GET A GRIP!

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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.

455_025The 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.

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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!

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