing are always available in these Nature Explore Classrooms.  “Time outs” can be timed out; permanently.

Here, where children have a variety of play areas and an abundance of materials, they learn that they have freedom of choice, both in activities, and in the ways they can respond to issues originating in their pasts.  In both Nature Explore Classrooms, the children of Warren Village have new options for healing and growing.  One heartfelt exchange in the infant/toddler outdoor classroom was a charming illustration.

Toddlers were using washable paint markers to make dots, squiggles and designs on their see-through Art Panel. A woman in our visitor group sat on the opposite side, watching them through the clear pane.  Children soon went around the panel to interact with her.  Some had markers in hand (and marks on their hands).  One child made a paint dot on the woman’s hand.  A slight flinch told the children that the mark was an “owie,” that needed care.  Imaginary bandages were retrieved from pockets and placed on the “wound.”  Healing was instant.  The woman received another playful owie.  Healing was again performed with love, care and laughter all around.  This play-acting continued for a few minutes with both the “ouch” and the caretaking increasing in drama.

What had started as the children’s ritual invitation into their world of play, placing a dot on the woman’s hand was transformed into multiple opportunities for the children to “heal the owies.”

For children who themselves have had limited power to control the emotional “owies” of their past, healing play owies in the present is a measure of control, and a means of defining one self as a “healer.”

Many children were involved in this play.  It’s most likely that some of them have suffered physical or emotional wounds that were beyond their control to avoid or heal.  Now they were in control.  They were the healers.

Transformative play such as this was unavailable on Warren Village’s former playground.  These children need and deserve the learning, healing, growth and transformations available daily in their Nature Explore Classrooms.

All children do.