Teaming Up For Children in Nature

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

CFT 3Flavia Nazario admits to not having been much of a nature person when her program, Care 4 Tots Learning Center in Killeen, Texas, was about to get a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  The first time she saw the designs for the space she thought they were “a little crazy.”  She and her teachers were accustomed to traditional playground equipment, and were nervous about exactly how to add nature to their children’s day.

Kim Robinson is a nature person.  “I’m a country girl from North Carolina,” she says.  Retired after over thirty years as an early childhood teacher, she had wanted to spend time with her grandchildren, and to garden.  For a few years she’d been providing home care for children, but she still wanted to stay away from teaching.  Then came the call.

CFT 2Flavia knew that she needed outside assistance.  Kim agreed to help her get started.  What happened next can easily be predicted.
Nature person meets Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom concept, gets excited by the possibilities, sees the project into realization, sees how the children embrace the space, gets hooked.  Flavia and Kim are now a team, and their children have a charming outdoor classroom in the most unlikely location.

But let’s back up a bit.  Flavia had been receiving Workforce Solutions of Central Texas consultation services to prepare for regional and national accreditations.  As a condition for participating in this service, her program was required to get a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  This requirement pushed Flavia outside her comfort zone.  But her dedication to quality care was far more important than her initial anxiety.  Now, high quality service to children is as evident outside as it is inside.

The exterior of the Care 4 Tots Learning Center’s building would never suggest the rich child-friendly environment inside.  Located in a light industrial area, it looks like a warehouse itself.  It’s a metal building that is distinguished only by the Care 4 Tots sign, and a few decorations on the outside.  Directly behind its outdoor classroom are rows of metal shed storage units.  Based on its exterior, Flavia’s childcare center fits right in.

Inside is a different story.  Flavia collaborated with the “Inspiring Spaces” consulting service, which assists in developing aesthetic and meaningful interior spaces in schools and childcare settings.  Her classrooms are rich with materials, and beautiful in design.  And her outdoor classroom follows suit.

Before the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom could be built, 25 metric tons of pea gravel had to find a new home, the chain link fence needed some decorating, and the traditional play structures needed to be removed.  After the space had been prepared, the outdoor classroom was built with help from a variety of sources.  Soldiers from nearby Fort Hood assisted in assembling some of the equipment.  A child’s grandmother did protective wood staining.  A father built the sandbox.

Yet, at first, both the children and the teachers had been so accustomed to the traditional playground equipment they were unsure how to use the outdoor classroom.  Kim tells us how Flavia and her staff transitioned into true outdoor educators: “The journey of the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom was not an easy one.  Along with Flavia, the teachers were not quite sure on how to use our new outdoor classroom.  They attended several Nature Explore workshops, and also started doing research, finding new things to do in the outdoors.  This approach opened up new avenues, allowing teachers to establish great lesson plans, full of indoor and outdoor activities! Needless to say, our teachers are now more than confident when using the Outdoor Classroom.

As directors we’re proud of our teachers in their accomplishment of increasing parental awareness, and of the high standards they continue to set!  Through all of our great triumphs, this journey is far from over. We continue to strive for greatness by improving our outdoor classroom, and by inspiring life-long learners and lovers of nature.”

CFT 5Children are now so engaged in activities they probably don’t even notice they’re just a few yards from a storage facility.  Exploring natural materials, performing plays, digging in sand, riding bikes, and making artwork are foreground activities as they learn about their background of nature.

 Now, planter box gardens, a nature art area, messy materials area, and the sand area are among the draws for the children’s interests and activities.  One of the first projects in the new outdoor classroom was planting collard greens in the planter boxes, and tending plants remains an ongoing activity.  When the children noticed some of the plants had died they asked teachers why this happened.  These observations and questions are a far cry from the purely physical play on their old playground.

Before the outdoor classroom was installed, indoor learning and outdoor activity were separate events.  Now, children observe, explore and question in both environments.  Projects or dramatic play that begins inside may move outside.  Questions asked outdoors may be answered by consulting books indoors.

CFTKim never needed convincing that nature held worlds of learning for children.  Flavia “got it” as soon as she saw the changes in her children once the outdoor classroom was in place.  She says the children are calmer outside now, and injuries are way down. Flavia now hopes to add more natural elements to her nearby infant/toddler play area.

Flavia, Kim and their teachers have developed an oasis of outdoor learning in a most unusual neighborhood.  Just yards from rows of metal storage sheds, children water and tend to rows of plants.

Nature has the power to transform more than children.  Ask Flavia.  She knows.

Click here to read more from Flavia and Kim’s perspective.

A Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom in Support of Our Military Families

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

Education ConnectionFort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, houses over 45,000 assigned soldiers, and employs almost 9,000 civilians.  With its grounds spanning 214,000 acres it is one of the worlds’ largest military installations.

Our military has one of the highest rates of special needs children, and Fort Hood has no preschool for this population on the base.  Many of these children are brought off the base to Education Connection in Killeen, a comprehensive program offering a variety of educational and therapeutic services.  Eighty percent of their students have special needs, with the diagnoses including autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, microcephaly and attention disorders.  Fortunately for everyone involved, Education Connection has a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

My interview with Tracy Hanson, the school’s founder/owner, and Nicki Luther, its Director, was unlike any I’d had before.  They are working with a challenging and rewarding student population, are very responsive to the special needs of families, and often have to deal with Texas’s harsh climate. For all these reasons, the respite of free play children experience in Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is all the more dear to everyone concerned.

Education Connection’s outdoor classroom is new, yet it has already brought many benefits to children, their teachers, and the families. Although the original two climbing structures remain in the middle of the space, the children use them far less than before.  Art, digging and reading areas engage them, along with the stage.  When the outdoor classroom was first opened, “Not a single child was on the structures,” said Tracy.  Children simply found the new “activity centers” more interesting than climbing.  And while climbing will always be an option, the outdoor classroom holds new explorations.

“You can just see the stress levels are down…” said Tracy.  She notes that children sometimes protest when it’s time to go inside, because they’d rather stay outside.  “But to see that a child doesn’t want to come in makes me feel good,” she said.

As we’ve heard from many other venues, children with diagnosed attention disorders are calmer in the outdoor classroom than they were in the old playground.  Because the numbers of special needs children at Education Connection is high, this calming effect of nature is a welcome assist to the variety of therapies the school provides.

Many of the children attending the school require at least one specialized supportive therapy.  Typically, children are taken to various venues for their therapy sessions.  Nicki and Tracy understand that families are already under extraordinary pressures. This is why they make it a priority to provide the entire array of therapies needed by their students in the school or on the grounds, and during school hours. Speech, physical, occupational and behavioral therapies have been delivered by the time parents collect their children in the afternoon.

Nicki and Tracy are sensitive to the regimentation, intrinsic to the military, which often finds it way into the lives of their students.  Due to the soldier’s work schedule, some children are dropped off at the school as early as 5:30am.  Nicki says children must follow these schedules, and that time that is entirely their own is rare. She says time outdoors plays an important role in their lives.  This is the place where they can play freely, being themselves, forgetting their many other responsibilities. “To give them that time out there, to just play…that’s why we want it to be so much bigger and better, because we want to give them even more.  When they go home it’s homework…baths, dinner, and they’re in bed again.”

Education Connection is providing comprehensive services to children of families that are under extraordinary pressures.  From rigorous schedules, to prolonged absence of a parent, these children experience conditions that weigh heavily on their time and emotions.  Play in Education Connection’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is an integral part of the school day.  Learning, creativity and health are supported, along with much needed “free time.”  We look forward to working with Nicki and Tracy as the school expands, and learning from them how to best serve their complex and very rewarding student and family population.

How Posey Place Got its Name

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

DSCF0244The First Christian Church in Temple, Texas, didn’t have any free ground on which to build their Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  They did have some outdoor space; it just wasn’t soil, so “Posey Place,” the church preschool’s outdoor classroom, is built on a concrete surface between vivid red brick buildings.

Just because soil isn’t underfoot, this outdoor classroom doesn’t skimp on attracting children’s curiosity about nature.  Large planter boxes containing a variety of plants are placed around the area, as are many large plant pots.  Together they house plants in varying stages of growth.  All invite children’s investigations, and their caretaking skills.  Watering the plants in the hot Texas climate is a popular activity.  Also popular is the Discovery Table, with many natural materials available for exploration with magnifiers, or for use in construction or art projects.  A big tub with toys allows children to refresh themselves with water in the heat, and to learn about its properties.  Natural wood at-ease benches and arbors also contribute to the “nature feel” of this small, intimate space.

DSCF0223c Rita Morrelli, the Children’s Ministry Director for the church spoke movingly of how Posey Place got its name.  When she shared with the church board the vision for the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, one family took a special interest in the idea.  Dr. Delma Posey, patriarch of the Posey family, a retired dermatologist, and widely respected member of the Temple community, was an avid gardener.  He believed nature should be available to children, and wanted to ensure this space would always have resources to keep it going.  Around this time, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.   He soon made arrangements for the outdoor classroom to receive $500 monthly for upkeep.

DSCF0288 When the outdoor classroom was constructed, Rita made a wooden “Posey Place” sign and installed it on the gateway entrance.  “Doctor Del” made one last trip to the church, seeing Posey Place, with the sign, shortly before he died.  Members of his family still attend the church weekly.  Doctor Del’s grandchildren see the space as one of his legacies.  Plants from his personal garden are among those that children now tend.

“That’s how we got the name Posey Place,” said Rita.  “He’s there.”

Oh Brothers, There Art Thou! The Outdoor Classroom Built by Church Brothers

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

DSCF0022cThe Kid Grace Learning Center, a program of Grace Temple Ministries, in Temple, Texas, was last to join the Workforce Solutions of Central Texas quality improvement program.  But Kid Grace was the first to finish building a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  Its secret?  The extraordinary work of the church Brothers, who comprise the Men of Integrity.

When the Men of Integrity of Grace Temple Ministries take an interest in a project- it gets done.  Brothers Brannon Sledge and Calvin McLean heard a talk by Nature Explore’s Tina Reeble, and they were excited by what they heard.  Nature-based learning was entirely new to them, and they embraced the outdoor classroom concept wholeheartedly.  Development of a Nature Explore outdoor classroom was a part of the Workforce Solutions’ consulting towards preparing childcare facilities for accreditation.  Kid’s Grace was in.

With funding support from the U.S. Forest Service and Workforce Solutions, funds raised from church members, and with work by the church Brothers, the outdoor classroom construction started. Church Bishop D. S. McBride, Brandon, and Calvin coordinated labor by the church Brothers, and the donated labor of M&M Construction, and Brown Construction.  When extra supplies were needed on short notice, church Brothers dug into their own pockets.  Church members and family also pitched in.  Clearly, this work was a mission for all involved.

To prepare the space, traditional play structures and pea gravel had to be removed.  During their removal children and families were told about the incoming outdoor classroom.  Of course, the children were understandably upset to see their familiar playground dismantled.  Brandon said the conversation at the time was, “They took away our playground!”

DSCF0062cThe outdoor classroom was built very quickly.  Parents and children became involved in plantings during the grand opening celebration, immediately drawing them into the spirit of the space.  The old playground structures were stored for later sale, and, at the time of our interview, were still visible to the children.  Yet as the children had grown to understand their new diversity of activities in the outdoor classroom, they forgot about the old play equipment.

DSCF0130The hot, dry environment of Central Texas posed both challenges and opportunities for the space.  Shade and water are important.  The Kid Grace outdoor classroom has a large water activity area, a covered building area, and shade trees are being planted.  The water area consists of a very popular pump, many floatables, and large tubs.  It sees a lot of activity.

The environment wasn’t the only challenge.  A few large trees reside at the periphery of the space, but new trees were planted to increase the shaded areas.  After some early failures in getting the plantings to thrive, The U.S. Forest Service in Austin provided invaluable information on resilient trees and their care, and offered to assist as the classroom evolved.

Various issues are also addressed through consultations with Nature Explore.  Paula Brown, Executive Director of the Learning Center, is very appreciative of this ongoing assistance.  “Everyone I talk to there is great.  They always get you what you need,” she says.

The fire ant problem is a good case in point.  Fire ants decided they liked the large sandbox.  These tiny critters are a nuisance for all children, and very dangerous for some.  The first attempt at extermination, by a commercial service, was unsuccessful.  Chemicals used were safe for children.  Unfortunately, after a few days, the sandbox was again safe for the fire ants.  Heather Fox at Nature Explore suggested trying vinegar.  Paula says that a gallon of white vinegar every other day does the trick.

And then there are the instant mushrooms.  After a period of rainy days, teachers noted mushrooms in many of the activity areas.  Not knowing what the mushrooms were, teachers were reluctant to let children into the area.  The problem, which at first seemed to require location and hand removal of each mushroom, turned out to solve itself.  The mushrooms disappeared quickly when the sun came out.

Difficulty getting new trees to thrive in a harsh environment, invading fire ants, instant mushrooms; you’d think these challenges would be taxing.  But not to Paula, Brandon, and the Brothers.  They see their Nature Explore Classroom as an ever-evolving project of service to the children.  They see that learning how to master environmental challenges gives staff more skills in enhancing a space that provides children so much joy and learning.

We see this attitude as an extension of the same energy that led Kid’s Grace Learning Center, the last in the Central Texas project, to be first completed.  Paula, Bishop McBride, Brandon, Calvin, Grace Temple’s Men of Integrity, and the childcare staff inspire us with the power of their faith, and their dedication to children’s learning in nature.

Something For Everyone in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

_DSCF0021 1Central Texas, in the area surrounding Fort Hood, has more Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom activity than you can shake a stick at, thanks to Workforce Solutions and Sherry Trebus. Childcare programs in the area are working towards state and national quality standards certifications.  Workforce Solutions mentors childcare programs during their preparation for the certification process, and has included design and workshop services from Nature Explore.

Sherry Trebus understands the profound whole-child learning benefits of play in nature.  She has required childcare programs mentored by Workforce Solutions to have quality outdoor play-spaces.  Over twenty programs have now received Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom designs, and this number is growing.  Many have been built and are heading towards certification.

In a series of blog posts, we’ll learn about Central Texas childcare programs that currently have Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms.  This post will feature one of the first programs involved in the project.

Jenny Schneider is the Executive Director of the Central Texas Children’s Center, located in Temple.  Her program serves seventy-five children, a quarter of whom have special needs.  Jenny has long prioritized quality certification for her program, which was an early recipient of the Texas Rising Star 4-star rating.  (The Central Texas Children’s Center has since achieved the industry-standard national quality certification from NAEYC, The National Association for the Education of Young Children.)  Recognized by Workforce Solutions for her commitment to quality care, Jenny was one of five initial Directors invited to its “Taking Charge of Change,” program.

The Central Texas Children’s Center’s outdoor classroom was built around a large, preexisting climbing structure, and a swing set.  These structures were a major investment, made possible by extensive fund-raising, so the school’s board of directors did not want it removed.  As with other venues, Nature Explore designs incorporated existing structures; in this case placing activity areas around the perimeter of the space.  Children now move easily between different activity areas of their outdoor classroom, and climb and swing when they like.

DSCF9973Jenny says, “I really can’t imagine not having those outside centers [NEOC activity areas] now because the kids spend so much time in them.”  Where in the old playground children only had basic options of climbing or swinging, they now have the many options for activity and learning presented by their outdoor classroom.

Now, children have more doors open for exploration, and more materials to manipulate, says Jenny.  She notes less conflict than before, and more time spent in active explorations.

Jenny is also attuned to the teachers’ experiences.  In the old playground, where the climbing structure and swings were the centers of attention, teachers related to the children largely through directives; telling children when their play was becoming either too risky, or too aggressive.  Behaviors on the structures required constant monitoring, and much of the teacher’s energy was directed to keeping the play safe.  Activities on these structures leave teachers little room for directly entering children’s play. Jenny says the teachers now enjoy very engaging relationships with the children, centered on explorations in the activity areas.

And there is less need for teachers to use directives with the children.  Before the outdoor classroom, a child having difficulty would have no place to calm down or to engage in alternative activities.  Climbing or swinging were the children’s main options, and these activities themselves can potentiate competition and conflict.  Now, teachers can simply ask the child to find something else he wants to do.  The rich variety of activity areas ensures that the child who needs redirection can always find an alternate activity.  This form of redirection, in which the child does not experience a “time out,” is a game changer for both teachers and children.  The teacher gets to see the child in a more positive context; needing a change in environment or activity, not time out.  The child gets to see himself not as a “problem” needing isolation from his classmates, but as sometimes needing a change of peers or activity to regain self-control.

Both teachers and students now engage in activities that interest them.  While a child might play in the digging area for a while, then switch to the music area, teachers are also free to connect this outdoor time to their own interests.  As long as the various zones in the outdoor classroom are covered, teachers can engage as they wish.  Some actively assist the children in tending to the plants.  Some prefer to be more stationary, assisting children in the activity areas.  For all, the outdoor classroom is a space where children and their caregivers develop new relationships with nature, and with each other.

Pictures Draw Families Deeper Into Nature

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

100_0443Corinne Carr, owner/operator of Special Blessing’s Child Care in Emporia, Kansas, likes taking pictures.  Photos on her website richly document the wide variety of environments and experiences she provides for the six children in her care.  In addition to drawing people to her website through photography, she has also used cameras creatively, to draw families together in nature.  And she’s even used film cameras.

Parental support of the young child’s learning in nature is crucial. Anything parents can do to support their children’s development makes Corinne’s work more effective.

One day Corinne gave a disposable film camera to each of the children’s families.  The assignment: take pictures at family events outdoors.

Families documented many outdoor activities with their cameras. The resulting photos were placed on a bulletin board.  Children now had a vivid presence of their families in natural settings, which sparked many discussions and activities.

Their families’ appreciation of spending time outdoors was reinforced.  And families felt even more connected to Special Blessing’s.  One family wasn’t able to participate, so photos from that child’s activities outside at Special Blessing’s were placed on the board.  No one was left behind, and everyone was happy.

With a very different usage of photography, Corinne brought a busy mother closer to her son, changing her understanding of him in the process.  This single mother, who was also a college student, lived with her two children in a small apartment.   During a pre-placement interview, she told Corinne that he was a “free spirit.”  Corinne knew that to many, those words meant “behaviorally difficult.”  But she sees behavior through a different lens, and decided to accept the challenge of working with this child.

Initially he was not able to settle down during early morning activities. Corrine later learned that two families, with a total of five children, lived in that small apartment.  As she imagined a chaotic household the boy endured each morning, the problems behind his behaviors became clearer.  So did their solution- a morning dose of nature.

Corinne flipped around the curriculum’s order of activities and provided this child time outdoors first thing each day.  He played with whatever attracted his curiosity.  After an hour of self-directed explorations he was ready for indoor activities, where he played normatively with the others.

But Corinne didn’t stop there.  During the child’s outdoor explorations she took photos, and texted them to his busy mother.  The sight of her “free spirit” eagerly enjoying outdoor play reoriented the mother’s understanding of her child.  She began bringing him to the local park on weekends.

The overused label of “difficult child,” which easily could have been applied to this boy and followed him through his early years of schooling, was completely avoided.  Thanks to Corinne’s understanding of the healing power of play in nature, and her creative use of photography, this boy and his mother have a new future.


#MyTree Contest Winner Announced

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We all—if we’re lucky—have a tree.

A flowering crabapple with branches the perfect height for climbing.

A silver maple that supports a much-loved rope swing.

A weeping willow that offers shade and a quiet spot for reflection.

In honor of Arbor Day, April 24, we asked for photos of YOUR tree(s) and Nature Explore’s inaugural #MyTree contest was born. We were eager to learn which natural beauties held meaning for our friends and colleagues, but we weren’t sure what to expect. Would people actually take pictures of trees? Would children embrace the spirit of this contest? And, how would geography play into the equation; would a resident of the Southwest substitute a photo of a saguaro cactus? (Alas, no.)

The images that flooded in were breathtaking in their joyfulness. One preschooler made snow angels in mulch. Others joined hands to hug a “Grandfather Tree.” Trees united generations and inspired dreamy exploration in all seasons.

Your photographs captured the deep connection between humans—especially children—and the natural world. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then it must be said: The #MyTree images comprise a beautiful novel of whimsy, playfulness, contemplation and love.

Congratulations to our winning photo, submitted by Pine Rock Farms. It is timeless, magical and hopeful—just like a tree.

MyTree Winner









Here are a few more of our favorites:

tree stump







Tree over river







tree lookout









Tree Hug







View the entire #MyTree gallery on Facebook!


Inspiring a Person Who Inspires Children

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

27265adf_0179_smallestFollowing the sale of her home health care business, Carol Cavell wanted to work with children.  Her sister in law, a teacher and environmental advocate, interested Carol in exploring ideas that involved connecting children to nature.  They began meeting with like-minded people for discussions about possibilities.  Around this time, Richard Louv’s seminal book, “Last Child In The Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” hit the childhood education community like a blast of fresh air.  The book gave Carol’s interest group a mission and focus, and Trees Indiana was born.  Soon after, Carol heard Julie Rose of the Nature Explore program speak at a professional conference.  What Carol learned from Nature Explore gave substance and credibility to the mission and focus that Trees Indiana was developing.

Nature Explore’s Ten Guiding Principles and Recommended Areas are the child-centered factors that differentiate an outdoor classroom from the other nature centers, or even from a simple walk in the woods.  Children inherently enjoy being outdoors, yet Nature Explore designs speak specifically to their interests and capabilities.  These outdoor classrooms say to the child, ‘This enchanting space is nature arranged just for you.’  Carol intuitively knew that Nature Explore’s design principles aligned with her goals.

“What was being disseminated about Nature Explore, the concept, was exactly what we were sitting in our group meetings talking about.  It’s like somebody else captured the ideas we had and the outcomes we want as far as educating kids and opening up nature to them, getting them away from a wired world 24 hours a day.  Everything we were talking about and Richard Louv talked about in his book is what I saw the Nature Explore program being.  I looked at it as the leader in creating a movement for connecting kids with nature.”  She knew Nature Explore had done the research her group simply couldn’t afford in either time or funding, and wanted to bring these ideas to Indiana’s children.

Trees Indiana currently provides projects and classes for children, and workshops for teachers, parents and community groups.  Much of its activity centers around the American Electric Power Foundation Nature Explore Classroom built at Cedar Canyon Elementary School in northwest Fort Wayne.  A generous grant from the Foundation provided most of the funding for the classroom’s design and construction.

Most of Cedar Canyon’s outdoor classroom is in a light forest; a very compelling placement for children.  Consistent with Trees Indiana’s educational mission, teachers, parents and caregivers receive a pedagogical orientation to the outdoor classroom before moving on to the activity areas in the forest.

Much of the orientation is based on Nature Explore’s workshops and literature.  Yet it’s the parents who need the orientation, not the children, says Carol.  “You may need to instruct the parents, but not the kids… The kids are taking off by themselves.”  And parents have told her they are amazed by their children’s level of excitement.

Parents and teachers have told Carol of witnessing touching transformations in the space.  One teacher spoke of an extremely shy student, standing to the side of the stage, watching five of her classmates dancing with scarves.  When she felt ready, she joined the group, playing enthusiastically.  The teacher had never seen this girl join group play before.

Some transformations are common.  Children who visit from Fort Wayne’s inner city areas are accustomed to concrete, not nature.  “They don’t get out of their zip code much,” says Carol.  Bugs and caterpillars are icky or a bit scary to many of these children; until they experience supported encounters with insects in the outdoor classroom.  Inner city children enter the classroom having comfort levels very different from those of their rural counterparts.  Carol notes that the rural kids simply take to the space, while she sees the inner-city kids “come out of their nature phobia.”  The classroom supports outdoor experiences for rural children, and transforms them for inner city children.

Although the outdoor classroom is on the grounds of Cedar Canyon Elementary School, it is open to the public.  Cedar Canyon is visited by many school groups, and by people from the neighborhood who walk through the grounds.  Local college students study in its relaxing environment, and have even performed a study there.  The Biology Club of Indiana Purdue University conducted a salamander research project in the space, and engaged a fourth grade class in observations and measurement.

We at Nature Explore like to think that our outdoor classroom designs, tailored to each client’s environment and needs, offer ideal learning environments as they connect children with nature.  The Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Hardwood Lumber Business Association seem to agree.  They presented Trees Indiana with an award for “Outstanding Outdoor Lab.”  Judges visited several outdoor learning areas in the state, and chose the Nature Explore Classroom at Cedar Canyon due to how it is used in children’s education.  Carol says, “They chose us because of the way education is delivered, and the great design.”

We are delighted to find such an intuitive match in Trees Indiana.  From its beginnings as a thoughtful group of citizens wanting to connect children with nature, to its current form of widely recognized educational resource, Trees Indiana has always resonated with Nature Explore’s mission.  We are honored that our designs and literature played a vital role in clarifying Carol’s work.  As Trees Indiana grows, Carol sees more Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms in its future.  We see a partnership that was just meant to be.

Deep in the (BIG) Heart of (Central) Texas!

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant


Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, is the free world’s largest military installation.  At 214,000 acres, with over 45,000 soldiers and almost 9,000 civilian employees, Ft. Hood is a vital presence in the geography and economy of the Killeen area.  What matters to Ft. Hood, matters to Killeen.  When a military quality of life study revealed a scarcity of accredited local childcare programs, Killeen took notice.  That finding landed at Workforce Solutions of Central Texas.  Fortunately for the children, Sherry Trebus was charged with doing something about it.

Workforce Solutions is a government agency that delivers programs and services to enhance employment in the area.  Its Child Care Services assists low-income families and works directly with childcare programs.  Sherry, a former teacher, is the Child Care Policy and Quality Assurance Manager.  The military’s identification of need and Obama stimulus funding merged on her desk.  Thanks to Sherry’s vision for children, Nature Explore has now designed almost 20 outdoor classrooms in Central Texas. And more are on the way.

Nature Explore is blessed to be working with Sherry.  Not all educators involved with outdoor classrooms truly “get” the deeper pedagogy of whole-child learning in nature.  Sherry does.  We visited childcare programs in Killeen and Temple, Texas, with her.  Wherever we went, Sherry sought out children in the outdoor classrooms, or they came to her.  The excited attention, and the absorbed expressions of the children around her, said it all.  Sherry is just the right person to have introduced Nature Explore to Central Texas.

The military had found that almost no childcare programs in the area were accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the national standard.  Workforce Solutions assists local programs to achieve a “Texas Rising Star” certification, a big step towards the national standards.  Sherry combined focus on nature with her Texas Rising Star activities.  Providers wanting assistance towards meeting Rising Star standards also had to incorporate a focus on nature- both indoors and out.  Sherry selected Nature Explore to design outdoor classrooms.  Inspiring Spaces, a nationwide consulting service, was selected to teach programs how to make nature and natural materials an integral part of every indoor classroom.

Sherry understands the many physical and educational benefits in children’s contacts with nature. She says, “I wanted to create Nature Explore Classrooms at childcare facilities because I knew it would positively affect children’s growth and learning in the short term, while producing long-range health and environmental benefits.”  She had studied the many health benefits to children from outdoor play, yet was also concerned about the benefits to teachers.  She describes outdoor time in a traditional playground as often “teeth-gritting” for teachers.  Repetitive and sometimes risky behaviors on playground equipment require constant monitoring.  Varied and self-directed explorations in outdoor classrooms invite constant engagement.  Sherry’s holistic understanding of nature-based education, that it happens both indoors and out, and that it benefits both adult and child, has taken root.

Sherry began by working with five local childcare facilities that had achieved a 4-Star rating in the Rising Star certifications.  Her “Taking Charge of Change” program leveraged the commitment to quality already demonstrated by this leadership team.  While working towards the NAEYC certifications, these programs were required to incorporate nature into their indoor and outdoor spaces.  Apparently good ideas spread like wildfire in Central Texas.  Within a few years, eighteen childcare programs had received Nature Explore designs for their outdoor spaces.  At the outset, even Sherry hadn’t predicted how widely her ideas would be adopted.

Jenny Schneider and Flavia Nazario are two among the many whose programs have been enriched through Sherry’s emphasis on nature.  Jenny, Director of the Central Texas Children’s Center, in Temple, says, “I can’t imagine not having the natural centers now.  They inspire different activities than the climbing structure.”  She has seen imagination and cooperative play greatly enhanced in her outdoor classroom.  These changes are especially important for her program, with its special needs population of 25%.

Flavia, Owner/Operator of the Care 4 Tots Learning Center in Harker Heights, knew that outdoor play was important for children.  Yet her outdoor experience, and that of the children in her program, had only involved traditional play structures.  When she saw the Nature Explore outdoor classroom design for her space she thought it “a little crazy.”  Now she’s very glad she trusted Sherry’s emphasis on outdoor learning.  Children in Flavia’s outdoor classroom don’t care that just beyond the bamboo fence is a complex of home-storage sheds- they’re too busy playing and learning in their nature oasis.

Through Sherry, programs have received consultations from Inspiring Spaces, design services and professional development from Nature Explore, and technical assistance from the US Forest Service.  Central Texas often has blisteringly hot, dry days.  Forest Service consultations inform the programs on the selection and care of shade trees, vitally important for children’s comfort on those days.  Sherry has drawn together complementary resources that truly enhance both children’s and teachers’ experiences with nature; indoors and out.

Comparing the playgrounds she found to the spaces she has inspired, Sherry said, “Outdoor Classrooms are more deep breathing.  You can have time to relax and enjoy the children.”  When we saw her engaging with children during our visits to outdoor classrooms we witnessed a natural educator, effortlessly practicing what she preaches.  She is an educator, facilitator, inspiration, and example of best practice to the growing number of programs taking advantage of her services. Due to these extraordinary qualities, and to her commitment to children, Sherry has been awarded The Arbor Day Foundation Rachel Carson Award. We are very proud to count Sherry Trebus as a truly inspiring member of our Nature Explore family.



A (Somewhat) Outside Perspective

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By Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist for the Nature Explore Program

Memphis 1 My role at the Nature Explore program is a little unorthodox. I’m not an educator; I wouldn’t know how to begin designing an outdoor classroom (or anything else); and I don’t have any business helping educators use their outdoor classroom. I don’t have children of my own. I was once a child, but that’s about all I have for background.

In some ways, this means that I haven’t fully experienced the scope of what we do for children. I hear about the wonderful transformations taking place across the country—but I don’t always understand the science behind them, or the nature of their long-lasting positive repercussions.

However, my lack of personal investment offers a unique perspective. In my role as a Communications Specialist, it’s my job to market Nature Explore to current and potential partners. At most companies, this would mean spending lots of advertising dollars on web banner ads, TV spots, print ads, and so forth. Here, it’s different. What we do speaks for itself. My job, then, is to help spread the word.

Through articles, social media posts, and blogs (such as this one), my goal is to strengthen our network of amazing partners by underscoring our shared goal of connecting children with nature. And my long-term goal is to completely change the conversation surrounding early education. This is a fascinating time to be involved with a program like Nature Explore; even five years ago, outdoor classrooms still seemed like a far-out concept that still hadn’t achieved a strong foothold in the mind of stakeholders at schools and other organizations.

Now, strangely enough, outdoor classrooms seem like the *only* right answer to how we educate our children. We’ve tried keeping children indoors and sitting still for years, and we’ve known for a long time that it doesn’t work. Through outdoor classrooms, children can connect with their surroundings and each other—and they apply what they learn to real-life situations they care about. Their work doesn’t feel like work, it feels like play. That’s why it works.

The transformational power of an outdoor classroom is obvious—even to someone who’s not a parent (or an educator, or a designer).