A Life-Saving Transformation: Mark’s Story

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant


We at Nature Explore are told many stories of children’s transformations through play in outdoor classrooms. Yet we rarely hear the back-story of the child’s original behaviors that change with exposure to nature. To know a behavior’s form is not to know its cause.

You are about to meet Mark, a lively four year old, through his mother, Pam. The outcome of this story is powerfully life-affirming. Yet it begins in darkly disturbing conditions.

We are deeply indebted to Pam for her openness during the interview. She says that nature is the touchstone to which she returns for solace and peace, and that it has given her child many areas of growth.

Pam wants this story told so that other children may have outdoor classrooms and the transformations they inspire.

All names in this story have been changed.

Warren VillageMark was a danger to himself. At four, his balance was very poor, as was his impulse control. Pam, his mother, says that he would quickly bend over to pick up a dropped pencil, gashing his head on a table on the way down. Getting from points A to B in the classroom often included bumping into furniture along the way. Pam said, “When he gets excited he just goes and goes and goes and he winds up hurting himself.”

He was also a danger to his mother. Mark frequently attacked her. “He would get so aggressive with me that I would have bruises all over my body,” she says. When frustrated, he used his fists instead of words. But at least they’ve been safe since last summer.

That’s when Mark’s father finally began serving 20 years in a state penitentiary for the severe abuse he inflicted on the family. For a year, Mark and his mother had moved between safe-houses. In one crisis, Social Services had them sent by taxi over a hundred miles to another program. As long as they were in the town where Pam was raised, they were not safe from Mark’s father. Or from her family, who would reveal their location to the abuser. The state closed her bank accounts, erased her credit cards, essentially “disappearing” her from available records. She changed her name.

As a baby, Mark was often ill with thrush and frequent ear infections. While Pam was at work, Mark had to be left with his father. She was told by a friend that Mark was not being fed or given his medications when she wasn’t home.

Pam says that because she was forced to flee between safe-houses with Mark, he was never able to develop age-appropriate balance skills. They lived in small, restricted spaces where time outdoors was rarely an option. He simply never had the space to develop gross motor skills outdoors as children often do. Understandably, Mark’s needs usually had to assume a back-seat to the family’s need for safety. Pam didn’t have the resources to care for him in ways that would teach him impulse control.

Then, a little over a year ago, they found a safe residential housing program. Last summer, Mark’s father was finally incarcerated. Environmental conditions began to favor Mark’s development.

In his new school, Mark received occupational therapy services targeted towards his impulse control and body awareness. Therapy helped, yet he was still attacking his mother. Although Mark’s preschool teachers understood his background and needs, only modest success was made in helping him improve his balance and impulsivity. Teachers noted that his clumsy movements in the classroom and on the playground rendered him vulnerable.

The school playground was fully covered by composite safety flooring. Other than running around, the large, multi-station climbing structure was the children’s only option for play and exercise. Two lonely trees poked out from the flooring, but they weren’t climbable.

Mark mostly stayed to himself in this space, as he had difficulty keeping up with the others. His attempts to play with his peers often ended badly. Impulsively, he’d climb the slide from the bottom, getting hit by other children sliding down. The playground was just another source of bruises. Its unvarying sameness didn’t challenge Mark in any way.

Then his school decided to replace their traditional playground with a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. This space would have boulders, flowers, bushes, a stage, a “treehouse,” a graded slope in the earth, loose parts, a mud pit, art and building areas, and much more.

Pam was excited for Mark when she saw the new space. She had every reason to be. Her own childhood had been punctuated by extreme physical abuse that ended only when she was removed from home at age 16. One of her early placements had provided a special kind of outdoor therapy that made extensive use of natural settings. Pam grew to love the outdoors as her place of refuge. “I remember that. I know how calming that is.” “It [Nature] gave me the serenity. It gave me the calming, the peace.”

Yet as much as Pam loved Mark’s new outdoor classroom, his teachers were wary. If he couldn’t even move safely through a classroom with a flat floor, how could he negotiate logs, rocks, and other uneven surfaces?

They wanted him to wear a safety helmet, but Mary, the school’s director, said “no.” She told teachers that Mark would get some bumps and bruises on his way to mastering all those uneven surfaces that weren’t as challenging to the other children. Mary asked her teachers for patience. And trust.

Mary was right. Yet even she wasn’t prepared for the speed and depth of transformation that Mark was about to experience.

“It was almost instant with the outdoor classroom… He’s always busy doing something. ‘Mommy come see this, come watch this.’… We were out there one time and he… was like, ‘Mommy watch, I’m Superman’ and he jumped off one of the platforms. It was amazing to see him do this… I can’t begin to tell you how happier he is out there knowing that he has more than just four items to play on. He has a whole world,” says Pam.

For the first time in his life, Mark had true choices of activities outdoors. He could play with the others, or by himself. He wanted to walk across rocks, and jump off them, so he learned how. Mark got a few bumps and bruises early on, though no more than he got on the old playground. To see him now, you’d never know Mark had ever had problems with balance.

But this is only half of Mark’s transformation.

At home, for the first time, Mark is learning “to use his words” when he needs assistance with something. And rather than hitting his mother, he now asks to help make dinner.

Pam says that the outdoor classroom is behind all these transformations. She believes that it is Mark’s testing ground for the skills he learns in occupational therapy. The old playground left him few options other than running around or trying to keep up with children who were more developmentally advanced. Now he easily joins with other children in activities centered on shared interests, boosting his social skills. He is able to practice his climbing and jumping in many locations, alone or with friends, at his own skill level, non-competitively.

Pam says that nature inspires Mark’s intellect and imagination like never before. “He’s learning how to think. And I think that’s pretty amazing… I really do believe it brings more problem-solving skills to the table… Having the chance to explore nature I feel is the best… He’s using his imagination a lot more now. He’s able to use his words instead of crying, having those temper tantrums when he’s not getting what he wants… [The outdoor classroom] has been a castle, it’s been the heroes’ safety ground. It’s been a Christmas tree. It’s been everything.”

Near the end of our interview, Pam wept as she spoke of nature’s powerful healing force in her own life, and now in her son’s. “It doesn’t only work for my son. I feel it transforms a lot of children,” she said through tears.

All children deserve a stable, safe environment. Mark never had one until last year. All children deserve to have their emotional needs met. Pam was not fully able to focus on Mark’s emotional needs until they were both safe. All children deserve the space and environment necessary to develop their physical and social skills, on their own terms. Mark never truly had these conditions until he experienced the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. His poor body control and equally poor impulse control were logical outcomes of his early environments; first when he was a baby, then while on the run.

Pam believes that the outdoor classroom simply provided Mark with exactly the environment he needed all along.

“It’s been a home. ”

Facebook Photo-Contest: A Retrospective

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by Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist for the Nature Explore program

Over the last few weeks, we’ve held a Master Builder contest on our Facebook page in which we asked Nature Explore sites to submit pictures of their nature-inspired building. Out of the finalists, the picture with the most likes would receive a set of Mini-Bricks for their classroom. Read on to view the finalists, including our winner.

contest photo 7 contest photo 6 contest photo 5 contest photo 4 contest photo 3 contest photo 2 contest photo 1

…and our winner:

contest photo 8

Congrats, Loving Hands Daycare & Preschool! We hope you enjoy your Mini-Bricks for years to come.

Thanks again to all those who entered, and be sure to follow us on Facebook for future contests.


The Places We Went and the People We Met: Looking Back on Our Journeys in 2014

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant


Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting many inspiring people in our ever-growing Nature Explore family. Their diversity of perceptions and experiences was balanced by the unified passion they hold for connecting children with nature. We met Heather Hess, the mother who made a nature playscape in her backyard and advocated for two Nature Explore Outdoor classrooms in her community. Then, there was Diann Gano, a preschool owner whose trust in her students’ problem-solving skills is rooted in her own childhood experiences. We also went back in time to meet G. Stanley Hall, who in the 1890s wrote observations on children’s play outdoors that seem remarkably current. We met the remarkable Bird Team, and more.

Here’s a look back at some of the people we learned from last year:

Heather and Kipper Hess of Lincoln, Nebraska have three girls. They all attended the Dimensions preschool, which has the first Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. After seeing their children thrive in this outdoor learning environment, Heather and Kipper built special nature activity areas in their backyard. But that wasn’t enough. Heather wanted to ensure that the preschool’s outdoor focus wouldn’t be lost as her children transitioned to elementary school. She joined the group of parents that successfully advocated for an outdoor classroom at the local school—but even that wasn’t enough. Heather then brought the idea to her church. Saint Matthews Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Nebraska now features an exquisitely designed Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Mother Nature inspired a determined mother, and a whole community benefitted.

Diann Gano, owner/operator of Under the Gingko Tree preschool in Rock Island, Illinois, learned appropriate risk-taking as a child. She mostly played outdoors with boys, as her neighborhood had few girls.  Crossing streams, jumping over logs, and climbing rocks gave her a love of the woods, and confidence in her outdoor skills. She trusts that children at Under the Gingko Tree will learn to negotiate the irregularities of the outdoor classroom by trial and error and by using good judgment.

That trust paid off during a three-day series of attempts by children to get leaves off the roof of a low shed. The final (and successful) ascent to the roof, using a wide sheet of angled plywood as a ladder, was a test for Diann as well as the children. She stood nearby, anxiously, at the ready to help. Yet she let the children figure out how to get up to the roof. They did so safely, and gained a well-earned sense of accomplishment. Diann showed us the power of trust. She trusted in her own past as being an appropriate guide for working with her students, and she trusted the children to use good sense and appropriate risk-taking. Skills in trial-and-error planning, physics, and coordination with peers were exercised along with their bodies. This fluidity of whole-child learning, capped by the thrill of accomplishment, is rarely achieved indoors.

Moving back to the 19th century, we met G. Stanley Hall, one of America’s early pioneers in psychology and education (or at least, we met his legacy). A family he knew dumped a large pile of sand in their backyard. Over the following years, young boys played in that space with friends. The children built families, houses, neighborhoods, and towns from sand, wood, stone, and other materials. A town government was formed, and laws enacted. Hall took note of the play that developed over the years, marveling at the complexity of learning he witnessed. In his “The Story of a Sand Pile,” (1897), Hall theorized that the learning gained in this backyard was far deeper than what would have developed in an indoor classroom.

In Denver, Colorado, we caught up with Brett Dabb, Director of Warren Village’s preschool. The Warren Village housing complex serves a population of single-parent families that are emerging from homelessness. Their school actually has two new Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms: one for preschoolers, and one for infants and toddlers. For years, Brett has researched and studied the benefits of nature for both children and adults. He is an avid camper, and a natural with children outdoors. Although students of the preschool are the primary beneficiaries of the outdoor classroom, the Warren Village community as a whole uses it during evenings and weekends. Brett sees the space as a place of learning, refuge, and healing for the entire community.

Crossing over into Nebraska, we met Amber Gamble and Brenda Murphy, teachers at the St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebago. They work with Native American children who have largely lost touch with the deep spiritual connections to nature enjoyed by their ancestors. Some of the children live in unsafe neighborhoods where outdoor play is rare.

The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is the one place where many can feel the true beauty and peace of nature. Classes that would otherwise be taught indoors are held in the outdoor classroom because Amber and Brenda believe the children simply learn more effectively outdoors. And through the medicine garden, children are reconnecting with their ancestral heritage, learning to renew the honor of being nature’s stewards.

Then we met Lincoln, Nebraska’s all-season, indomitable protectors of wildlife, known as “The Bird Team.” Ensuring that bird-feeders are full during harsh weather and breaking ice in birdbaths before refilling them are only some of the services they perform. When the Bird Team’s activities caught the attention of younger preschoolers, a second team was started. Children in the Bird Teams engage in research, learn responsibility to nature, develop social and academic skills, and coordinate roles and responsibilities in their group activities. Yet from the children’s perspective, they’re simply on a mission and having fun. GO BIRD TEAM!

Finally, in 2014, we: visited a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom at the Creston National Fish Hatchery in Kalispell, Montana; recalled Puff the Magic Dragon; met children who placed caring for worms ahead of their own snack time; and much more. We met diverse children whose lives are enriched through contacts with nature, and adults deeply committed to these connections. May the people and ideas you’ve encountered here suggest new journeys with children into nature and learning.


A Worm Hotel, the Chicken Shangri-La, and Well-Deserved Recognition for Teddy Bear

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Teddy BearBeth Fryer was accustomed to being marginalized by other preschool educators. “I’ve been scoffed at by colleagues for years [who said] ‘All she does is play outside’,” she says. She was considered “out there” for placing so much importance on outdoor play for her students. At over 10,000 square feet, the Teddy Bear Day Care and Preschool of Traverse City, Michigan had an enviable amount of space for outdoor play. Her colleagues simply didn’t understand what is obvious to all of us in the Nature Explore community; that outdoor play is true “whole-child” learning. Beth couldn’t even get interns from the local college’s early education program.

Until a few years ago, some puzzle pieces were missing from Beth’s great outdoor space. She found those pieces at a 2011 conference where she discovered the Nature Explore program. After hearing an initial presentation, Beth sought out every Nature Explore workshop at the conference. She then ordered and digested the Resource Guide, and purchased all the Nature Explore books. These books led to other works that discussed the rich learning in outdoor play.

For Beth, the missing puzzle pieces were falling into place. She now understood that her ample outdoor space contained a lot of unnatural play materials—such as cars, a playhouse, and several plastic toys—that didn’t promote the kind of learning she wanted for the children.

“My thought was to get rid of that stuff and install natural elements,” she says. And she did. “I started by asking the children: If they could design the most perfect place to play, what would they want?” The children started talking about it. They liked boats, to play in the mud, to build. With help from her whole family, her parents, and students, Beth’s outdoor space took on a new character over the next several months. Natural materials quickly replaced plastic, and new activity areas came to life.

Creative play reached new levels as children developed their own ideas on how to work with unscripted natural materials. Where plastic toys suggest predetermined usage, open-ended natural materials inspire creativity. Beth says that children new to her preschool are usually accustomed to plastic toys. They often don’t know how to play in the outdoor classroom. Yet after seeing the ongoing activities of the other students, these children always “get it” very quickly. They soon become immersed in the rich learning environment for which her program is now known.

As for the colleagues that “didn’t get” the richness of learning in Beth’s outdoor play space: They do now. Other educators now invite Beth to speak at conferences, and to hold workshops. They visit her Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom and are quickly won over. And even those who don’t know about Teddy Bear’s long waiting list have probably heard about the reputation of Beth’s graduates when they reach kindergarten. “My kids that go into kindergarten are off the charts and they’re wondering what in the world we’re feeding them here.”

As a matter of fact, Beth feeds her students only fresh, unprocessed food, some of which is planted, watered, and harvested by the children. Annexed to the 7,000-square-foot outdoor classroom is a 3,000-square-foot raised bed garden. And the eggs the children eat? Some are brought from the “Chicken Shangri-La” henhouse that the children maintain.

Another of the outdoor classroom’s features that the children tend is their “Worm Hotel.” This area does not contribute to the children’s diets, but does feed their learning. And nearby is the very popular mud area. “We celebrate International Mud Day all the time,” says Beth

Outdoor classrooms are most effective when adults interact with children in ways that deepen and extend the learning involved in play. Beth and her teachers make the learning visible to their students. When Beth placed a set of measuring cups in the digging area, the children spontaneously developed play scenarios with them.  Through self-initiated play, enhanced by their teachers, the children learned math, literacy (writing down the different amounts), research (learning about measures larger than their cups), and much more. The teachers, attuned to the variety of learning domains involved in the play, ensure that high-level learning is integral to the experience. It’s no wonder that these children have become stars in kindergarten. We all wish this for every child.

At Teddy Bear, the Creative Curriculum is the basis for working with the children around their interests. Teachers also use ideas from the Montessori Method and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.

Beth says that nature and children are her two favorite subjects, and she credits her association with Nature Explore as inspiring deeper connections between them. We are proud to count Beth Fryer and her teachers (and interns*) as inspiring members of our growing Nature Explore family.

*Although for a long time Teddy Bear didn’t fit the mold for intern eligibility, it now has devoted interns from the local college’s early education program.

Magic in the Outdoor Classroom at Grace School

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Grace_1Jil Jaeger teaches two-year-olds at Grace School in Houston, Texas. Grace has a very large Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, which they call the Outdoor Learning Center. Grace’s preschool students use it twice daily, and throughout its four years it has been a valuable partner to the school’s indoor classrooms.

Jil has taught at Grace School long enough to have seen three incarnations of the preschool outdoor space. When she started teaching there, the playground was a sand-covered area with many separate pieces of play equipment; small wooden structures, a balance beam, and tubes for crawling through. Jil liked the area. It reminded her of the playgrounds of her youth.

After a few years, the school decided to go with the style of playground that was then becoming popular. A large, multi-stationed climbing structure embedded in composite safety flooring became the new playground. Jil was not as pleased with the children’s restricted range of play, along with the behaviors this playground elicited. After several years, the school discovered the Nature Explore program, and a true outdoor classroom was built.

Over the past four years, Jil has formed a deeply perceptive understanding of the Outdoor Learning Center’s functions and effects; not just for the students, but for other teachers and parents as well. She has a holistic view of the space, in which learning is furthered, and the school community is enriched.

In Jil’s words:

When it was the composite floor and the big play structure in the middle, there were only two options. There was nothing to explore. You were climbing and sliding or you were walking around and really not doing much of anything… There were no in-between options there… We would try to bring some blocks out and you would get the blocks up on the slide because there was nothing else to do with them. [Children] were so limited in their options, you’d have children acting out, or some of them would just sit there. They’d just camp out… [waiting] to go back into the air conditioning.

Now that we have the Outdoor Learning Center, things have changed so drastically, and there is something to do for every child. Very rarely are any children getting in trouble for anything because it’s a “yes” environment, and it’s their environment; it’s student driven. When you give them that freedom they’re less inclined to rebel against it because, what are they going to rebel against? And secondarily to that, is that there is something for everybody. There’s room to run, for the boys and girls that just want to run… And they have a brick path they can ride their bikes along. You’ve got the kids that are super-active and really need to get out some energy and they get out and they go out and they run, and they go out and they ride their bikes… You also have the secluded areas off the side where you can hang out on a bench and daydream. There’s something for everybody.

The Outdoor Learning Center is used both for investigating various subjects, and for the learning that is inherent in child-directed free play. The activity areas foster a range of academic inquiry and imaginative play. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) curriculum is being used in the older grades, and the preschoolers are learning the basic concepts both formally and informally in the Outdoor Learning Center.

Examples of this learning are the gardening activities. Gardens are planted every year. The children participate in all aspects of their development, from exchanging the soil and choosing the plants, to seeding, watering, weeding and harvesting. Explorations of science and math concepts abound in these activities.

Yet along with the academic learning and the richness of self-directed play, the outdoor classroom has inspired enhancements in the school community that no one had foreseen. One of the requirements for Nature Explore certification of an outdoor classroom is family involvement. The child’s experiences in nature are deepened when parents and family understand their value, and engage with the child. Yet not even Jil could have predicted how the school community was to be changed after the outdoor classroom was built.

A few years ago, parents picking up their children after work rarely spent time at the school: School day over, time to go home. But something happened after the advent of the Outdoor Learning Center. During the days of the playground climbing structure, the children didn’t gravitate to the playground the way they do now to the Outdoor Learning Center. The activity areas hold ongoing attractions for the children. Parents now find their children wanting to spend time in the outdoor classroom after school is out. Parents have begun spending time with children in the space, and with each other—even those parents who would not normally have contact with each other, began meeting. Teachers began meeting parents whose children were not in their classes. Jil says that these connections have given rise to a new, enhanced sense of community at Grace.

Once the outdoor space for preschoolers at Grace School truly supported children’s connection with nature, the magic began. Children’s behaviors stopped reflecting boredom and began expressing wonder. Both academic learning and imaginative play were enriched. And the school community of children, parents, and teachers grew closer.

Can changing from a typical climbing-structure-based playground to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom really promote this level of magic? Ask Jil.  

Hot Off the Press: Request Your Copy of the Resource Guide Today

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By Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist with the Nature Explore Program


As a valued member of the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom Network, we wanted you to be the first to know that the January 2015 Resource Guide is now available. This colorful 71-page Resource Guide includes exciting new field-tested Natural Products, resources for educators and parents, and much more. The Resource Guide also contains information on how you and your colleagues in education can request our Design Services, attend Educator Workshops, and order Natural Products that make the most sense for your vision. To start exploring, request your free copy today.

We’re excited to spread the word—if you know any schools or educators who would benefit from our services, please pass this message along to them so they can request their free copy as well!

We Can’t Wait for 2015

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By Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist with the Nature Explore Program

As 2014 draws to a close, we are reminded of all that we have accomplished together, and we’re eager to find out what challenges and opportunities await us in the coming year.

No matter what 2015 has in store, we know that—along with partners and advocates like you—we’ll connect even more children with the beautiful and natural world around them, giving them confidence about their own capabilities, a sense of wonder about the universe, and a long-lasting compassion and respect for our home—Earth.

Thank you for everything that you’ve done and will do. We’ll see you next year!


Your Friends at Nature Explore

To Anonymous, With Love

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant


Nancy tapped snow off her shoes as she opened large glass doors to the warmth of the Lincoln Mall, home to the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and its Nature Explore program. Ahead of her in the foyer was an elderly woman, bundled against the cold outside. She seemed to be looking for something; an office, perhaps. Nancy approached, asking if she needed help.

“I’m looking for Dimensions,” said the woman.

“I’m going there myself. Come with me.”

“Please take this to Dimensions,” said the woman. Into Nancy’s hand she placed a small piece of paper: a note, handwritten in pencil, to which five 20-dollar bills were attached with a paper clip.

Nancy recognized the paper as having come from a pad enclosed with a Nature Explore fundraising letter. “Please come visit,” Nancy said.

“Thank you, but I want to remain anonymous,” the woman said as she slowly turned to walk back into the cold morning air.

Nancy read the note, and smiled.






On behalf of the thousands of children and who explore, discover, learn, and play at Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms throughout the country, we thank our anonymous friend for her heartfelt gift, and wish her joy, love, and peace this holiday season, and beyond.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com/en/users/GLady-768/ via the Creative Commons license.

The Recess Bell Rings

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant


Outdoor time is about to begin in two elementary schools. For one, this time is called “recess.” It takes place on a playground, with 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, complete with many activity areas and teachers trained to enhance children’s learning experiences in nature. Outdoor time in this school is called “nature time.”

Joey, 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 for requiring vigilance in the teacher. Miss Smith sees little variety in play from day to day, and knows which children are most likely to be involved in interactions requiring monitoring. She has settled into a routine that keeps kids active, safe, and rewarded whenever possible.

Mikeyla, also six, is about to go outside for “nature time” in her school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Yesterday evening, her dog, Bounder, died. He had been her companion since she was a baby, and this the first major death she’s ever had to process. As they gather, Mikeyla tells her friends of Bounder’s death. Previously, they had been talking about making a play in the Music and Movement Area, based on Disney’s “Frozen.” Mikeyla started talking with the “cast,” and said she might like to join them. But first, as she does every day, she’d like to visit the vegetable garden to see the babies starting to grow.

Miss Hewitt, their teacher, had overheard Mikeyla, and approaches the group. “Maybe you could add a dog to your play, and call him Bounder. Would you like that?”

Mikeyla quietly says “yes,” and her friends agree.” Soon, while performing their play outdoors, a large stick would become Bounder to Mikeyla’s Anna. Miss Hewitt, from a distance, watches their play. (Later, when Mikeyla’s parents ask Mikeyla about her day in school, she’ll tell them how she had played again with Bounder in their production of “Frozen.” Her parents will grasp this opportunity to encourage Mikeyla to talk more about her loss, and to help her grieve.)

Now, holding a notepad to document significant observations, Miss Hewitt gathers the children in the meeting area of the outdoor classroom.  She asks them if they have been noticing anything different in the vegetable garden. Mikeyla says that she sees baby vegetables growing, but doesn’t know what they are. Miss Hewitt asks who would like 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 are raised.  She then asks if anyone has plans for what they want to do today. “We’re going to play ‘Frozen,’” says one girl, “and we’re going to have a dog.” Other children ask to join. Two boys say they want to make the hole in the Dirt Digging Area deeper than they left it yesterday. Miss Hewitt looks toward a boy who hasn’t been able to keep still all morning. “You look like you have lots of energy today, Johnny. 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. Later, Miss Hewitt reflects on the diversity of activities that took place during “nature time” that morning: her many opportunities to support the learning she saw; the children’s performance of “Frozen;” and Johnny’s vigorous play in an activity he chose. 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? Which conceptions 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 look at possible answers to these questions.


Connecting Tribal Children with Nature’s Heart and Soul

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

IMG_4422 copy=KThe St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebago, Nebraska serves children from the Omaha (pronounced o-MAH-ha) and Winnebago Native American tribes. Through many different ways of using the school’s Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, teachers Amber Gamble and Brenda Murphy accomplish varied learning goals, and see many transformations in their students.

Much of the time spent in the outdoor classroom involves the same teaching and lessons that would otherwise take place indoors. The space is also used for free play, and as a brief respite area when students from indoor classrooms need calming. And in keeping with Native American culture, this outdoor classroom has its own Medicine Garden.

Traditional culture is now largely the province of the schoolchildren’s grandparents. Strong ties with nature are not nearly as common in the tribes’ younger generations, and children who now learn and play in the outdoor classroom were not always comfortable with the natural world.

Just a few years ago, during a field trip to a wildlife refuge, Principal Don Blackbird observed children who were “grossed-out” by nature. Until the advent of their outdoor classroom, these children had few connections with nature. Thankfully, close relationships with nature that were foundational to their ancestors’ way of life now echo within St. Augustine’s outdoor classroom, especially in the Medicine Garden.

Brenda Murphy, a science teacher coming from Native American ancestry, started the Medicine Garden along with the assistance of Michelle LaMere, a Winnebago tribal member and mother of a tribal student. Brenda has used herbal medicines for years, due to her allergic reactions to industrially manufactured medications. As a result, both her knowledge of the plants and her deep respect for them provide unique resources for the children.

Many concepts from botany and other sciences are learned in this garden. Yet more importantly, Brenda shares her spiritual connections with the plants. For example, whenever part of a plant is removed for study, an offering of water is made, conveying gratitude for its medicinal and/or educational benefits. No more is removed from a plant than is necessary for study, and children understand this orientation towards the natural world. One child exclaimed to Brenda, “Teacher, teacher, there’s medicine everywhere!”

While the Medicine Garden is a core of this outdoor classroom for transmitting a love of nature, the entire area facilitates an excitement about learning. A staple of the younger children’s school day is the “Daily 5.” These are reading and writing exercises, conducted in segments, in which children switch to a new space in the outdoor classroom every 20 minutes. If the Daily 5 exercise can’t be done outdoors, they’re done indoors—and yet, both Brenda and Amber see differences in the children and their learning between the two environments. In regards to the children working outdoors, Amber says, “I’ve never seen them work so well. They work a lot better outside than they do in the room.”

Indoors, children may be distracted by noises coming from within and outside of the classroom. The calming effect of the outdoor classroom is so strong that brief outdoor breaks are often taken when the going gets tough indoors. Amber will ask the children to grab a book and chose a reading spot outside. “We come back in five minutes and get things done,” she says.

And the effects of nature are even more pronounced with children who have challenges. One boy, on being brought outside for the first time, thanked Amber. “No problem,” she replied. “No—thank you for taking me outside,” he repeated. “When I go home I can’t go outside, it’s not safe.” This brief interaction awakened Amber to the importance that children place on being in a safe outdoor space.

This particular child also has behavioral problems inside the classroom; behaviors that disappear when he goes outside. Inside, he may have difficulty sitting still, and can throw himself on the floor when upset. Until Amber saw his transformation outside, she thought this boy’s behaviors were his way of drawing attention. She now sees that his indoor behaviors are associated with the indoor environment.

Other children with different challenges show similar transformations outdoors. Children who react to the stagnant nature of the classroom—to fluorescent lighting, noise, hot and cold—become calmer outdoors. These children transform from helplessly reactive to actively engaged when in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

In June of 2013, Brenda, Don Blackbird, and Dwight Howe had an extraordinary experience with their sixth-through-eighth graders during a field trip. This three-day experience in the Nature Conservancy’s huge Niobrara Valley Preserve didn’t go quite as one might expect; but better. These children are of the “device-dependent” generation, and couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to access their smartphones several times a day. But their phones didn’t work at Niobrara, so they were relegated to swimming in the Niobrara River, exploring the terrain, observing buffalo—all without recourse to their electronics. On the morning of day three, Brenda observed aloud to them: “Do you realize you haven’t been on your devices for three days?” No one cared. They were having too much fun. What an amazing experience for the children and teachers to remember warmly and ponder!

Amber, Brenda, and other teachers at St. Augustine’s are unlocking many of nature’s benefits for their children. While studying academic subjects outdoors, the children are more calm and focused. Hands-on study of animals and materials adds excitement to learning.  Amber says, “I’m finding with my third-graders that they learn so much more and remember so much more when it’s hands-on.” The space itself is used to calm entire classes for brief periods when the need arises. The outdoor classroom is a rare haven for children who are spending much of their time either indoors or with electronics. Most lastingly, holistic and personal connections with nature are inspired by study in the Medicine Garden.

Nature has much to teach us when we slow down to listen. Children and teachers at St. Augustine’s are listening, and learning.