Nature Transforming Teachers and Children

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant   

4th street #1Josefina Navarro, Principal of the Fourth Street Early Childhood Center in East Los Angeles, California, and her wonderful staff, oversee an oasis of learning in an otherwise under-resourced neighborhood.  Fourth Street’s Certified Nature Explore Classroom has been transformative for the children.  Many have no place else outdoors in their neighborhoods that is safe for play.  Yet this outdoor classroom has inspired another transformation; one that frees the children to explore rare levels of relationship and learning with both their peers and their teachers.  This is the transformation of Josefina and her staff; and it holds crucial meaning for us all.

I got an inkling of this transformation while talking with Sylvia Diaz, an Early Education Assistant, and the outdoor classroom’s gardener.  Going on twenty-two years working in the school district, she has been at Fourth Street since its opening two years ago.  When asked about her previous twenty years in education, she said, “I have to forget about them.  I’m relearning everything, because this is totally different.”  She then spoke about tending the outdoor classroom with the children.  She used words like “assisting” and “guiding” when talking about her relationship with the children.  She didn’t use the word “teaching.”

4th street #3 Edith Figueroa, a Teacher for eighteen years, also joined Fourth Street at its opening.  In talking about her previous experiences with playgrounds she said, “To me it was just like being a robot.   I’m just standing there making sure they’re not getting hurt, guiding them to follow the rules.  In this setting [Fourth Street] I’m doing more one on one with the children, sitting down and learning together about insects, about different plants.  We’re discovering, I mean we are actually communicating more with children as far as the other program where I felt more like a robot just watching them.”

And yet more windows to this transformation opened when Josefina spoke of the children spontaneously engaging in empathic behavior with their peers.  She said, “If a child falls and there is somebody next to them they’ll go and try to help them—and without teacher guidance… In traditional playgrounds, that’s a skill we try to develop with the children. Here, it’s become like second nature.”

Conflict is rare in their outdoor classroom.  Josefina said, “One of the things we were reflecting on this week is that we don’t see conflicts outside… This is the second year that we’ve been open and I remember only one or two incidents, in two years.”

Josefina also spoke of one transition, away from using pre-planned curricular activities, to learning with the children.  At one point, Josefina wanted her teachers to cover curricular material in the outdoor classroom through teacher-devised and directed activities.  She said, “The teachers, they might have the three activities in the back of their minds but what I notice is once it goes outside it takes a totally different approach.  They may be the best teachers ever, the perfect planners, but once it comes to the outdoors I see that the teachers follow the children’s lead.  It might end up in a different activity than we planned, but that’s what I love. I want my children to feel safe and secure, and to know that they own the school, the outdoors and the indoors as well.”

Sylvia, Edith and Josefina have worked in schools with traditional playgrounds, where empathic behavior usually has to be taught, and where many staff would probably identify with Edith’s robot.  Before the advent of their outdoor classroom they all had instincts and ways of relating to children on playgrounds that are appropriate for those environments.  Yet by observing the children explore their curiosities in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, Josefina and her staff have been treated to naturally occurring social behaviors on the children’s part that required them to rethink their roles as teachers.

4th street #2 At Nature Explore, we like to say that nature brings out children’s “best selves.”  Josefina and the Fourth Street staff, many with years of experience teaching children how to be their “best selves,” now see, given the right environment, children already are their best selves.  Josefina expressed this transformative understanding of children’s true natures.  She said, “Here we give credit to the children.  We value what they bring to the school, rather than in other programs where you think, ‘Today I’m going to work on empathy.’  ‘Today I’m going to work on behavior.’   Over here… we know they come with those skills.  We just facilitate… We don’t direct what they should do.   We don’t tell them what to do.”

This is the amazing transformation of Fourth Street’s staff.  When children are freed by their environment to be their “best selves,” compassionate adults are also freed to be their “best selves.”  To understand that children are naturally empathic and have natural social skills is to understand that these skills need recognition, reinforcement and scaffolding, rarely teaching.  Sylvia is forgetting her pre-Fourth Street years. Edith has left the robot behind.  Josefina wants her children “to feel safe and secure, and to know that they own the school…”

People choose early childhood education because they care deeply about children.  Overall, the attrition rate of teachers in the US has been rising steadily for years.  Perhaps one of the reasons for this condition is that teachers, while working, often can’t express that part of themselves that drew them to the profession—their “best selves.”

We know the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom environment can elicit children’s “best selves”.  Josefina and her dedicated staff endearingly show us that these environments also allow teachers’ “best selves” to flower.  Every child, and every teacher, deserves the validation and growth—the transformative experiences—that Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms support.

June 29 + Water + Dirt + You + Children = International Mud Day

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

DSC_0926In our last post we met children in a Nepalese orphanage and at an Australian school. The Australian six and seven year olds, concerned that some children in Nepal couldn’t play with mud because they had only one set of clothing, took action. They raised and sent 1,000 Australian dollars to the children in Nepal.  International Mud Day was born.

Since that day at the orphanage, celebrations of International Mud Day have spread throughout Nepal, and in many other countries, including the US.  Perhaps some of you have celebrated International Mud Day with the children in your lives, whether at school or at home.

The venue for the first International Mud Day was an 8,214 square foot field, which had been rained on the night before. But you don’t need that much space.  You can celebrate in just about any space. Here are some great ideas for sharing the joys of mud with children wherever you are.

In the comments section below, please give us your suggestions for mud-based activities, large or small.

Mud Painting:

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

Huge Field of Mud:

Go for it!

Mud Face Painting:

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

Barefoot Walk:

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

Mud Splatter Painting:

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

Mud Texture Table:

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

How Aadi,* and Australian Children, Internationalized Mud

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

*Boy’s name meaning “first, most important” in Hindi.

Mud Day 4The young boy looked up to the magnificent open sky, abundant with billowing clouds retreating from last night’s rainstorm. He looked
before him to a large flat field on which he and his friends from the orphanage were expected to play.  Although he had been told the day before that he could begin to play on the field at the sound of the whistle (not yet blown), he and his friends were hesitant to step forward.

For one thing, they only had two sets of clothing apiece. And the field was covered with mud—mud richly augmented by last night’s storm. Before concerned Australian children had funded an extra set of clothing for Aadi and his friends, especially for this day, each had owned only one shirt and one pair of pants. With only one set of clothing, getting dirty while playing was a luxury Aadi and his friends could not afford. Now, the boys were wearing their new sport clothing of red or black, while the girls wore white and blue.

Aadi looked to the man holding the whistle, then back at the large mud-field. A sharp tweet shot through his ears, yet he didn’t move.

Ever since he had arrived at the orphanage Aadi had been cautioned against getting his clothes dirty. Yet, he now had two sets of clothing, which was unthinkable only a few weeks ago. But the voices from all those years rang through his ears after the whistle’s blast. “Keep your clothes clean. Don’t get dirty,” they said.

“You can go now,” said the man with the whistle, as he scurried over to the line of children. “Go ahead. Play. Play in the mud.”

Eight years of conditioning collided with weeks of build-up for this day. The conditioning won. Aadi, and all his friends, remained in place.

Aadi looked at the man, who was now making pushing motions in the air with wild arms and a smile. “OK, then. I’ll go.”

With that, the man jumped into the mud, reached down to collect a handful, and rubbed it all over his nice clean white shirt. The children laughed. He laughed.

Aadi laughed. Then he put one foot into the mud. If felt good. So he put his other foot in. The man, further into the large mud field, Mud Day 1beckoned him. Aadi waded into the field, then slowly bent down and flopped into the dark water, belly first. The other children laughed with Aadi. Not to be outdone, other boys slowly followed in his footsteps. Then came the girls. Within minutes, mud covered children were dashing around, playing games, delighting in visceral engagement with mud, nature and friends. The man with the whistle beamed.

The year was 2009. In a town we had never heard of, in a country that has been ravaged by devastating earthquakes in 2015, Aadi had just given birth to the first International Mud Day.

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This story is a fictionalized account, based on true events. The event happened as depicted. Aadi is a Hindi name meaning “first, or most important.” I imagined what the child could have been thinking, knowing that he only recently received the change of clothing that allowed for this day.

And that change of clothing is what made the first “Mud Day” at the Samajha Kalyan Orphanage truly an International Mud Day—a day now celebrated by children and adults worldwide.

Earlier that year, at the World Forum for the Care and Education of Young Children, in Belfast, North Ireland, Bishnu Bhatta spoke with Gillian McAuliffe about his desire to connect Nepalese children more deeply with nature, through the vehicle of mud. Lack of clothing for play was a barrier to holding this event.  Gillian, founder of the Bold Park Community School in Perth, Western Australia, returned home thinking of Bishnu’s dream.

Since its founding in 1988, Bold Park has incorporated nature play as an integral part of its curriculum. When Gillian returned to the school, six and seven year old children were embarking on a project to design a miniature mud house. Gillian spoke with her students about the orphanage in Nepal. Her students were horrified to hear that other children couldn’t play with mud because they had only one change of clothing.

Now children of this age have a strong sense of what is and is not fair in this world. That children should be prevented from mud play for lack of clothing was clearly unfair. So the Bold Park students started a drive to fund clothing for their unmet Nepalese friends. They raised 1,000 Australian dollars, sent it to the orphanage, clothes and food were purchased, and Mud Day happened.  And that’s why the first Mud Day was truly an International Mud Day.

Since 2009, International Mud Day has become an institution in Nepal, and is celebrated by children and adults worldwide on June 29.  In our next blog we’ll explore how you can celebrate International Mud Day with the children in your life—whether you have a huge field of mud, or just a few buckets.

Embracing Your Inner Child

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By Lindsey Kortum, Nature Explore Communications Specialist

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”  -George Bernard Shaw

498_070As a parent, watching my son experience the world around him is a true joy in my life.  There is something so beautiful and humbling about the way a child can connect to a moment in life that I often find myself yearning to replicate in my own life.  At some point along this path to adulthood, many of us find ourselves jaded and removed from the simple daily wonders we encounter.  We become concerned with how others will perceive us and begin to tame our enthusiasm for the simple things like jumping in puddles.

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tag along to a photo shoot at one of our certified outdoor classrooms.  I watched from the sidelines as the children enjoyed watering the plants, running through the grass, and painting on the art panel.  Then I heard a little voice ask, “Can I paint your cheek?”  As I looked down at his sweet face, I fought my adult instincts to say “no” and instead decided to listen to my inner child.  I knelt down beside him and said, “of course!”  The paint on my cheek quickly moved to my nose, forehead, neck, arms, and soon a group of giggling children had turned me into their canvas of colorful artwork.

I walked away from this experience feeling energized and joyful in a way I don’t often experience as an adult.  It left me wondering:  At what point in life do we stop jumping in the puddle and start navigating around it? At what point do we start to quiet our inner child?

One of the truly touching things about surrendering to your inner child is how the children around you respond.  They can hardly contain their excitement of having an adult join them, not as the referee or leader, but as a participant in the experience.  There is something almost magical in that connection. As I shared my experience back at the office, I learned that many of my coworkers had similar experiences while visiting an outdoor classroom.  These unique spaces offer an opportunity for children and adults to tap into a part of themselves that often gets buried in our world today.

While we can’t hold on to all of the carefree ways that come with being a child (at some point wearing a tutu to work is deemed, understandably, inappropriate), I’m beginning to see that we also don’t have to let go of all of the wonder and joy that flows through us as children.  That inner child still lives inside each of us.  So the next time a sweet little voice invites you to join along, I encourage you to embrace your inner child and run straight for that puddle.

Hope Opens

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant  

In April, the Hope Center in Denver, Colorado, officially opened its Certified Nature Explore Classroom.  As you can see, we all had a great time.

Children, teachers, family members (and a cameraman) listened to the speakers from the new hill in the outdoor classroom.  I was impressed by the children’s concentration as they both watched the speakers, and scanned the classroom in anticipation

Mrs. Gerie Grimes, Hope Center’s President/CEO, framed by budding branches, and dressed in an elegant nature inspired jacket welcomed us.

Then, with a burst of energy and enthusiasm, children spread throughout their new outdoor classroom to explore the different activity areas; to mess about with pine cones, shells, seed pods and blocks; to roll on the hill; to balance walk along the logs bordering the Messy Materials Area…

Support from the US Forest Service made Hope Center’s outdoor classroom possible. All in attendance certainly enjoyed the fruits of their generous assistance.


I returned to Hope Center a few weeks later to enjoy vocal performances with dancing..


tower building and tumbling….

and construction projects–everyone wanted to get into the act!

 

“I want them to see it, to feel it, and, hopefully, to love it.”

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant  

Nature Explore Classroom at Hope Center Denver CO

When people speak this way about Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, they’re usually referring to children.  But Gerie Grimes was referring to the whole community surrounding Denver, Colorado’s Hope Center.  For over fifty years, the Hope Center has provided early education, and meals, to special-needs and at-risk children, largely from minority communities. Ms. Grimes is Hope Center’s President/ CEO.  She looks forward to the many educational benefits the outdoor classroom will hold for the students.  Yet in her wide vision for the innovative space, Ms. Grimes also sees its benefits for the surrounding community.

The Hope Center currently serves over two hundred children, with ages ranging from two and a half through eight.   The toddler program serves at-risk children, and their families; providing education, parenting strategies, nutritional information, and other resources.  Three extended preschool programs serve children up to five years old.  The special needs preschool provides education designed around each child’s requirements.  The preschool incorporates a bilingual and multi-cultural curriculum, and the gifted program ensures that advanced students are developed, and challenged.  Summer session for the gifted program serves children up to eight.  Rounding-out these educational services is an afternoon multi-cultural and multi disciplined child care program for children up to eight and a half.  Another program, for at-risk adults, operates from other locations.

Last year, members of Nature Explore’s design team, Jim Wicke and Julie Rose, presented plans for the Hope Center’s outdoor classroom to Ms. Grimes and representative teachers.  At being handed the design drawings, one teacher said, “This feels like Christmas!”  Later, standing on the lawn and asphalt surface that would soon become the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, other teachers spoke of their excitement about the project.  Our “Christmas” teacher said she’d been thinking of retiring soon, but that she’ll continue working longer because she has always wanted to teach in an outdoor space.

Ms. Grimes described her teachers as all being on-board with the outdoor classroom concept because they had “open discussions over a long period of time… They’re really involved in the planning and discussions about ‘What is an outdoor classroom?’… You build on the excitement of that group.”  Open discussions with staff, in which they are inspired and empowered, developed an atmosphere ripe for the project.  Three teachers have volunteered for special projects, such as getting parent representatives for an outdoor classroom committee.

Teachers are interested in looking for children’s learning outdoors that can be transferred indoors.  “Look at how deeply he’s getting into this.  That’s math.  How can I carry it over to the indoors, in areas he might be struggling with?  Those are the things I know they [the teachers] are excited about,” says Ms. Grimes.  She knows that some children, through self-directed play, will reveal academic strengths not seen in the same forms indoors.  By including teachers in planning for the outdoor classroom, and discussing the benefits, Ms. Grimes is ensuring success.

Yet inclusion isn’t just for teachers and children at the Hope Center.  Parents are included in the school community in enviable numbers.  Monthly parent meetings draw an average of a hundred people.  The numbers didn’t start that high.  Ms. Grimes and her staff worked diligently over years to develop programs and events meaningful for the parents. At the meetings, dinner is followed by an hour spent discussing issues important to those attending.  Some topics are mandated by Denver Public Schools.  Surveys developed at the Hope Center include opportunities for parents to suggest topics.

In addition to the larger parent meetings, Hope also holds smaller “parent focus groups.”  Usually attracting around sixteen parents, these groups are open for discussion of any topic, no matter how sensitive.  Recently one parent spoke of embarrassment over not being able to afford feeding his child at home to the level she is fed at Hope.  He wondered if the teachers notice how hungry his child comes to school on Monday mornings.  We can see that Ms. Grimes and the teachers at Hope have developed a very rare community of parents.

When your entire school serves at-risk populations, community, communication, and consensus strengthens everyone.  Ms. Grimes is developing a consensus on the value and function of the outdoor classroom with her staff.  The parents will be invited to learn about this new form of classroom their children are experiencing.

Long ago, Ms. Grimes disregarded advice to wall-off the school.  As a result, the surrounding community looks out for the Hope Center, and vandalism is almost non-existent.  Community for Ms. Grimes means children, teachers, parents and all living in the area.  This expansive sense of community is what she was referencing when she said, “I want them to see it, to feel it, and, hopefully, to love it.”

We’re sure they will.  And we can’t wait to share Hope Center’s completed Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  Stay tuned.

Extending the Life of Your Outdoor Classroom

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Kara Ficke, Nature Explore Resource Development Manager, CPSI   Kelsey Moline, Nature Explore Classroom Designer

498_114For many, it has been a busy school year and outdoor classrooms have been loved dearly by children, educators and families throughout the fall, winter and spring months.  Summer is a great time to replenish your classroom for the upcoming school year, so let’s roll up our sleeves and check some maintenance to-do’s off the list!

Before you get started, quickly assess your outdoor classroom and jot down the areas that will need attention.  This will help as you plan work days.  We recommend partnering with local civic and youth groups, as well as families – getting community involved to support children’s connection with nature is simply awesome.

Plant Care

  • Watering – If your school is not in session over the summer months, be sure to work with your families, staff, or 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.
  • Mulching – Mulching has many benefits and a 2” depth around plants can support the health of your vegetation.
  • Replanting – Throughout the year, some plantings may not have survived. Add a few new plants to your outdoor classroom to welcome the new school year and continue to beautify the space.

Wood Care

  • 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.
  • 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.

Safety

  • 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, 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 in time for the school year. 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.

498_026If 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!

Quality Programs Build with Nature Explore

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By Heather Fox, Nature Explore Education Specialist

In Central Texas Sherry Trebus includes Nature Explore Classroom Certification as an integral part of a childcare quality improvement initiative. In Indiana the Association for the Education of Young Children (IAEYC) will offer workshops for programs, and encourage new outdoor classroom designs and certification as part of their benchmarks for excellence. Why, you might ask?

Because they know — and we do too — building a Nature Explore Classroom is a great way to reach high quality education standards while improving the environment for children and teachers. Here are 5 reasons why:

IMG_99181) Teachers find that teaching in a Nature Explore Classroom decreases their own stress level and the stress levels of their colleagues.

 

 

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2) Nature-rich spaces change with the seasons. The constant and gentle changes allow children and teachers to investigate, question and observe together.

 

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3) “Nature-based outdoor classrooms reduced behavior issues among the children, liberating teachers from their stressful role as playground police. This allowed them instead to be more engaged in teaching, playing, and interacting with children in positive, supportive and satisfying ways.”

 

 

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4) The Nature Explore Classroom certification process holds programs accountable to a formal set of standards that are steeped in good early childhood practice and supported through years of research and field-testing.

 

 

 

DSC001325) Children in outdoor classrooms learn in all areas of development and are reported as more relaxed, focused, engaged, cooperative, and creative, when compared with children in indoor classrooms or on a traditional playground.

 

 

Tell us what you have seen. How do outdoor classrooms make learning flourish in your programs?

Quotes and content from A Post Occupancy Study in Nature –Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Settings by Sam Dennis, Alexandra Wells and Candace Bishop I Children Youth and Environments Vol. 24, No. 2

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.