The Recess Bell Rings (Part Two)

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

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Outdoors 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 Classroom, with many activity areas, and teachers trained to enhance children’s learning experiences in nature. Outdoor time in this school is called “nature time.”

Let’s start in the traditional playground. 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. 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.

Mikeyla, also six, is about to go outside for “nature time” in her school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Yesterday evening her dog died. He had been her companion since she was a baby, and this was her first major death. As they all gathered, Mikeyla told her friends of Bounder’s death. 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 want to join them. But first, as she did every day, she wanted to visit the vegetable garden to see the “babies” that were starting to grow.

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

Mikeyla quietly said yes, and her friends agreed. Soon, outdoors, a large stick would become Bounder to Mikeyla’s Anna. Miss Hewitt, from a distance, would watch their play. (Later, when Mikeyla’s parents ask about her day in school, she’ll tell them how she had played again with Bounder in their production of Frozen. Her parents grasped this opportunity to encourage Mikeyla to talk more about her loss, helping her work through her sadness.)

Now, holding a notepad to document her 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 for volunteers 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 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 towards 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? 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 look at possible answers to these questions.

The Recess Bell Rings

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

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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.

Six of the Many Things We are Thankful For this Season

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

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1. We are thankful for worms.

Have you hugged a worm today?  Or fed one?  In Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, the simple worm opens doors to worlds of learning.

2. We are thankful for children.

In outdoor classrooms, children have constant opportunities to discover and experience the physical world in its richest forms.  Whole-child learning is at its best in nature.  When discovering with others, children build interpersonal skills.  When discovering alone, they expand self.

3. We are thankful for teachers.

Teachers, seeing the whole-child development experienced by children in nature, are often transformed themselves.  Their own sense of wonder towards the natural world may be expanded or recaptured.  Outdoors, they may connect with a child’s sense of wonder more clearly than they can indoors.  Their teaching may be enriched from having seen the depths of children’s play and exploration that take place in the outdoor classroom.

4. We are thankful for friendship.

Play based on competition and physical strength, common in traditional playgrounds, is relatively absent from outdoor classrooms.  Shared interests unite children who would not otherwise play together meaningfully.  Relationships and social skills can be developed from a whole-child perspective. This play is a joy to watch.  For many teachers, it’s a relief.

5. We are thankful for transformations.

Transformation is a powerful word, yet no other describes the effects of nature on children as well.  Children playing and exploring together with mutual respect, and affection, is hugely transformational.

What if what mattered in children’s group play was not gender, size or strength; but shared curiosities?  What if the differences between children’s behaviors we see on playgrounds, and those we see in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms were carried forward through the school years? What if the lessons learned in these environments were supported both at school and at home?  What if nature were to be as integral to schools as traditional playgrounds are today?  What if…

6. And we are thankful for YOU!

Nature Unplugged

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant and Writer

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The use of technology for information, entertainment, and communication is a given, worldwide. My smartphone’s navigation function, using a pleasant-sounding woman’s voice, guides me effortlessly through streets in unfamiliar places, to new destinations. As I drive, there’s often a CD playing in the background.

In 2010, during a visit to an elementary school in a jungle town on the Indonesian island of Bangka, a girl tugged at my shirt. “Mister, do you Skype?” she asked. At that time, Indonesia had the world’s fastest growth rate of social media adopters. Inexpensive “handphones” and data plans placed information, entertainment, and communication in children’s hands; even in the jungle.

As technology’s devices shrink, the scope of our world often does, too. Most of us probably feel that while devices can inform, entertain, and keep us in touch, technology often distances us from richer forms of direct experience.  We feel this, despite accepting ever more forms of technology into our lives.

Yet, would you believe that, in some conditions, nature actually prevents a simple technology from working? That, during one of the most critical periods of communication in a person’s life, anyone, graduate degreed or uneducated, young or old, can outperform digital technology just by being themselves?  What if I told you that nature can actually prevent technology from working at all while giving a five-year-old child the power to work wonders?

For the full, rich details of this assertion (and much more), please experience this extraordinary TED Talk; “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” by Patricia Kuhl. It’s available here. (Thanks, technology!)

Kuhl and her researchers have discovered that babies who are 6–9 months old actively learn the specific sounds they’ll need in order to speak their native language. The babies start taking “statistics” on the spoken sounds they hear, differentiating them from other non-language sounds, storing them, and soon learning to form them into language.

During this 90-day window, American babies exposed to a Mandarin Chinese speaker will “take statistics” on these new sounds in addition to the sounds they hear in English. If they aren’t exposed to these extra sounds at this critical period, they won’t be able to differentiate them from other sounds when tested just a few months later. If they do hear Mandarin Chinese sounds, these babies are fully equivalent to their Taiwanese counterparts in recognizing them during the testing.

But there’s a catch. It’s not just hearing these sounds that make them stick, it’s hearing them spoken by a person. Babies who hear the same Mandarin Chinese sounds through audio or video don’t learn them at all. Meanwhile, babies exposed to a person speaking Mandarin for just a few hours a week over two months do learn these sounds. The actual person is the signal to the baby that the sounds the person is making are for language. In terms of language acquisition, during this period, the barking dog and Elvis on the stereo are just noise. So are those baby language enrichment CDs. Technology out. Nature in.

Until technology entered into the relationship between children and nature, nature did quite well by herself. The young child’s brain and body are designed to explore and discover. Unless influenced otherwise, children have an inherent affinity for exploring natural environments. Technology can sometimes enrich the child’s experience of nature, but it also has the power to impair this vital relationship. Could there be areas important to our development, other than language acquisition, in which technology might actually harm an otherwise natural process?

Consider two young children watching an anthill. One child looks briefly, then asks an adult to help him learn more about ants on the Internet. The other child studies the ants’ behaviors more closely, watching them longer. She’ll probably develop her own theories of the behaviors she observes, creating stories or drawings to convey her thoughts. She may then ask an adult to help her learn from a book or the Internet.

In the first instance, a transitory interest leads to reflexively consulting a habitual source of information. Reliance on technology has effectively short-circuited what could have been a far more enriching experience. For the second child, close observations are followed by creative hypotheses and artistic expressions, then by learning from other sources. No short-circuiting here.

The child fascinated with nature as an end in itself is participating in a wholly different experience than the child who is dependent on technology for answers to his questions. And, the child who lingers with the ants is more likely to develop an abiding appreciation of nature.

Nature’s power to enrich and transform children may be compromised when nature becomes just another experience that requires enhancement by technology. As with the baby learning language, sometimes nature by herself is what nurtures best.

Nature is the only environment in which anyone of any age can test himself or herself, and learn. The baby learns about textures, odors, and colors through contact with fragrant plants and flowers. He tests his tolerance for various sensations by exploring, then withdrawing from something uncomfortable or unfamiliar, followed by more exploration. The toddler both tests and improves her balance by running up and down a small hill. The elementary school-aged child learns caregiving by taking care of animals. Older children may develop self-confidence while gaining skills in camping or backpacking. People of widely varying ages test themselves and improve fitness in outdoor, nature-based sports. Mountaineering, skiing, paddling, and biking are just a few of the many activities that refresh our ties with nature.

Many, in the closing years of life, turn to gardening for exercise and relaxation. Gardening often has a poignant way of recapitulating for the elderly mature expressions of the small child’s experience with nature. Here is a gentle activity that may unite exercise, texture, odor, color, planning, taste, observation, caretaking, and more through a simple communion with nature. Which technology, thing, or environment can yield so much for so many so simply? So naturally?

As Kuhl demonstrates, sometimes nature has designed us to remain unplugged.  The next time you think of children spending time in nature, when their experience could in any way be connected with technology, consider pausing for a moment. Will this connection between nature and technology truly enrich the child’s experience, as some of these connections can? Or, will the proposed connection actually impair the child’s potential to form a transformative, lifelong relationship with nature?

Nature isn’t subject to blackouts, or to running out of battery power. Not only are batteries not included, they’re not needed. Leave them home when you bring children to an environment that holds the promise of engaging their intellect, emotions, spirits, and bodies like no other.  This is a promise best delivered unplugged.

Nature Explore at NAEYC 2014

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By Cory Kibler, Marketing Assistant with the Nature Explore Program

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Once again, Nature Explore was honored to send team members to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Conference and Expo Nov. 5–8 in Dallas, and it was a joy to interact with so many advocates for early education.

By all accounts, the conference was a success—our booth and our sessions were well-attended; we reconnected with old friends and made new ones; and, best of all, we were amazed by what we learned.

30 million. That’s the number of words a child should hear by the age of three to achieve successful literacy in their lives. However, it’s not easy; these words have to be heard at school and at home. That means it’s everyone’s job to impart language to our children. The good news is that, when children are engaged in outdoor classroom activities—building, moving, making music, creating art, exploring, and interacting—the words come freely. In an outdoor classroom, children have direct experiences with new concepts and vocabulary words. For example, a child is much more apt to learn the concept of plant growth after caring for the plants themselves.

Three years. That’s about how long we’ve been noticing a major shift in the enthusiasm and acceptance of outdoor learning environments. In other words, educators are looking at the research, observing outdoor classrooms for themselves, and looking outside traditional models to find solutions for behavioral issues, child health and wellness, and a host of other challenges. And, more and more, these educators are finding that outdoor classrooms tackle these issues head-on.

Plentiful. That describes the number of connections we forge (and renew) each time we visit NAEYC. Our dedicated network of partners includes Keep America Beautiful, Alliance for Childhood, Community Playthings, Lakeshore Learning, Project Learning Tree, Bright Horizons, Workforce Solutions, Collaboration for Children, National Head Start, the NAAEE Natural Start Alliance, and several more.

One. It only takes one thing—one idea, one educator, one parent, or even one child—to change the way we talk about education. If you have an idea of how to better connect our children with nature, start a dialogue; talk to your peers, tell your administrators, or reach out to us to begin a conversation. It may very well lead to real change.

Join the conversation. What have you learned recently about children and nature?

Trust the Child

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

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You’re sitting at a table with three or four of your clients, discussing your proposed plans, getting nowhere.  Nothing but pushback.  You know that most people have varying difficulties accepting change; but this is different.  Feet dug-in.

What do you do when you know that your proposals would make worlds of difference to your clients, but they just can’t see it?  The old truism that people feel safer with what they know than venturing into the unknown applies here.  If your clients could just see what you are talking about…  What can you do?

If you are Tammy Beeman, owner operator of Grow With Me Home Childcare, in Lorain, Ohio, and your clients at the table are the children you serve, you let them see what you are talking about—in photos.  She did, and once the children “saw” what she meant by “outdoor classroom,” they understood quickly.  Parents came on board in a flash, and eagerly provided much of the work in getting Tammy’s now-certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom in place.

Shortly before her planning session with the children, Tammy had attended a workshop, where she was introduced to the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom concept.  At this point Tammy had been providing home child care services for over a decade. She immediately embraced the outdoor classroom concept and intuitively understood the profound changes it would bring to the children, and to her.

Tammy’s first thoughts on discovering outdoor classrooms were, “I wanted it so badly.  I wanted to get rid of all the plastic.”  She understood that play with natural materials resonated with her own childhood, which had been filled with self-directed explorations in nature, supported by parents who gave her the freedom to solve problems on her own.  She trusted her own experience as an inspiration in creating an environment for the children.

As we’ve seen by Tammy’s involving the children in the planning of their outdoor classroom, she also trusts the children to have good ideas.  After reviewing photos of outdoor classrooms on Pinterest with the children, she used their ideas while developing the space.  Parents were instrumental in building the classroom, and all have been pleased by the results.

Tell us how you incorporate children’s ideas into you outdoor classroom and for more about Tammy’s experiences see next week’s post. Trust The Child Part Two.

 

Boosting Family Engagement in a Nature Explore Classroom

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“The more families become involved in the day-to-day experiences in of the outdoor classroom the more their level of excitement deepens.”

Keeping it Growing: Sustaining Your Outdoor Classroom

Families come to us with a wealth of experiences and interests. They are their child’s most lasting and valuable teachers. Programs that find ways to work with parents and other relatives to make decisions and support all children see great returns in family engagement. They develop relationships with enthusiastic parents who are ready to share their time and resources.

Our Certified Nature Explore Classroom network shared some of their best Family Engagement ideas with us. This is just the beginning of a long list of ways a Nature Explore Classroom can enhance the lives of families and encourage program, community and family connections. 

    1. Host an event in your Nature Explore Classroom. The Child Development Center at Hurlburt Field Air Force Base in Florida holds an annual fall open house. Families are invited to take a stroll through the Garden Area or build a castle in the Building Area. During the event, families learn about each other, meet their children’s teachers and see — first hand — the great benefits of playing outdoors.

     

    1.  Develop routines with families. Dimensions Early Education Programs in Lincoln, Nebraska schedules part of their outdoor classroom time during drop off and/or pick up. Families are encouraged to spend time with their child as they transition into or out of school activities. Some parents even make time every day to water a special plant or tidy their child’s favorite play space.

     

    1. Highlight Nature in the Community. St. Francis Episcopal Day School in Houston, Texas established a Families Club as a way to connect families to nature and build community. They have grown a strong pool of parent volunteers who are eager to help with construction and ongoing maintenance of the outdoor classroom.

     

    1. Keep Communicating. When programs share stories of children’s powerful learning that is happening in a Nature Explore Classroom, they build an appreciation for nature and the outdoor classroom itself. Highland Plaza United Methodist Preschool in Hixon, Tennesee uses their website, newsletter and Facebook page to highlight experiences and share information. Informed parents provide support. They help children arrive with appropriate weather gear, donate supplies and volunteer their time. They are also more enthusiastic about the program and can be counted on to tell their friends and neighbors about the program.

 

How have you fostered family engagement in your school, program or center? What ideas have helped parent engagement soar in your Nature Explore Classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Lifelong Relationships With Natural Materials

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

392_058 You already know that profound, whole-body learning can be achieved when children play with natural materials. Objects such as stones, water, acorns, shells, pinecones, rocks and branches offer learning adventures that evolve as children grow.  Sensory-rich experiences, open-ended imaginative play, and what is traditionally viewed as academic learning are major features of children’s use of natural materials.

Plastic toys may be used until their form or function no longer interests the child.  They offer a period of play, and are then left behind.  Natural materials are never truly “thrown away.”   Their function to a child may evolve over time.  Experiences with natural materials, beginning in the world of play, long outlast the period of play offered by plastic toys.  Natural materials may change in form, break down or decompose, but they always return, in some form, with the potential to draw us into further experiences.

 Yet the deeper value of natural materials lies beyond their educative value.   They hold potentials for drawing us into relationships that may evolve over a lifetime.

Let’s take stone as an example.

Stones are ideal educational aids for intuitively learning the fundamentals of math and physics.  With small stones children learn many aspects of counting, classification and ordering (based on size, color, pattern etc.).  Concepts such as weight may be experienced at a basic level during play with stones of varying densities and sizes; simply by carrying them, or by more complex play involving construction and balance.

 These early understandings become internalized foundations for later learning.  Formal introduction of beginning math and physics concepts will be complemented by the fun, intuitive, whole-body learning from earlier play in nature.

Stones also have many functions in imaginative play.  They can form parts of a model house, or represent people and pets in a house.  They can be transformed into virtually anything by active imaginations.

Many children love to collect stones based on qualities that are personal to each child.  You may remember the blog story of the shy, withdrawn boy in an urban school, whose private stone collection from the school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom earned the interest of his classmates.  Stones for this boy built a bridge to peer relationships.  Then there was the story of the mother annoyed with her son’s stones found in his pockets before laundering.  After he brought a new collection home in a pillbox, and described each stone’s special quality, she grew to cherish his insights and joined him in his collecting.  Again, a simple natural material leads to new depths of interpersonal experience.

The many valuable roles stone can play in a child’s life may be just the beginnings of a lifelong relationship.  The child who climbs or plays on rock may recall those experiences in later years as treasured memories.  This child may also grow to love rock climbing and camping.

In some cultures stone is regarded as art, and has the power to inspire profound life-long connections.  For centuries, the Chinese have used found stone as statuary, both indoors and out.  One Chinese art form prizes stones, of any size, that exhibit an ideal balance of shape and pattern.  My friend, a retired Chinese-Indonesian businessman, loves to wander areas where rocks of this quality are likely to be found.  His collection ranges from small stones on shelves, to table-top rocks, to the multi-ton boulder he had moved from the lowland jungle to his mountain home.  For him, rocks are art, spirit and tradition.

 The potentials for lifetime relationships with the natural world are seeded in early childhood—the earlier the better. Start planting these seeds today.  It’s never too early to begin exposing children to nature.  Daily connections are best.  The child whose early play experiences involve extensive engagement with natural materials is primed for later schooling, and ripe for lifelong relationships with the natural world.

For many detailed examples of learning across many domains through play with natural materials, please see our book: “Growing With Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms,” available through the Nature Explore website

Everyone is a Learner at the 2014 Leadership Insitute

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

LI2014_Group1

“Even better than last year’s Leadership Institute,” is the thought voiced by many returnees. One first-timer told me, “From now on, this is an annual event for me.”   People left last week’s Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project’s annual Leadership Institute with new and renewed friendships, inspiration, and valuable ideas that can be put into practice in the service of connecting children to nature.

Everyone is a learner at the Leadership Institute.  Everyone from workshop presenters to first-time attendees has ideas to share with others; both in workshops and during informal discussions. True wisdom about connecting children with nature is not held by any one individual.  It resides in the ongoing dialogue between us all.  Our dialogue reaches its most productive level during Leadership Institutes, where ideas of people at all levels of experience intermix.

This is the “secret” to why the Leadership Institute just keeps on getting better every year.  The program is an evolving blend of the “tried-and-true” workshops and the entirely new presentations.  My favorite example of the “tried-and-true” is the conference-long Designer Track, and my favorite new feature was the “Sharing our Work” series of brief presentations of many individual projects.

The “tried-and-true” designer track included experienced landscape designers mixed with outdoor classroom operators and teachers.  Sam Dennis, Professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Douglas Godfrey, Parks Planner for Boulder, Colorado’s Department of Parks and Recreation mixed with Andrea Blaha, Trail Specialist and Naturalist at Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Indian Creek Nature Center, and Lisa Oltmans, a Teacher at St. Paul Lutheran School, in Beatrice, Nebraska.  The Nature Explore team facilitated the group’s process of developing three new, full outdoor classroom designs. They  were based on the natural features of one outdoor space at the Arbor Day Farm, and on the widely varying requirements of three imaginary clients.  All designs were presented to the entire conference on the last day.  Collective wisdom, shared with the entire conference, was this group’s gift to us all.

During “Sharing Our Work” presentations we learned highlights of many diverse outdoor classroom settings.  Although individual voices are the mainstay of the many workshops, these presentations, augmented by photos, was the chance for the entire group to hear these voices.  And one of these voices powerfully transported us all on a journey into the heart of nature, and into abiding human connections.

Rebecca Kreth and Peggy McCloud, both of Tacoma, Washington, presented on activities with the Puyallup Native American Tribe’s Grandview Early Learning Center, and on the local culture surrounding it.  Peggy, a Puyallup, brought a painted drum and a woven basket to the podium.  After talking about her tribe’s culture, Peggy placed her hands on the decorative basket, and the magic began.  She told the story of a young Native American basket weaver who had not yet “found her own design” for her work. Tribal women take her into a forest, and tell her that she’ll find her design by continuing alone.  The young woman moves in fright through the forest, having no idea what the elders meant.  She soon meets a series of animals that question why she is there.  Through these dialogues she experiences her people’s vivid and living connection with nature, and begins to find her “own design.”  As she emerges from the forest we all discover that the women had been waiting for her all along, and welcome her back to the community, now ready to share nature-inspired learning.  Few eyes were dry as Peggy left the podium.

Isn’t this story’s dialog, between nature and man, the story of the Leadership Institute itself?  Over a hundred and thirty of us left our daily lives back home, journeyed into a nature rich setting for three days, engaged in many dialogues, then emerged with new ideas to inform our own ways of connecting children with nature.

If you have attended past Leadership Institutes, please return next year for renewal.  We need your informed voice.  If you haven’t, please join us.  Your voice, and ours will be enriched.