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.

A Simple Idea That Could Transform Your School, Too

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Grace School Recess CoachesWhat self-respecting eleven year old would spend valuable time during a school lunch hour playing outdoors with kindergartners?  After all, a six-year age gap during this period of life seems generational on both sides.  And lunch hour is valuable time to spend with friends.  The younger children probably want the status involved in spending time with older students.  But what’s in it for the fifth graders?

A lot, if you’re a Recess Coach in the Nature Explore Classroom at the Grace Lower School, in Houston, Texas.  Coach Lily McClanahan says, “Being a Recess Coach and mentoring the younger students makes you realize how much they look up to you.”  Coach Julia Marshall, “Recess coaching impacted my life because when I came I was just a stranger to the kids on the playgrounds and the blacktop.  But when I left I had developed a life lasting bond between many children I did not know.”  And Coach Mason McIntosh says, “Recess Coach shows responsibility and how younger students can look at us.  We also learn from them.  They teach us how we should treat others, too.”

Older Grace students may be inducted into the school’s Leadership Council.  Its members have functions throughout the school.  Most popular of the positions within the Council is that of Recess Coach.  This is a serious position of responsibility for which each student receives training.  Conflict resolution, drawing reticent children into activities, and outdoor classroom pedagogy are among the subjects Coaches learn as preparation for their position.

Leigh Anne Shumate, Head of the Lower School, says, “All the students really love the Nature Explore Classroom, but when they have older students to play with they just really become engaged.  It has definitely reduced any disciplinary concerns… It allows our teachers to supervise play and to engage students instructionally, versus spending time supervising behavior.”

And Recess Coaches are right in there with the teachers in promoting learning in “The Outdoor Space at Grace.”  As with any effective teacher-student relationship, the learning goes both ways.  The younger children learn how to try out their ideas, and the Recess Coaches gain invaluable leadership and relationship skills.

 The older children are taught to enhance the kindergartners learning by encouraging them to experiment.  Participating side by side in activities with their mentees, Coaches ask questions such as, “What would happen if you tried this?  What about trying that?  How did you come up with that idea?”  Exploring different ways of approaching an activity, imagining the consequences of different approaches, and encouraging learners to be aware of their own creative processes.  These means of honoring the younger child’s learning are touchstones of effective educational mentoring.

Five or six Recess Coaches are in the outdoor classroom daily.  They are easily identified by their larger size, and by their hats.  Each mentor wears a hat with ‘Recess Coach’ in bold lettering, surrounded by other custom decorations.  In addition to playing with and mentoring the younger children, they set up and take down those natural materials that live in storage when not in use.

Relationships between Coaches and the kindergartners deepen beyond the boundaries of the Nature Explore Classroom, affecting the school at large.  More grade levels have been added because the program has proved so successful.

Now its benefits are available to most of the school’s students.  Mentors and mentees have lunch together, learn together outdoors, and attend each other’s graduation.  On a more personal level, some of the relationships have extended to play dates between older and younger children.

If the name Grace School seems familiar, it’s because we learned about the school’s other Nature Explore Classroom from Jil Jaeger, in a previous blog post.  Yes, the school has two outdoor classrooms.  The Grace Primary School’s “Outdoor Learning Center” was profiled last year.  The Recess Coach mentoring program takes place in the Lower School’s “Outdoor Space at Grace.”  We believe that such an innovative use of the outdoor classroom richly deserves the special attention of a separate post.  We also hope that it seeds similar programs in other Nature Explore Classrooms that have as wide an age spread in their children.

The Grace Lower School’s outdoor classroom has been transformational for all involved.  Leigh Anne captures its influence beautifully.  “What we started with Recess Coaches in The Outdoor Space at Grace has really transferred into other parts of our instructional day.  Those relationships in the community, and the sense of belonging that our students experience, has all been because of the Nature Explore classroom.”

Nature Explore Classrooms: How Effective Are They… Really?

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

This is the first 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.

Nature Explore Outdoor ClassroomA team of researchers in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently set out to discover if outdoor classrooms—in particular those certified by Nature Explore and the Outdoor Classroom Project—are experiencing their intended positive learning, behavioral, health and development outcomes.

By conducting interviews and analyzing data from 11 research sites, the researchers compiled overarching themes shared by people affiliated with successful outdoor classrooms.

Being Outdoors in Natural Settings

The strongest theme that emerged centered on the importance of being outdoors in a natural setting, as opposed to being in an indoor classroom or on a traditional playground. Children in outdoor natural settings were more relaxed, happier, less impulsive, more focused, more creative, and better behaved during time spent outdoors.

Beyond behavioral benefits, nature-based classrooms allowed children to connect personally with natural cycles. They could closely observe the life cycles of plants and animals, notice the changing of seasons, and interact with natural materials as play props.

“Respondents mentioned the importance of seeing wood decay, leaves turn to humus, and seeds begin to grow. Children understood how the outdoor classroom changed from season to season and year to year.”

Finally, time in nature-based outdoor classrooms often sparked interest in learning that continued once children and their teacher(s) moved indoors. Plants and animals fascinate children, and teachers were able to capitalize on that interest to stimulate further inquiry.

Performance of Designed Spaces

As anyone who has spent time in a busy outdoor classroom might expect, the most popular areas cited were sand play, climb and crawl, messy materials and water play areas. The more materials available and the more variety of small, child-scaled settings available, the more the interviewees perceived their outdoor classroom to be successful. Noted the authors:

“A common thread running through the interviews was that outdoor classrooms provided more interest than traditional play spaces simply because they were embedded in natural settings. Nature provided far more play props and open-ended play opportunities than sites with fixed equipment set in large areas of safety surfacing.”

Maintenance and Sustainability

One of the most frequent questions asked during Nature Explore’s outdoor classroom design process is, “Is this sustainable?” Indeed, the researchers found that study participants frequently linked maintenance challenges with the sustainability of their outdoor classrooms.

Ironically, those activities and props that tend to be most popular—sticks, pinecones, branches, tree cookies and other “loose parts”—also require the most attention and replenishment. Natural structures age more quickly than artificial play structures. Plants must be weeded, watered and pruned. While children may help with some of these tasks, ultimately they require additional commitment from staff or volunteers.

Formal Recognition

392_223Classrooms that spend the time and energy to develop spaces aligned with the principles outlined by Nature Explore or the Outdoor Classroom Project appreciate the credibility and value lent by a formal certification process. Both programs offer such a designation, based on ongoing training, updates to the classrooms, and evidence-based design guidelines. Teachers noted that these distinctions help them communicate the value of outdoor classrooms and also help support outreach and advocacy to donors and community members.

What does this mean for YOU and YOUR Nature Explore Classroom?

The researchers highlighted commonalities among the most successful outdoor classrooms. Take their suggestions and run with them in your own outdoor classroom:

1) Offer maximum choice to children regarding where to play, what to play with, and with whom to play. Plenty of natural materials resulted in the most open-ended play and the least competition for resources.

2) Feature many small spaces: Nooks, crannies and hidey-holes emerged as the most important and beloved areas of outdoor classrooms. They support children’s need for autonomy, quiet time and solitary play.

3) Feature well-defined pathways and borders, which afford experiences for children with mobility challenges as well as overall clear spatial organization of the site.

4) Remain flexible! A classroom’s needs change over time. Those outdoor classrooms that were designed for growth and change flourished. These flexible spaces also tend to respond best to natural changes.

5) Offer opportunities for engagement from stakeholders including children, educators, parents, community members, donors and neighbors.


Source: A Post-Occupancy Study of Nature-Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Settings Author(s): Samuel F. Dennis, Jr., Alexandra Wells and Candace Bishop
Source: Children, Youth and Environments, Vol. 24, No. 2, Greening Early Childhood Education (2014), pp. 35-52.

Why Mud?

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

As we prepare for this year’s International Mud Day, let us be reminded of the years past. Many of us can remember the squish between our fingers and the deep earthy smell. We recall the sound of mud when thrown with force against a fence or the slime it creates when too much water is involved. For some of us these are distant memories, but for others they are vivid recollections from June 29th (Mud Day) last year.

Why celebrate a day dedicated to something so common?  This is what a few children have to say.

Mud is Universal: The original International Mud Day was created in 2009 to connect children from across the globe. The more we know about the things we have in common and share with people everywhere, the more likely we are to understand and care about each other.

“When I was around five I experienced Mud Day for the first time with some confusion. Mud—why would you play in that sticky, brown, wormy substance? But under the murky appearance there is much more. It is a bonder, a connecter, something to talk about.”

–Ivy, age 10, a repeat participant in yearly Mud Day celebrations

Mud is Timeless: Mud can be played with over and over and never wear out. Our ancestors likely played with the same mud our children play with. Experiences with mud can help children develop a sense of being connected with themselves, with others, and with the natural world.

“Mud changed me.”

–Kyla, a jubilant 6 year old having been timid and clean moments before

Mud is Surprising:  When you invite messiness into learning, it increases the complexity and opportunities for children to solve problems and figure out how the world works. The longer and more often you play with it, the more delighted you are with what you discover and create. Leading scientists are even studying dirt. One recent discovery is that in addition to some harmful bacteria, there is also beneficial bacteria that may boost our immune systems.

“It’s great to come to school and do something unexpected.”

–Levi, an Australian grade school child, when asked what he liked about Mud Day

Join these children and more in celebration of mud. It promises to be a day filled with surprises, connections, and fun! What to do? Here are a few ideas from past celebrations.

*Mud Painting:

Use mud instead of paint. Needed are easels, cups of mud, sponges and/or brushes.

*Huge Field of Mud:

Go for it!

*Mud Face Painting:

Apply with Q-tips from cups of mud. Be sure to have hand mirrors handy so children can see the results, or guide the painter.

*Barefoot Walk:

Using roll paper, lay a long sheet on the ground. Mud Walkers dip their feet in mud (made in a tub or some other similar container), and walk the walk.

*Mud Splatter Painting:

Throw small mud-balls at paper hung on a wall, or throw mud-balls in the air to land on paper lying on the ground.

*Mud Texture Table:

Spread mud on a tabletop and make designs as in finger painting.


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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant

455_025Fine motor skill levels in children entering kindergarten are in decline, relative to what they were a decade ago.  This issue has been reported worldwide.  Concerns include infants not being able to play with blocks, and kindergartners not being able to hold writing tools or use scissors.  No comprehensive research seems to have been conducted to explore the extent, degree, or wider implications of the problem, yet usage of electronic devices is the most often cited causal factor.  Adding urgency to the issue are solid research findings tying fine motor skills in kindergarten to later achievement in reading and math.

Children’s failure to develop fine motor skills along timelines normative just a few years ago suggests an increasingly widespread, preventable developmental delay.  A solution to this problem available to us in the Nature Explore family is our outdoor classrooms.

Children, including many infants and toddlers, enjoy using touch screen devices.  Any response to the fine motor skills issue that suggests removing these devices from preschooler’s lives is unrealistic, and bound to fail.  For one thing, kids love them.  And for another thing, many parents and some teachers do, too.  Children can and do learn from apps.  The issue is not that touch screen apps are never beneficial for learning.  The problem is that an overreliance on apps leaves out a specific kind of learning that was once commonplace, and that is always necessary.  A realistic solution to the problem is balance, not total restriction. Nature, especially in the form presented to children by Nature Explore Classrooms, is just that balance.

Profoundly important elements of early childhood learning are integral to Nature Explore Classrooms, yet missing when the child uses touch screen devices.  The first is the social aspect of play, and the second is playing with a variety of objects in the real, three-dimensional world.

Children using touch screen apps, educational or otherwise, might draw parental involvement. But rewards for correct responses, in the form of cartoon characters, sounds and vocal praise, are built into the app, rendering the adult unnecessary once the program is learned.  The social element of this play is gone.  And by definition, experience with touch screens is two-dimensional.

Play in your Nature Explore Classroom is not only social, but deeply social.  Many of you have told us that play became different when your venue transitioned from a traditional playground to a Nature Explore Classroom.  You’ve said that play becomes less competitive, that bullying goes way down or disappears, that children work on projects creatively in groups or that they simply explore nature together.  Recognizing and nurturing the social play in your Nature Explore Classroom is a means of restoring balance to a child’s life that is lost during isolative play with apps.

And then there are the materials.  Three-dimensional, rough, smooth, large, small, sticky, hard, soft, fragrant (or not), heavy, light, wet, dry, long, short, jagged, breakable, unbreakable, growing, decaying, too large to move, just large enough to move with the help of friends, high enough to jump from, strong enough to swing from, etc., etc., etc.  When enough objects are collected during play in an app, magical powers or rewards might be given out.  When a toddler handles small objects in her Nature Explore Classroom, she is rewarded by increased fine motor control.

Each time a child picks up a stone her fingers move uniquely to conform to its shape, and to exert enough gripping pressure to accommodate its weight.  The complex feedback going to an infant/toddler’s brain is different for each piece of natural material she handles because no two are alike.  The more she plays, the greater the variety of materials she handles, and the more she develops true fine motor skills.  This can only happen in 3-D.

392_021The social feedback she receives from teachers and peers also varies during play.  A friend might want to explore materials in the way she does, or differently.  A teacher might give her praise, encouragement, a pat or a hug, or play with her.

Lights and sounds that are considered to be reinforcing feedback in touch screen apps pale in comparison.  The friend, who may be a playmate for years, may be remembered throughout life.  The feedback from one of the many touch screen apps that pass through a child’s life will probably be forgotten.  This element of companionship during learning in the Nature Explore Classroom, the social context of learning fine motor skills, is hugely important in balancing the isolative nature of play with computers.

Here are just a few of the countless ways that we can encourage eager development of fine motor skills in our Nature Explore Classrooms.

*Make available a wide variety of age appropriate natural materials for children to explore, depict or use in artwork, build with, handle, think and learn about.

*Stock your Nature Art Table with small natural materials such as shells, stones, twigs, pinecones, and materials found in your surrounding area, along with modeling clay, scissors, paper, coloring pens, pencils, paints, etc.

*Irregularly shaped blocks encourage experimentation with construction, and mini-bricks encourage fine muscle development in small hands. Your well-stocked Building area will support fine motor skill development.

*Be sure to play with all these materials yourself. Especially if you begin exploring materials alone in an area, curious minds will want to see what you are doing, and maybe help or imitate.

*A construction using mini-bricks, secretly made before the children enter the Nature Explore Classroom will also draw curiosity.

*When a toddler reaches a milestone in developing fine motor control, whether it’s the first mini-brick tower, a mark from a writing tool held in a fist, a worm held carefully in the fingertips—your “FANTASTIC!” expressed with a smile, and accompanied by a pat or hug, reinforces that success in ways a computer voice with unchanging words and inflection simply can’t.

We’ll never be able to remove touch screen apps from young children’s lives.  Nor should we.  Some can be very helpful—just not for developing fine motor skills. The easiest path to children’s development of motor skills lies in nature. Provide children with a rich natural environment and they will organically learn these skills through play.

Express your fascination with their achievements.

Play with them.

You’re likely already doing this.

Great job!

Our Roots are in Research: A Brief History of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

Contributor: Christine Kiewra, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Education and Outreach Liaison

treeWe like to think of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation as a wise old oak tree with deep roots in research that feed the whole organization and inform the work of those in our broad network.

At Dimensions we are serious about children’s learning. We understand the value of quality care and education during the early years and recognize that it is through close observation of children that we learn and grow as educators. We take this research seriously so that children don’t have to; we want their days and yours to be playful and joyous.

In 1996, Dimensions Education Programs initiated a research project in collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that investigated visual-spatial learning in preschool and elementary-aged children. The research also explored teacher interventions that might address children’s behaviors in light of the rise in diagnoses of attention deficit disorders and other similar behavioral challenges. Soon, researchers began identifying a positive link between time spent outdoors in nature-filled settings and children’s calmer, more focused behavior. Researchers also identified links between natural outdoor learning and children’s increased skill development in all areas.

As the project received more funding, its scope grew and in 1998 a team of researchers and educators formed the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Research was conducted collaboratively with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as Dimensions Education Programs faculty attended education programs at UNL and worked with professionals from diverse specialties such as architecture, music, mathematics and kinesthesiology. This early collaboration led to the formation of an expanded multi-disciplinary team that included the addition of professionals such as neuropsychologists, landscape architects, professors of early childhood special education, teacher-educators and both qualitative and quantitative researchers.

The research then grew to include collaborations with other colleges and universities. The cornerstone of all of Dimensions Foundation work is the use of a rigorous research methodology that is based on close observation of children over time. As research began pointing more to the comprehensive benefits children received from spending time learning in and with nature, the focus of the research steered more singularly in that direction.

Soon thereafter, the Foundation began partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation and the national Nature Explore program was launched as an initiative of both Dimensions Foundation and Arbor Day. Our original Dimensions research work remains grounded in close observation of children. Our model relies on the expertise of teachers who are trained in early childhood development and qualitative research—individuals who know children well and are reflective practitioners striving to create opportunities to learn and grow themselves along with the children and families they serve.

Current major research initiatives include a multi-year study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, to assess the effectiveness of Certified Nature Explore Classrooms and Outdoor Classroom Project sites. This research is an expanded version of a pilot study conducted by Dr. Sam Dennis and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin’s Environmental Design Laboratory. An advisory board for this study includes researchers from Yale University and the University of Illinois and from organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service and the National Head Start office.

DSC_0019In the coming weeks, we will be rolling out an eight-part blog series synthesizing our research for use by classrooms around the world. It is our sincere hope that this distillation of our roots of research will inform your teaching and ignite ideas for your Nature Explore Classrooms. In our work we use qualitative research methods implemented by well-trained teachers who are life-long learners themselves. These educators, like you, are thirsty for information they can use to inform their craft. Over the years, they have practiced the cycle of teaching, reflecting, and documenting. This is used to inform daily practice in our own Dimensions Education Program in Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as our other research sites and Nature Explore.

We hope you join this journey. We invite you to learn with us and use our research to branch out in your own practice. In other words, we welcome you as part of our family tree.

Child-Led Discovery in Action: The Origins of the Nature Art Table

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer 

Thirty miles southwest of Houston, a father and son turn Western red cedar into creations that inspire and delight children across the country.

In their Cedar Creek Woodshop, Don Rohde and his son Alex build the child-sized Natural Picnic Tables, Nature Art Tables and Wooden Discovery Tables that are featured in the Nature Explore Resource Guide and are well-loved in outdoor classrooms from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.

The “patriarch” of Cedar Creek, Don launched his woodworking career years ago. At first, he worked out of his garage, and then moved to increasingly spacious shops until ending up in his current 5,000-square-foot location. Along the way, he was contacted by the Nature Explore program and asked to build a few tables. It seemed like an open and shut order until Don was hospitalized before he could wrap things up; his parents and son stepped in to make sure the first batch of products were produced on time.

Alex Cedar Creek 1Not long after, Don drafted Alex to consistently help in the woodshop. While studying advertising and communications at the University of Houston, Alex squeezed in woodworking between classes. The duo’s work for Nature Explore started with a handful of orders each month, but soon grew to a half dozen orders per day. They’ve hired additional part time employees in order to stay caught up on projects.

And, only somewhat unexpectedly, Alex is now a full partner in the business. How was it that Alex decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as a woodworker?

“He made me,” Alex joked.

When asked what it’s like to work together as father and son, Don did not hesitate to proclaim that he loves every minute of it, even if it has a few ups and downs.

“It’s a great experience,” Alex added, “even if we butt heads sometimes. Most of the time, I’m right.”

Don confessed that due to the shop’s busyness, he’s no longer able to pay close attention to where all of their Nature Explore products end up. But, he appreciates that children benefit from his products, and when he randomly passes a school, he always wonders if it’s home to one of his tables.


Long before the Nature Art Table was produced at Cedar Creek Woodshop, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation was hard at work researching the benefits outdoor spaces had for children.

The origins of the Nature Art Table tell the remarkable story of child-led learning and our commitment to incorporating research and children’s ideas into everything we do.

In the beginning stages of research at Dimensions Education Programs, staff were involved in a program through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln called Arts are Basic. As part of that relationship, Dimensions Education Program’s art specialist had an opportunity to bring an exhibition of Native American celebration and festival artwork to the preschool. This included regalia, costumes, and photos.

Enthusiasm around that exhibit led to a school-wide study on texture. As part of the investigation of texture, a group of children started taking walks and collecting things based on their observations of texture. They’d come back to the school and evaluate and cull their findings, asking themselves, ‘What am I going to keep? What am I adding to my permanent collection, and what shall I put back where I found it?’ Amazingly, on those walks, the children began to be able to identify landmarks by texture. The teachers realized that nature was providing a lot of the textures that the children were able to pick up and take with them.

In that same time period, Dimensions’ research partner, landscape architect Kathlyn Hatch, introduced teachers to the work of Andy Goldsworthy. The teachers were inspired by his philosophy: create using only what nature provides and that there is a cyclical process of creation that is “the true work” of art. The students’ collections started to turn into sculptures and with the help of their teachers, the children began thinking of their collections as the bits and pieces of creating art.

Interestingly, since the early education programs offered by Dimensions were housed in a church, the children had access to giant pieces of slate. These slabs of slate provided each child with their own canvass. As the teachers observed and reflected on what was happening, they felt that these slate staging areas were an important aspect of learning and that with their excitement, the children were letting them know the value of this work.

That experience translated into the design and creation of the Nature Art Table. The table, textural itself and made in part with slate-like tile, offers space for reflecting, collecting and creating three-dimensional sculptures.

392_183“We looked at the educational aspects and learning outcomes of this project,” said Tina Reeble, Nature Explore Resource Development Director and one of the original educators involved with the Arts are Basic collaboration. “We wanted to design an individual work space that also allowed children to work side by side. There were many prototypes field tested with children, in order to continually improve the product’s design and function. Once we knew what we wanted in terms of the Nature Art Table, we searched for the right builders who would appreciate the unique attributes we wanted to provide to children, and that’s when we started working with Cedar Creek Woodshop.”

She added, “We didn’t start by saying, ‘Hey let’s design a table.’ Rather, the table evolved from a child led discovery process of learning, and educators asking, ‘What can we learn from this and how can we support other children in other settings?’”


Would you like to include the Nature Art Table in your outdoor space? Learn more here.

Behind the Scenes: Developing New Offerings for the Nature Explore Resource Guide

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By Kara Ficke, Nature Explore Resource Development Manager, CPSI   Amanda Kelly, Dimensions Education Programs Educator

Nature Explore is a collaborative program of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation.  Under the Dimensions Foundation umbrella we have several arms – Nature Explore, Dimensions Education Programs, and Dimensions Research.

We say it all the time in our articles, publications, blogs, etc. – the work of the Nature Explore program is grounded in “research” and “field-testing.” But what does that actually mean when it comes to the products offered in the Nature Explore Resource Guide?

Let’s go behind the scenes a bit and talk about the process of deciding what products make their way into the printed Nature Explore Resource Guide.  We will discuss the challenges, surprises, joy, and learning….all of which make field-testing so important and why we stand behind the value of each product we offer.

The research. EVERYTHING we do is grounded in years and years of research and the benefits nature and outdoor classrooms have on children, educators, families, and community. The Learning With Nature Idea Book, written by Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, outlines the Ten Guiding Principles for an effective outdoor classroom environment. To ensure maximum effectiveness, the outdoor classroom must include a rich mix of activity areas that support children’s interests and creativity. In other words, there is something for everyone in a Nature Explore Classroom.  Within each area, having a variety of furnishings and loose parts enhances the learning possibilities. This is where the Natural Products section of the Resource Guide comes into play.

What is field-testing? Under the Dimensions Foundation umbrella, we have our Education Programs which includes full-time infant/toddler, preschool, and school age programs throughout the year. Our professional teaching staff act as co-researchers, continually documenting the profound learning that takes place in the outdoor classroom. When we introduce new products into field-testing, it is real life teachers and children who are “testing” them in the “field” of the outdoor classroom. Pretty cool, huh?! We look at the quality of the product, durability in the outdoor classroom, the learning that product is helping support, and honestly…if the children and educators love it!  From the educator perspective teachers have to consider where the item will be stored and how much maintenance it may need. Ideally a product will need little or no maintenance and will not be damaged if accidently left outside in the elements. Can a product be safely used alone by children or does it need constant teacher supervision? Teachers have to be ready for anything at any moment so they need to feel safe with children handling a product on their own if there is a need to help someone in another area of the outdoor classroom.

Documenting and communication are key throughout the field testing process. Once a product is introduced, teachers document how children use the product, how it supports learning, and also any concerns that may arise.  Documentation is done using photos, videos, audio recordings, and good old hand written notes.

Field-testing always comes with surprises. The BEST is when we introduce a product thinking children will interact and behave with it in one way – but find they teach us a thing or two! Or, in this particular case, co-author Amanda Kelly used her expertise to create a surprising experience..

Amanda’s documentation involved the Creativity Table and was sent using photos and written notes.  On this particular day it had been raining, so rain droplets had pooled on the clear surface of the table.

Four children were using rain water to paint directly on the Creativity Table with watercolors. One child on each side.  Mac walks up to table and tells me “I want to paint too.” 

I told Mac, “It looks like all of the spaces are being used right now.  You could ask one of them to tell you when they’re done.” 

Mac, begins to crawl under the table and look up through the glass, “There is more room down here.”

I responded, “You did find a space. What does it look like from under there?”

Mac said, “It looks like all the colors are in the sky.” By crawling under the table he now had the sky as a background.  “Someone should paint a dinosaur, then it would look like a dinosaur is flying.”

Lilly who is one of the painters said, “I can do it.”  She begins to paint a dinosaur for Mac who is now watching the others paint from a different perspective. “There,” she announces, “is it flying, Mac?”

Mac laughs, “Ah! Watch out, there is a dinosaur flying in the sky!”  The children all laugh and pretend to scream in fear.  They take turns seeing what it looks like from under the table.

We gather product ideas from a variety of sources, including educators telling us what they feel would work well in the outdoor classroom, the children themselves, and sometimes it is just a gut feeling.  Not all products we field-test make the “cut,” at least not during the first go around.  Many products are designed by the Nature Explore program and go through several prototypes before we hone in on a final product design.  Sometimes this process takes years. We may love a product but then find out the materials used, or the way it was constructed, just does not hold up to the demands of preschoolers or varying weather conditions.

Nature Explore products are produced by people who truly care about connecting children to nature.  Request a copy of the April 2016 Resource Guide today to view all the great products Nature Explore has to offer, including a variety of new products being introduced.

Have a product idea we should consider field-testing? Email Kara at karaf@natureexplore.org!


#MyTree Winner Announced

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Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

–Hermann Hesse

9196_1264196446929041_1446303232999637240_nIf we have gleaned one truism from the #MyTree entries we received this year, it’s that trees are, indeed, sanctuaries. They protect us from the elements and from the hustle and bustle of daily life. They nurture our creativity and our empathy. They are playmates, old friends, resting spots and scenic vistas. Trees truly can be all things to all people; in their ancient wisdom, they seem to somehow know what each of us needs to feel whole, to feel loved.

Our Nature Explore team has enjoyed receiving and reviewing all of your #MyTree photo entries. As with last year’s debut contest, we each made passionate cases for our favorites all while bemoaning the difficulty of choosing just one winner. Here are a few of the photos that “spoke to us.”

And the 2016 #MyTree winner is…

We couldn’t help but smile when we saw the pure joy on these children’s faces. Congratulations to Alicia Weithers, winner of a Nature Explore Resource Guide gift certificate. And, thanks to all of you who participated in our second annual #MyTree contest! You brightened our days with your stunning photos. Until next year…

Top 5 FREE Resources to Promote Nature Play

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By Kelsey Moline, Nature Explore Classroom Designer 

What do you remember most fondly about growing up? Chances are, your memory includes playing outdoors. Unfortunately, many children in today’s world don’t have that opportunity. Whether you are a parent, educator, or an advocate of outdoor play and learning experiences for children—we encourage you to take the next steps to connect children with nature. This list is for you!

Nature Explore Resource Guide
NE_RGApril2016_FNLIf you haven’t already requested your complimentary Nature Explore Resource Guide, you can get one here. This full-color guide highlights outdoor classroom design services and workshops for educators who support learning with nature.  You will also find beautiful outdoor furnishings and natural products to enhance children’s learning and play. Contact us if you would like to request multiple copies for conferences, college courses, events, or to distribute to your decision-making committee.

World Forum Foundation Environmental Action Kit

EAKAre you looking for activities and resources to engage children outdoors, or for ways to inspire children’s love for the earth?  The World Forum Foundation’s new Connection Center offers access to a variety of resources including the Environmental Action Kit. This Action Kit has been made possible through the support of many committed organizations and funders, all working in partnership with the World Forum Foundation. It features activities geared for ages 3-8 that focus on a variety of stewardship-related themes. Each activity follows a similar format and includes a field-tested, science-based, hands-on activity, tips for educators, an action step, a celebration, and a list of resources that can help you find other fun ways to support the topic. Sign up today for free access to this resource and many more.


Nature Explore Families’ Club Kit

Families Club KitFind nature-filled, developmentally appropriate interactive activities to use with students, families or clubs. This resource also includes forms and tips to help you organize your own local Nature Explore Families’ Club. A facilitator’s guide with helpful hints on organization is included, as well as notes specific to each activity. You can download the entire Families’ Club Kit or order a low-cost, pre-printed package so you have everything at your fingertips and ready to go.


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide

Schoolyard Habitat Project GuideThe Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide was developed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in partnership with teachers, students, administrators and community members from across the country. The Schoolyard Habitat Program helps teachers and students create wildlife habitat at their own schools, including areas of wetlands, meadows, forests and variations based on specific ecoregions. The how-to guide includes everything from planning, installing and sustaining the habitat project. From establishing your team, to creating a planting plan, calculating quantities of soil and mulch, and acquiring resources, this guide can help enrich the process of planning and implementing an outdoor classroom.


Nature Explore Community Connection

Community ConnectionIf you haven’t already, we invite you to explore the rest of Community Connection, which is a great link to more inspiring blog posts, funding resources, and volunteer information. Specifically, funding resources includes a complimentary fully customizable grant template, developed to assist you in fundraising for a Nature Explore Classroom. Also offered is a list of organizations who have financially contributed to outdoor classrooms in the past. Many of these organizations offer grants that may be available to your program. Finally, read tips for submitting a funding request, written by a grant writing professional.


Do you have additional resources that our growing community might find valuable?  Let us know in the comments below!