#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!

Lions and Tigers and Squirrels, Oh My!

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant

498_075It’s been said that young children often know more about African wildlife than they do about the animals in their own neighborhood. Let’s assume that there is some truth to this statement. Lions and tigers are undeniably fascinating. The child who lives near a large zoo can see lions, tigers (and bears) in real life. Otherwise, they only exist for the child on a screen or in a book; in photos, videos or artwork.

The squirrel a child might see everyday is small and not as dramatic as the “king of the jungle.” Yet does this mean that the lowly squirrel can’t hold the same excitement for a young child as does the far away lion? And maybe even more?

I was recently told a story about a preschool located in a part of the country that’s renowned for its dramatic landscapes and wild areas. The children were studying rainforests, although they didn’t live in one. On the walls was artwork documenting their learning. A visiting consultant, at seeing the artwork, asked why the children were studying the rainforest when they lived in a rich environment they could study directly?

After considering her feedback and over time, the preschool became filled with artwork that reflected the children’s deep learning of the rich environment in which they lived and experienced every day, both at school and home. And because they now discovered, explored, played with, and documented natural materials directly, their experiential learning deepened, and became more relevant to their everyday lives. A meek little hamster, and the many projects it inspired, became more exciting and vital to the children’s intellectual development than the mightiest lion they could have found online.

A three year old will likely be more fascinated by a squirrel she can see directly, than by a zebra seen only in a book or video. By learning what squirrels eat and where they live, she can discover more about the plants and trees she sees everyday. By watching how they move their tails to signal other squirrels, a child can learn about communication and try to replicate squirrel behaviors she has seen. She can keep a daily squirrel count. She can engage in projects with those of her friends who are also interested in squirrels.

In an ideal educational environment the child’s learning would only be limited by her imagination. And in an environment that inspires imagination, that learning could lead her down many paths of inquiry. Nature Explore Classrooms beckon children into deep explorations of the fascinating environment that’s often taken for granted; the nature that surrounds them every day.

All this is not to say that children shouldn’t study African animals.  But consider what happens for children when a school has a Nature Explore Classroom. Immediate, three-dimensional wonders of nature can be discovered and explored daily. For a young child’s learning, a squirrel truly can be mightier than a lion. And a Nature Explore Classroom is all she needs for her first safari.

Indiana: The State of Outdoor Education

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant 

Trees Indiana - INMany who have experienced the profound whole-child learning that is the baseline activity in a Nature Explore Classroom would probably count the outdoors as an ideal learning environment. This is not to say that profound learning experiences aren’t available indoors. They are. Yet when you combine a child’s innate curiosity with a richly stocked and well-designed outdoor classroom; the freedom of movement in the space; the ability to choose between a range of compelling activities; I’m hard-pressed to think of an indoor space to match a Nature Explore Classroom for sustained whole-child learning. The great news is that the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC) has embraced the concept of outdoor learning, and is facilitating its spread throughout the state.

This initiative was sparked by Nature Explore presentations, delivered in Indiana during 2012. Inspired by what they heard, early childhood educators approached Dianna Wallace, the Executive Director of the state AEYC. Already a passionate advocate of connecting children with nature, Dianna listened to her membership when determining organizational priorities for AEYC action. In 2014 she began working with Nature Explore to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would initiate a broad three-year program of teacher training. Additionally, colleges and universities will be offered introductory presentations. And because licensing bodies have a large influence on early childhood programs, their staffs will be offered informational trainings about outdoor education.

Through these combined activities, Dianna intends to make outdoor education of young children a benchmark of quality for early childhood programs. Each year, for three years, a Nature Explore trainer will provide workshops and presentations at the statewide AEYC conference. These workshops will count towards Nature Explore Classroom certification. This is a great service for very small programs that would have difficulty funding an on-site visit. Workshops and presentations will also be offered over three years, at nine locations throughout the state. Dianna hopes that this broad-based model of disseminating information about outdoor classrooms will become a model for other states.

The Nature Explore design philosophy and pedagogy is derived from research into children’s learning in nature performed by the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. This ongoing research ensures that outdoor classroom design and pedagogy is informed by observed children’s experience, not by an adult-developed scheme. Nature Explore also maintains a continuing relationship with clients. The Nature Explore program’s depth and continuity of service, a hallmark of our operations, meshed well with Indiana AEYC’s organizational philosophy and practice.

And there’s one more aspect of our work that was important to Dianna. While it takes a village to raise a child, it often takes a community to raise a Nature Explore Classroom. The Nature Explore program believes that the local community has expertise and resources that can enhance an outdoor classroom by contributing a wide range of expertise and involvement.

Among the organizations, businesses and others that are now involved in the Indiana initiative in some way are: Cummins, Inc., Project Learning Tree, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Alliance for Community Trees (AC Trees), American Electric Power Foundation, local community and urban forestry coordinators, Trees Indiana, and more.

The Indiana AEYC/Nature Explore partnership has created a truly innovative and comprehensive means of bringing the best in children’s outdoor education to the state. By providing information to early childhood education programs of all sizes, to colleges and universities, and to state licensing personnel, Indiana AEYC and Nature Explore are fulfilling a shared mission to early childhood education.

#MyTree Contest Announcement: Enter by April 22!

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Everyone has a tree: A favorite reading spot, a secret hiding place, a branch to climb, a peach to pick—and we want to see yours. For the second year in a row, we are holding our #MyTree contest in honor of Arbor Day.

It’s simple to enter:

1) Take a photo of yourself and/or your child(ren) enjoying your tree;

2) Email entries to Lindseyk@natureexplore.org OR post the photo to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram (if entering via social media, be sure to use the hashtag #MyTree and tag our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account).

We’ll feature some of our favorite photo entries in the coming weeks, and one lucky winner will be selected to receive an assortment of natural products from the Nature Explore Resource Guide. Contest ends April 22, and a winner will be chosen randomly and announced on April 29 (Arbor Day).

Good luck—we can’t wait to see you and your tree!

Bringing Beautiful Music to Children

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

He could have had a stellar career as a materials and mechanical engineer. In fact, he has. But in addition to experimenting with automobile sound systems and developing aircraft parts, Chris Nissen did something else—something that has changed the lives of children across the country.

He made a drum.

While working on a project for Hyundai, Chris had access to high-end sound equipment. It inspired him to revisit an old drum-making project, now armed with the tools he needed to tune a drum properly. He took the finished prototype to his musician friend Erik and asked him to check it out.

“I remember it to this day,” Chris explained. “He hit it, and his eyes lit up and he looked at me and said, ‘Wow, that was cool. This is awesome.’”

It was 2003 and with that initial vote of confidence, SlapDrum® was off and running. That year Chris sold a couple drums, and then in 2004 he sold more than a dozen. By 2005, he had created and sold more than 100 drums and was catching the attention of professional musicians.

“I remember being out to lunch with a friend around that time, and I was crazy busy, working on engineering more than full time and also making drums, and I told my friend, ‘Oh my gosh, I sold more drums today.’ And he said, ‘Why does that sound like bad news?’”

That question was a reality check for Chris, and one that “changed the momentum” of his professional life. He realized that the drum business was fun—something to celebrate, not dread.

Perhaps somewhat coincidentally, it was around that time that SlapDrum® caught the eye of Nature Explore’s Jason Kelly, who reached out to Chris to propose a partnership. Jason thought Chris’ creations were perfect for children in Nature Explore Classrooms and Chris was immediately intrigued.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get drums in kids’ hands,’” he said. He loved sending orders to preschools and was particularly moved by the experience of working with a Nature Explore Classroom housed at a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Over time, Chris’ repertoire for Nature Explore has expanded to include the Discovery and Creativity Tables and the beloved Art Panel. He frequently receives photos of his products “in action,” and is reminded time and again how grateful he is that he and Jason initially connected.

As for his favorite thing to make? It’s still the drum.

The SlapDrum® begins with sheets of plywood and walnut trim. No nails and screws are used to connect the drums’ parts; this lends a unique integrity and robust sound to the finished products. In the final stage of production, Chris personally adjusts the sound of the snare. By doing so, he always knows that when a customer opens the drum and plays it for the first time, they’re hearing its optimal sound. That “first play” is one of Chris’ favorite things.

“The first time I see a person—whether it’s a little kid or a professional drummer—hit that drum and smile, I just love that,” Chris said. “It reminds me of the very first time that my friend Erik hit that drum and went, ‘Whoa.’”

The popularity of SlapDrum® has continued to grow, and today the company produces 600-700 units a year with a team of five and “a large friend network that makes it all come together.”

Although he sells to a broad range of customers, Chris is quick to note that he loves knowing that children in Nature Explore Classrooms enjoy the hands-on experience of playing slap drums and other musical instruments.

“It used to just be my kids that I’d think about, they were my focus,” he explained. “And then as my kids grew up, I still had an interest in kids and how they learn and play, and there is something about them that’s just so cool. It’s awesome to show them something that they’ve never seen before, like a drum. Watching kids play with something I created is beyond entertaining and rewarding.”

Fore more information on SlapDrum® and additional musical instruments, visit NatureExplore.org

Through the Lens

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer 
“It’s literally been a dream job. I get so excited every time I get to work with children in a Nature Explore Classroom.”

Taura Horn’s opening words speak volumes. For the last several years, Taura has been our go-to photographer, charged with authentically documenting children at play in Nature Explore Classrooms. It’s not easy work, but it’s rewarding.

Taking the perfect photo necessitates infinite patience, and an understanding of not only the art and science of photography, but also the subtleties of interacting with children. And, of course, it requires a stone-cold set of photography skills.

Photography is in Taura’s genes. Her mother, Susan Horn, is a fine art photographer who shot medium and large format images of women and children when Taura was growing up, and was, for years, the photography professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Growing up, Taura was always surrounded by her mother’s work, and was often a subject in her mother’s photos.

Taura HornAfter high school—where she shot for the school yearbook on her first Minolta—Taura received her bachelor of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. After she graduated, she assisted wedding and commercial photographers in the city before moving back to Lincoln, Neb. and launching Taura Horn Photography in 2007. Over the years, she has done it all. She’s photographed children with the Easter Bunny and Santa at the mall, taken pictures of families at baseball games, run a mini lab, carried heavy lighting equipment and even modeled, until nine years ago when she turned her concentration to running her studio. She also creates her own artwork, which she shows regularly in local galleries.

Which brings us to Nature Explore, where Taura’s years of experience working with children really shine. She loves taking time to watch children interact with each other and with the toys and instruments in outdoor classrooms, and has noted that often children find entirely new uses for the materials and “loose parts” that surround them.

“I attended a Nature Explore teacher training, and we talked about the ways in which kids interact with toys, and how there’s no wrong way, and it’s our job to encourage them to experiment. That’s very different than how we tend to think as adults. Kids don’t have boundaries or rules; the world’s open to them.”

She added, “I really love the challenges of photographing children. I can’t tell them to smile, because it won’t look natural. Instead, I get to have fun with them. I get to be excited about everything that we’re doing and it works, because I generally am pretty excited about what we’re doing! Whether we’re looking at a tomato, stacking blocks, climbing through a log… I get to play with them and it feels real to me. When I leave these sessions I feel good. It’s really fulfilling, it makes my day.”

It’s SPRING … Awaken Your Outdoor Classroom!

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By Kara Ficke, Nature Explore Resource Development Manager CPSI  

Contributor: Kelsey Moline, Nature Explore Classroom Designer

girl at winged chimeThis past summer, Kelsey Moline and I wrote a blog, giving tips to spruce up the outdoor classroom for the start of the school year.  Well, as many of us are exiting the winter months and entering spring, the snow is melting, the sun is peeking through winter’s grey sky, and the glow of fresh grass is starting to sprout from the ground.  I love spring for many reasons, but mostly, I love the energy it seems to create – including that wonderful can-do attitude.  So…let’s GET OUTSIDE, take a deep breath, welcome the sun and check off your maintenance and replenishment to-do list.

First things first: quickly assess your outdoor classroom and jot down the areas that will need attention.  This will help as you plan work days.  Also, we recommend partnering with local civic and youth groups, as well as families to check these items off the list.  Get your community involved to support children’s connection with nature – remember… it takes a village!

Nourishing and Encouraging Plant Growth

*Planting and Replanting – Spring is a great time to plant a variety of things! Adding child-sized bushes, tall-growing grasses and plant clusters to the outdoor classroom will not only beautify the space, but will help define play areas, create areas for children to “hide” (but of course still be visible), attract butterfly and interesting insects, and add a tremendous amount of color, texture and smell to a space.

*Gardening – Do you have a copy of Gardening with Young Children?  No matter if you are an experienced gardener or new to gardening, this resource is a practical guide to the rich learning gardening provides.  A goal I might suggest, is adding a gardening component to your outdoor space, if you haven’t already.  In need of planter beds and supplies? No worries! You can find them here.

*Mulching – Mulching has many benefits and a 2” depth around plants can support the health of your vegetation.

*Watering – Involve children in the daily task of watering during the school week.  As you prepare for summer, start thinking about a summer watering schedule.  If your school is not in session over the summer months, be sure to work with your families, staff, or your community to come up with a watering schedule to maintain your plantings.

*Weeding – Sometimes weeding seems endless, but a little here and there will make a big difference. Be sure to maintain a 2” mulch depth around plantings to detour those pesky weeds.

Care of Wooden Furnishings

*Inspection – Make sure all bolts are tight and that natural cracking is not resulting in splintering. If splintering is present, sand the item smooth.

*Sanding and Sealing – At least once a year, all wooden furnishings like tables, planter boxes, storage units and art panels need to be sanded and sealed with a wood protector or water sealant that is appropriate for your particular climate.  In some regions, you may find it is necessary to apply sealant twice a year.  If you have not yet sealed your wooden furnishings – we’d suggest you do so.  April showers bring May flowers!

*Replacement – Consistent care of wood items will extend their life; however, over time, natural wood products will eventually need to be replaced. If the item appears unrepairable, it may be time to recycle and replace.

*Level Furnishings – The ground often settles throughout the year and your Nature Art Tables, Discovery Tables, etc. may be a little off balance. Make sure all tables are standing on a flat and level surface.


*Safety Surfacing – Check that the depth of safety surfacing around any climbing features is adequate and meets fall zone safety recommendations. *Refer to S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and ASTM International F1292 guidelines for safety standards and recommendations

*Concrete Footings – Over time, concrete footings may become exposed. Cover the exposed footings with soil, mulch or Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF).

*Hardware – Inspect outdoor furnishings to make sure all hardware is tight and secure. Screws and bolts should be countersunk, or installed so they don’t expose more than two threads beyond the end of the nut.

Pathways and Flooring

*Resurfacing – Any “loose fill” surfacing such as mulch, EWF, or crushed stone may need to be raked or replenished, as materials compact.

Loose Parts

*Inventory – Take inventory of the natural play items and loose parts used in each area of the outdoor classroom. Over the course of the school year and during the winter months, some items may have disappeared or others may now appear to be “well-loved.” Make a list of items that need to be replaced.

*Replenishment – Replenishment of loose parts may be necessary. Assess your inventory list and order items as needed. For a variety of field-tested loose parts, visit our Natural Products page. Your local forester, arborist, Tree City USA or Keep America Beautiful (KAB) affiliate may be able to help replenish natural materials such as pinecones, wood chips, or logs at a low cost.

Boys watering flowersIf you have not yet added Keeping it Growing: Sustaining Your Outdoor Classroom to your references, we would highly recommend it.  The sustainability indicators outlined in this book will keep your outdoor classroom thriving and your hard work supported. How has your site worked with families and community members to help maintain your outdoor classroom? Comment below to share with our growing network!

Wisdom’s Symmetry

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant 

Nativity, once in the main of light,

Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,

Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

 From Sonnet 60

William Shakespeare

Roy jumps from a small rock in his Nature Explore Classroom.  Landing, his body thrusts forward. He shouts with joy as he rolls onto the soft green grass. He returns to the rock, rejoining the line of jumpers.

Nate jumps next, arms outstretched for balance. His knees flex as he lands. He recovers from the slight squat without falling, and calls out to his teacher. “Miss Hall, look what I can do.”

Roy jumps again and again. With practice, he will reach his goal of jumping without falling. He wants to develop skills that will also command recognition from his teacher and peers.

Environments in the Nature Explore Classroom that support the development of body awareness and gross motor skills, the jumping off points from rocks, the gentle grade of the hill for running up and rolling down, the log for balance walking, the many textures and grades underfoot, far surpass in number and fascination those found indoors. Mankind has yet to improve on nature in providing the most effective environment for whole-child learning, and Nature Explore Classroom designs simply arrange nature into presentations that communicate intuitively to children.

The innate wisdom of the body, the voice that says “move, touch, smell, listen, observe, discover—all at once,” is often muted or silenced in children by adults who have long since forgotten the urgency of that voice within themselves. This wisdom is difficult to fully access indoors, which is where we adults increasingly live, and where we expect children to do most of their early learning.

All the child’s senses, and practice in gently challenging environments, are needed for achieving her potentials in motor skills, and much else. And this need for multisensory challenges does not end when she first walks through the door of school.

That many children with attention deficit disorders thrive while in Nature Explore Classrooms is just one example of the body’s wisdom finding expression. That these children often have difficulty focusing and “sitting still” in the indoor classroom is an example of the body’s wisdom denied.

We remember Mark, accident prone, and aggressive, living a legacy bequeathed him by his violent father—until he started playing in a Nature Explore Classroom. His body’s wisdom, finally unleashed, brought him to rocks for jumping and branches for swinging. Impulsivity diminished as Mark quickly mastered his body, as did his daily “accidents.” And he journeyed from hitting to helping. The body’s wisdom, when nurtured in an environment that gives strength to its voice, informs the whole child, as Mark’s did in saving him.

We adults no longer need to develop the foundational body awareness and motor skills that Roy works on through play and that helped heal Mark. Having lost the need for our bodies to communicate to us as Roy’s does to him, some of us might wonder why he chooses to jump over and over, seemingly without purpose.  The young child’s body, through its innate wisdom, knows that awareness both of its position in space, and of the many factors involved in jumping, can only be learned and refined through repetitive practice. It knows that jumping is very important.

Soon Roy will learn to better use his arms for balance, just how far forward he can lean before jumping, and precisely how high to jump if he wants to land without falling. In a few years his throwing arm will learn to hurl a baseball with great accuracy.  Roy’s innate body wisdom knows that through these forms of play, the motor skills he hones to precision will generalize throughout his physical life for years to come. But for now, this learning simply feels and looks like play.

In just a few short years, Roy’s motor skills will have refined to the point where repetitive play is no longer as important as it is now. Pure play will move to the background, as other forms of learning gain importance. Lessons replace play. Consciously goal-directed, repetitious movements will lead him into “playing” guitar. But this is not the free, instinctive play of his early childhood.

Adults who act “like children” are often labeled as “childish,” rather than as being “playful.” Our culture of adulthood allows few socially acceptable outlets for the play of our childhood. Those of us who can truly surrender to the child within us, and to the children with us, can find play if we follow their lead as they respond to their inner wisdom. Dance is another acceptable form of adult play.

The woman, living alone by choice at ninety-two, teetering slightly as she walks without assistance, has outlasted all but a few of her peers. She has a rich supply of younger friends.

Each morning she performs her stretching exercises before getting out of bed. As soon as her feet touch the floor, they carry her to the living room. She places a Tony Bennett CD into the player. As she looks out the glass doors, over her balcony, to the woods, stream, ducks and tall grasses six floors below, and to Boston in the distance, she dances.

She’s loved to dance all her life. During the war, when dance partners were scarce, she danced with boyfriends when they could get leave. Later, she danced with her husband, and with friends at parties. Her husband, the parties, and the dance partners are long since gone.

Now she dances alone.

Although she has travelled the world many times, she is still a small-town girl at heart. She grew up in a rural neighborhood, two doors down from a dairy farm. Her huge back yard bordered on forestland. Lifelong skills in sports were nurtured from having followed her body’s wisdom outdoors when playing as a young child. Her living room is now her outdoor classroom.

She is wise in many ways, but a certain wisdom lost to many of her lifetime friends was either never lost in her, or was rekindled over time. Motor skills once learned through those years of outdoor childhood play must now be practiced to prevent their unlearning.

The body’s wisdom speaks.

To Roy, it says, “Jump!”

Hers says, “Dance!”

Well-Deserved Recognition for Our Friends at the Forest Service

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant 

Chief's AwardA prestigious award within a profession involves people who know the field recognizing the best of the best. Most heartwarming of such awards are those given for public service. And the awards that touch us most deeply are those in which the recipients, who have worked hard for a cause, are nominated anonymously by someone not directly involved in the effort, someone who has been moved by the good works of the people around them.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), with over 35,000 employees, is an agency of the Department of Agriculture. Managing our national forests and grasslands, forestry research, and firefighting, are only a few of its many services, most of which are invisible to the general public. With a total fiscal year 2015 budget authority for over $5.3 billion, the USFS’s mission is, “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” To be singled out for an award in such a large organization is an honor. When it is a “Chief’s Award,” presented by Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, this is a very high honor.

Two Nature Explore Classrooms serve at-risk urban communities in Denver, Colorado: Warren Village, and the Hope Center. Both were made possible by the generous support of USFS Region 2, the Rocky Mountain Region.  These two outdoor classrooms are among the many projects and services either staffed or supported by Region 2.

Anyone who has been around the Forest Service employees associated with the Nature Explore Classroom projects has witnessed the enthusiasm they hold for the mission of engaging children with nature. For the Warren Village ribbon cutting ceremony, Mary Wagner, Associate Chief of the Forest Service, traveled from Washington, DC. She delivered an impassioned speech on the importance of nature for preschoolers.  Following the ceremony she walked directly to activity areas and engaged with the children.

At the Warren Village ceremony was Ms. Gerie Grimes, President/CEO of Denver’s Hope Center, which provides a myriad of educational and other services to children and families. She loved what she saw, and immediately knew that a Nature Explore Classroom would be valuable for the children she has served for almost 35 years at the Hope Center. The Forest Service team soon ensured that her wish came true.

Susan Alden Weingardt, Regional Partnerships Liaison; and Rick Cooksey, Director, State and Private Forestry and Tribal Relations; attended the Hope Center’s Nature Explore Classroom opening. Their enthusiasm for the project and their enjoyment of the children present was palpable. After the ceremony we saw Susan deeply engaged in animated play with children on the classroom’s hill. She later told us how moved she had been by the experience.

Being with children in Nature Explore Classrooms itself is profoundly rewarding to many of you reading this. We also know that the experiences of joy, transformation and connection we feel in this “work” are both deeply personal, and not often understood by the other busy adults around us. So when a team at a governmental agency as large and diverse as the US Forest Service becomes involved with outdoor classroom projects, it’s not a given that the busy people around them will catch the enthusiasm felt by the prime movers. Yet anyone who saw Susan and Rick at the Hope Center’s Nature Explore Classroom opening would know that their enthusiasm couldn’t be contained, and would spill over to others “back at the office.” It did. And someone there was inspired to nominate this project for the highest of national awards of its kind.

Last December, the team from Region 2, along with many collaborators in these Nature Explore Classroom projects, travelled to Washington, DC to receive the “Engaging Urban America” award. Presented by Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, the award recognizes Forest Service individuals, work units, partnerships, or groups that have demonstrated major achievements in promoting conservation education, community “greening” efforts, management of urban forests and youth opportunities to volunteer in urban forestry activities in their neighborhoods. During the ceremony, Chief Tidwell stated that this was a coveted award, and highly competitive.

Following is a list of the many people and organizations that made possible the Nature Explore Classrooms in Denver, at Warren Village and the Hope Center.

Team Lead: Susan Alden Weingardt, Regional Office, Region 2

Team Members: Bob Broscheid, Colorado Parks and Wildlife; Carie Cagnina, Warren Village; Dana Coelho, USFS Regional Office, Region 2; Rick Cooksey, USFS Regional Office, Region 2; Brett Dabb, Warren Village; Gerie Grimes, Hope Center; Sharon Knight, Warren Village; Dan Lambe, President Arbor Day Foundation; Mike Lester, Colorado State Forestry; Julie Rose, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation; John Rosenow, Founder Arbor Day Foundation; Jim Wike, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation