Hey Man, Don’t Bug Me!

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant  

P1090998_0018“Hey man, don’t bug me!”

It’s too bad the word “bug” is slang for “irritate.”  For too many children, the slang is the literal.  Bugs bug them.

We saw this reaction to nature in children from the St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebego, Nebraska, when taken on a field trip (before the school added a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom).  They were “grossed out” by nature.  From Los Angeles’ Fourth Street Early Childhood Center I was told the story of a boy, affected by his parents’ separation, who angrily stepped on bugs during his first days in the outdoor classroom.  Within a few weeks he grew to become a caretaker of plants in the garden, and to value nature.  I was also told of another child at Fourth Street who noticed a caterpillar while walking to school with his mother.  He brought it to show his schoolmates.  Over time, they observed the caterpillar become a butterfly.  These are the transitions common to children who experience Nature Explore Classrooms.

Children raised in rural environments often have a comfort level with bugs and nature that their urban peers lack.  Back in April I wrote a blog about Carol Cavell, founder of Trees Indiana.  Instrumental in bringing a Nature Explore Classroom to a Fort Wayne school, Carol noticed a difference between local children, and those visiting from nearby rural towns.  From that blog post: “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.”

DSC02020During my times in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms I’ve seen many “bug hunts.”  As rocks, sticks or leaves are moved to find what may be underneath, children often caution each other to be careful not to hurt the bugs.

Yet for many children today, nature is not natural.  Teachers tell us that introducing a child to a new Nature Explore Outdoor classroom often involves discussions on how to protect and care for plants and animals, bugs included.  These lessons are learned quickly, and bugs soon become a subject of curiosity and caretaking.

And it’s not only our children who are often avoidant of bugs.  Our current societal disconnect from nature began years ago, so some teachers working in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms need to become comfortable with nature, as well.

New intern teachers at a Nebraska preschool with a Nature Explore Classroom learn this lesson through children.  The school’s supervising teachers told me that most interns today are squeamish about bugs.  Future teachers can’t be truly effective in working with children in the outdoor classroom until they get over this squeamishness.  Children to the rescue!  In a planned orientation event, children with outstretched hands bring bugs to the interns.  This technique is used each year, and has proven enormously effective.

Once children become comfortable outdoors and with bugs, the world becomes more inviting.  After all, a three-year-old’s eyes are close to the ground, so the world of bugs, leaves, sticks, mud and stones is more physically vivid to them than to us.  The mother walking her child to the Los Angeles preschool hadn’t even seen the caterpillar he picked up.  The caterpillar, too little to be noticed by her distant eyes was vivid and inviting to her small son.

Children look to us to validate their curiosity about the world, or to see our reactions to things natural.  Through our behaviors and attitudes we can encourage wonder, or we can stifle it.  We can make the world of insects either scary to a child, or a subject of wonder and fascination.  Bugs can be icky, to be avoided; or curiosities to be observed, and protected.

Picture 260Nature Explore Classrooms are ideal environments for children’s curiosity and learning to be validated and expanded by adults.  Here, learning is spontaneous, self-directed, and fun.  Why do ants go into a little hole in the ground?  Where do ladybugs live?  How many legs does a millipede have?  Why do caterpillars turn into butterflies?  Fascination with bugs can involve caretaking (be careful with that ladybug), and observation (watching the caterpillar metamorphose into a butterfly).

Observations inspire questions, which can result in drawings, stories, plays, or learning from books, or stories from friends or adults.

Nature Explore Classrooms inspire fascination in children, and caretaking of things natural.  These attitudes and behaviors render the world more inviting and less intimidating to a small child.  Isn’t this what we want for our children?

Don’t bug me?  No way.  Bug me.

The Gift of Nature: Reflection of a Certified Classroom

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By Diann Gano, Owner/Director of Under the Gingko Tree

This month, Under the Gingko Tree recertified for a fifth year as a Nature Explore Classroom.  Below is a beautiful story written by Diann Gano, Owner/Director of Under the Gingko Tree, to celebrate this accomplishment.

Gingko 3There in my doorway, stood a familiar face. The face of a parent whose third child had graduated from our program last May. She was quick to notice the new pergola, new bike path and walkways, and the additions to the music area. That wasn’t why she was here.  She was here to share.  She was here to share how well her child had done in kindergarten this past year. She believes in our outdoor program and the importance of giving children time to explore and learn in nature. She knows the importance of learning social skills and self-regulation.  She understands the gift of time, and taking risks and building friendships, and watching a worm squirm in your hand. Her children have been in our home for twelve years, and even she laughed at her own comments.

“How many times have you had to explain to parents that they will learn when they are ready to learn and that we can’t rush it?” she asked.  “I know and believe in your curriculum, but why am I always so surprised when the test scores confirm it?”

Memories fill my head of the little boy who didn’t care about letters or numbers or learning to read. This was the child that could dig for hours, walk on stumps with his eyes closed, ride bikes backwards, listen to books for half a day, and lead his friends on adventures in lands far, far away. His kindness and caring for friends far exceeded how many alphabet letters he had memorized.

The test scores confirm for all of us that social and emotional competence is more important than learning the alphabet. Children will learn when their brain tells them to and when it is relevant to their lives.  Knowledge will come when it is meaningful to the child.  Yet even I caught myself glowing inside; even I felt confirmation once more that outdoor learning brings success in life. Giving children the foundations of social skills, problem solving, trust, and risk taking in an outdoor classroom is a very strong foundation. The social skills will bring new friendships and confidence in asking questions and taking turns and sharing. They will be kind and caring with new friends just as they learned to care for worms and plants emerging from the ground each spring. The problem solving skills they developed in the outdoors will be carried over to math and reasoning skills in science. Learning to read, is a risk. Children in outdoor classrooms take risks on a daily basis.

Gingko 2When we give our children the gifts of time and nature and caring adults, the test scores will take care of themselves. Once more, Under the Gingko Tree passed the test.  Thank you to all my alumni families who took the risk of a non-traditional preschool program.  Thank you for believing in yourself and your child, and in our program. Thank you for returning to share your success stories with me. The Tree House door is always open. Come often.

 

To learn more about becoming a Certified Classroom,  visit our website.

 

Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 4

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

Last week we learned about Joey and his teacher, Miss Smith and their experiences with their kindergarten’s traditional playground. We then met Mikeyla and her teacher, Miss Hewitt and caught a glimpse of their school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. As you learned, these two environments fostered radically different experiences.

Most schools for early childhood, by tradition rather than intention, have outdoor environments that support vigilance in their monitors, and competition in the children. Bullying at schools has become a hot national issue. Teacher attrition rates are at all-time highs. We believe these problems can be addressed when the environments we provide our children reflect our intentions, not our outworn traditions.

The unchanging environments of traditional playgrounds offer restricted avenues for children to work-through problems. The ever-changing environments of outdoor classrooms allow many. When the only activities available are physical, emotional issues are often expressed physically.  “Playground bully” is a common phrase, with good reason.

498_026It’s no wonder that teachers have told us children behave differently in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. From these many reports we have learned that “problem behaviors” are often a function of the environment.  When the environment honors the whole child, these behaviors usually soften, and often disappear over time. Both Joey, and the child who bullied him, deserve the opportunities an outdoor classroom would give them.  They deserve the chance to form the self-image that children like Mikeyla develop in outdoor classrooms.

For years, Miss Hewitt had simply taught children. Now, in the outdoor classroom, she is becoming skilled in in partnering with them in their learning. Here, she sees a constantly changing palette of learning opportunities. She observes and takes notes on the self-directed learning happening around her. In reflecting on these observations with the children, testing her hypotheses about their explorations, she scaffolds both their learning, and hers.

Miss Hewitt is now freer than ever to focus on the children’s learning.  Although she is always aware of safety issues, due to the quality of play in the outdoor classroom she doesn’t need to be as vigilant as she was in the old playground. As a consequence, she now views children as inherently social, and as strongly independent learners. Inspired by these views, Miss Hewitt is gradually integrating aspects of her outdoor style into her indoor teaching.

Miss Smith’s experience as a monitor on her school’s traditional playground couldn’t be more different. Her constant scanning for problematic behaviors and safety issues is the background for her few positive engagements with the children outdoors. She sees herself as a teacher indoors and a monitor outdoors.

Miss Smith believes children need civilizing. Her experience over the years as a playground monitor supports this view. Given the sameness, and the restricted range of behaviors generally seen on traditional playgrounds, this view of children is entirely logical.

IMG_9918In these blog posts, Miss Hewitt, Miss Smith, Joey and Mikeyla are drawn from personal accounts shared with us by teachers working in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. Teachers have told us of their experiences as playground monitors. These experiences contrast against their rich time in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms.

If the differences between the playground and the outdoor classroom seem too dramatically drawn, consider these words from Carie Cagnina, former Assistant Director of the Learning Center at Warren Village in Denver, Colorado:

 “After the old playground was removed we let the children out onto the dirt pile. We saw more imaginative play on that dirt pile than we’d ever seen in the playground.” 

Miss Hewitt’s personal transformation as a teacher in an outdoor classroom might seem exaggerated. We don’t think so. Educators have told us that their plans to retire or leave the profession have actually changed following their experiences with children in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms.

We all develop images about ourselves and others based on our experiences. Joey’s vulnerable self-image is reasonable given that he spends regular time in a competitive environment. Miss Smith’s image of children as needing her civilizing influence is reasonable given her observations on the playground. Yet so are Miss Hewitt’s newfound images of children as being naturally inquisitive and social. Mikeyla’s evolving image of herself as a curious learner both indoors and out is a self-image we see often.

392_096All children deserve environments in which their “true selves” are given the opportunity to flourish. All teachers deserve environments in which their skills, talents, and love for children can flourish. Our mission at the Nature Explore Project won’t be fulfilled until society understands the transformative power nature holds both for our children, and for those who love and care for them.

Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 3

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

When we met Mikeyla, she was going to the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom with her teacher and friends.  Just a few days earlier, her new baby brother had arrived home.  Mikeyla had been feeling neglected at home, and was quiet at school.

DSC00273Mikeyla had always enjoyed tending plants in the garden.  Yet on this day, Miss Hewitt had invited her to help care for the baby plants.  While they talked, Mikeyla began to think that her baby brother also needed special care; like the plants.

Mikeyla knows she can always find something to discover in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  She also knows she can explore on her own, or share discoveries with friends.  One day it’s a new insect.  Another day it’s learning how to make musical sounds on the akambira.  Today it was caring for the baby plants.  She knows learning happens both indoors and out.

When outdoors, Mikeyla feels herself to be a competent learner, although she couldn’t yet articulate that feeling.  She carries this image of herself everywhere she goes.  And she thinks of her teacher as a learning-partner when in both outdoor and indoor classrooms.

Yet unseen by Mikeyla are the many roles the Outdoor Classroom and her wise teacher play shaping her self-image.  To her, “nature time” is about play.  Miss Hewitt knows better.

During this time in the outdoor classroom, Miss Hewitt is happy to see Mikeyla smiling while playing with her friends.  She is thankful that the outdoor classroom provides many opportunities for engaging with the “whole child.”  This level of connection was rarely possible in the old playground, and has transformed her own image of children.

Miss Hewitt, like Miss Smith, had few significant outdoor experiences during her own childhood, and for many of the same reasons.  She too had been a recess monitor for years.  And two years ago, before her school’s large metal and plastic playground equipment had been removed, she had shared many of Miss Smith’s beliefs about the social nature of children.  Outdoors is for rambunctiousness, indoors for learning.

Yet over the two years of Miss Hewitt’s experience in the school’s outdoor classroom, her attitudes towards children have changed. At the outset she noticed an immediate reduction in competitive behaviors and bullying.  Boys and girls played together more often.  Children went to whatever activity area they wanted, and played or explored as they wished.  This was not typical playground behavior.  As children played in the outdoor classroom, Miss Hewitt gradually became skilled in seeing the children’s learning across many domains.  With inspiration and guidance from Nature Explore workshops, she also became skilled at partnering with children in this learning.

DSC_0138Sometime during the second month in the outdoor classroom, Miss Hewitt had the first of many realizations that changed forever the way she thinks of children, and of her teaching.  She thought of how much she looked forward to this outdoor time with the children.  She contrasted this feeling against the tension felt during her playground monitoring days, when most of her energy had been channeled into ensuring safety.  In hindsight, she saw that the static playground equipment had engaged only a fraction of her children’s capabilities, while the outdoor classroom challenged them holistically.  Now she enjoys the freedom to engage meaningfully with children who themselves have freedom to explore whatever interests them.  In her “aha experience” Miss Hewitt realized that free-play in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is revealing children’s authentic social behaviors; the deeper nature of children.  In the right environment, children are socially cooperative, and self-directed learners.

Later this week, we’ll pull the learning together.

Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 2

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

This week we were introduced to Joey, six, and his teacher, Miss Smith. They were about to go outside into their kindergarten’s traditional playground. We then met Mikeyla, also six, and her teacher, Miss Hewitt. They were about to go into their school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

Today we’ll focus on Joey and Miss Smith. Next week we’ll revisit Mikeyla and Miss Hewitt.

Our hope is that these stories inspire discussion about the influence outdoor environments likely play in a young child’s developing self-image.  Also for consideration is the image of children, held by the teacher, that each environment supports.

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Joey had been bullied at recess the day before, and was anxious about going outside. Miss Smith was preparing to keep an eye on both boys.

boy on playgroundToday, Joey’s heightened state of alertness overrides his usual excitement over going outdoors. He feels vulnerable. His choices of activities range from playing ball, to running around, to using the playground equipment. He has to think of choosing whichever activity was furthest from the other boy.

Although these activity choices are the same every day, they are now limited by his need to avoid the child who pushed him yesterday. Joey also knows that he needs Miss Smith’s protection while on the playground. Whatever he chooses to do, he’ll have to keep her whereabouts in mind, in case he needs her.

Like many young children, Joey gets very little outdoor time at home. Both parents work, so what outdoor time he gets at home is usually in his yard, or in those of his friends. He has not yet been exposed to a vegetable garden or played with loose parts in nature. His parents support his being in a safe outdoor space where he can be watched. Yet they don’t see play as learning, and don’t know how to recognize the educational potential of his time in the yard. Although he has been curious about bugs he finds in his yard, this curiosity isn’t supported in his busy home.

At the end of today’s recess period Joey was relieved that he hadn’t been bullied. He had kicked a ball with friends, and climbed on the play structure a bit. Yet he changed activities a few times when the child who had pushed him yesterday joined his group. Both his body, and his vigilance had been exercised.

Having the same limited outdoors activity choices every day at school, all of them physical, Joey associates learning with being indoors. Learning is not associated with nature, or with being outdoors. Also, because competition is easily fostered on traditional playgrounds, bullying is sometimes part of time outside. When on the playground, Joey sees adults as protectors, not as resources.

On her part, Miss Smith prepares for the duty of playground monitor by mentally running over the list of children to watch. Joey is one of them.

 In the primary schools of her childhood, Miss Smith experienced playgrounds similar to the one she supervised today. Twenty-five years ago playgrounds didn’t have safety surfacing, and the slides and climbing structures were separated, but playground play then and now was basically the same.

Besides school playgrounds and sports fields, Miss Smith’s sporadic connections with nature as a child were during yearly family vacations. Her significant memories from childhood include these times, yet otherwise the “outdoors” is only remembered in the context of sports or playgrounds.

Exercise and fresh air are the benefits Miss Smith sees for children during recess. Watching them engage in the same activities on the same equipment, day after day, has long since become boring for her. The children generally appear to be having fun, so she doesn’t question whether or not they are bored. Her responsibility is to monitor for behaviors and safety. Learning happens indoors.

Outdoors is where Miss Smith sees children as being their most authentic selves, where their true social nature is revealed. Children aren’t being directed during recess. They chose what to do. The little rivalries, along with the competitions and occasional bullying, are among standard behaviors of children left to their own devices. School is to civilize, as well as to educate. Miss Smith has reasonably developed this view of children after ten years of teaching and playground monitoring.

Next week, we’ll revisit Mikeyla and Miss Hewitt.

Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 1

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

Outdoor time is about to begin in two kindergartens. In one, this time is called “recess.”  It takes place on a typical playground; an asphalt surface for ball games and running, and a large multi-stationed climbing structure surrounded by green safety matting. The other school has a Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, with a variety of activity areas, and teachers trained to enhance children’s learning experiences in nature. Outdoor time in this school is called “nature time.”

Photo Dec 04, 2 54 14 PMJoey, six, is standing in line, waiting for his teacher, Miss Smith, to open the door for recess. Yesterday a larger boy pushed Joey while they were both on the climbing structure. Miss Smith intervened. Joey is avoiding this boy today. As they all wait to go outside, Joey is preoccupied with staying away from him on the playground. He would like to play kickball, and climb again, but will have to wait until he gets outside before figuring out what he can do. He is planning on staying in sight of Miss Smith.

Miss Smith has been keeping an eye on the child who was teasing Joey yesterday. He is at the top of a short list of children she will monitor every few minutes. As usual, she constantly scans the entire playground to ensure the children are safe, and to intervene in any trouble before it amplifies. She also looks for signs of accomplishment (the child that invites others to play, the child that masters a new activity) so she can provide reinforcement. But the play is basically running, climbing, swinging, sliding or playing ball; good activities for building gross motor skills, yet also effective at fostering conflict in the children, and vigilance in the teacher. Miss Smith sees little variety in play from day to day. She knows which children are most likely to be involved in interactions that need monitoring. She has settled into a routine that keeps kids active, safe, and rewarded whenever possible.

392_122Mikeyla, also six, is about to go outside for “nature time” in her school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  A few days ago her new baby brother arrived home.  Her excitement over his arrival was tempered by sadness.  With all the attention focused on the baby, Mikeyla was feeling left behind.  This morning, she was uncharacteristically quiet.

Earlier, Miss Hewitt had spoken with Mikeyla’s father at drop-off, and had thought of spending extra time with her today.  Sitting with the children in the Gathering Area, Miss Hewitt asks who wants to go to the garden with her to look at the plants and compare them to the pictures of the vegetables that are growing.  Hands shoot up. She knows that Mikeyla enjoys caring for the garden.  “Mikeyla, could you help me with the garden?” she asks.  Mikeyla nodded quietly.

Miss Hewitt then asks if anyone has plans for what they want to do today. Two children say they want to make the hole in the dirt digging area deeper than they left it yesterday. Miss Hewitt looks towards a boy who hasn’t been able to keep still all morning. “You look like you have lots of energy today.  What do you want to do?” “Climb!” he says. “When we finish looking at the vegetables, I’ll come over and watch you climb on the treehouse,” she says.

392_076At the garden Miss Hewitt says to the children, “Please be extra careful with the baby plants.  They need more care and attention than the older plants.”  She then asked Mikeyla to help her with “the babies.”  For the next few minutes Miss Hewitt and Mikeyla talked about babies; first plants, then brothers.

Later, Miss Hewitt reflects on the diversity of activities that took place during “nature time” that morning, and her many opportunities to support the learning she saw.  She is pleased that Mikeyla went on to play happily with others, after their talk in the garden.  She smiles as she thinks to herself, “In the outdoor classroom I can be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.”

What do Joey and Mikeyla learn about themselves through their time outdoors at school?  What images of the nature of children do Miss Smith and Miss Hewitt develop as a result of their time outdoors at school? In part two of this series we’ll begin to look at possible answers to these questions.

My Childhood Outdoor Classroom, and Playgrounds

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

treeI was blessed with having had a “free-range” childhood.  My suburban Boston neighborhood, with its pockets of dense woods, encouraged wandering, exploration and discovery.

My front yard was a few feet higher than the side yard, and was held in place by a natural stone retaining wall.  Behind our house a dirt slope with rocks separated the driveway from the side yard.  The front and side yards, the stone wall, and the rocky slope held worlds of discovery and yielded years of creative play.  Across the road was a wooded area with a small brook, and a huge town forest beckoned from a few streets away.  By the time I was ten, my friends and I wandered deeply into the town forest, relying on trails to find our way out.  My brother once counted over twenty children in our immediate neighborhood.  We all had a lot of outdoor play.

But that was at home.  At school, my playground was a rectangular “hot top,” with a surrounding grassy area hosting monkey bars, a jungle gym, and swings.  I was always skinny as a kid, and never a willing fighter.  Predictably, I didn’t get as much jungle gym time as I would have liked.  And although I never looked for trouble, bullying occasionally found me.

In my neighborhood, I was never afraid of any of the children I played with.  Of course there were rivalries (especially with my brothers), but I was not genuinely afraid of any of my playmates.

At school, despite my teachers’ good efforts to maintain order on the playground, I grew to be apprehensive about certain children.  I avoided them.  As the years passed, some of the boys developed behaviors that evoked fear.  Might made right.  I was still skinny; a reader not a fighter.  I was appropriately wary around them when on the playground.

Now, I visit a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom near my home in Denver, Colorado.  This particular program houses families emerging from homelessness.  Many of the children in this school should have every reason to act out their understandable insecurities while outdoors.  On the old playground, they did.

The old “playground behaviors” of these children, while not totally absent in the outdoor classroom, are now rare.  A child who is sad or upset on any given day can watch his peers playing happily.  He can also choose between many different activity areas that might engage him.  His teachers are rarely busy “correcting” anti-social behaviors, and have more opportunities to see his sadness and respond to it constructively.

Years ago, on a good day, I would have been looking at the jungle gym on my school playground, waiting for it to be safe for me to climb.  Even on a bad day, a child in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom has a range of safe opportunities for play. He also has teachers whose energies are available for him.

An intentionally designed outdoor classroom, well-stocked with imagination-provoking natural materials, and attended by skilled adults, isn’t just an outdoor experience for children that is different from a playground.  It’s a game changer.  It’s a place where a small healthy dose of fear may be involved in taking manageable risks in the service of growth.  It is not a place with predictable and limited opportunities, in which some children are best avoided.  Like my town forest, and unlike my playgrounds, it’s a place that is different every day, challenging children to learn, adapt and grow—together.

I am very thankful my free-range childhood included lots of nature.  And I am also thankful to be involved, with you, in Nature Explore’s vital mission of connecting children with nature; every day.

Design vs. Design

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By Cory Kibler, Contributing Writer

26402 Arbor Day FoundationThere are two types of design involved in the fruition of a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

The first is the architectural design. Behind every life-changing outdoor classroom is a designer (or group of designers) who’ve poured their heart, soul, and expertise into a new design that’s perfect for each site. They travel to large cities and rural towns to work with all kinds of people with all kinds of needs.

The second is graphic/web design. For the most part, outdoor-classroom advocates see the natural side of the Nature Explore program, rather than behind-the-scenes work. But it does exist, and it’s vital to our organization.

For example, every time someone visits our site to place an order, register for a workshop, certify (or recertify) their classroom, or request a Resource Guide, our website needs to work perfectly for them. Our web/design team is always improving the way we do things—the perfect website is a moving target—but we are always striving to make it a pleasant, informed experience.

The two disciplines are as similar as they are different (how’s that for a paradox?). Both have the same ultimate goal: Create the best possible experience for the end-user. In the case of the classroom designers, it’s children, teachers, and parents. In the case of the graphic/web designers, it’s anyone who visits our website.

On the other hand, the way people experience each is totally different. When an outdoor classroom is constructed, it immediately becomes “open-source.” That is, people immediately begin shaping the design of the classroom to their needs by planting flowers, moving stumps, implementing their own messy materials, etc.

Meanwhile, the website is an interactive experience, but visitors can’t change the way the site works for them; they have to rely on us to make sure we’re providing what they need. We do our best to design our website with our users’ best interest in mind, but sometimes, we have to do some serious digging to find out who our users are. In truth, they range from people who’ve been working with us for years to people who searched “Natural Playground Equipment” on a whim. And it’s our goal to serve both of these users (and everyone in between).

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.