The Caterpillar’s Gift

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

During interviews with people who work in Nature Explore Classrooms, I often hear accounts of children who experience transformations during their play and learning outdoors.  These stories have been woven into the larger blog posts about the classrooms, often losing their richness in the process.  In a new blog series, I will be separating these stories into smaller snapshots that show how Nature Explore Classrooms have impacted people’s lives.  By doing so, I hope to regain the full power of these wonderful events.

The stories you will discover in this series are written in an “inspired by true events” style.  The details of each piece will be as told to me, and will be checked with it’s source.  Yet some of the thinking of the children involved will be my hypotheses, especially when the children are too young to express themselves fully in words.  I believe this is an honest way to convey the power of the many transformations children experience during play in Nature Explore Classrooms.

Recently I was told a story of a four-year-old boy’s transformation that he himself could not tell- other than through his behavior, and in a few simple words.  He has a severe language delay. 

The events are accurately described.  The feelings are my conjectures.


The Caterpillar’s Gift

Johnny had trouble speaking, making very short sentences, even words.  Three syllable words were a challenge.  He was often frustrated by seeing the ease with which other children his age could make their needs known to adults.  And he saw this all day, every day.  Johnny had the same wants and needs that the other children had long since put into words.  Inside, he was like them.  On the outside, and to others, he wasn’t.

Johnny knew that the teachers in his preschool cared for him, and that they tried to understand and help him as much as they could.  But even their kindness couldn’t erase his dilemma.  His frustration didn’t help anything, but he couldn’t help expressing it.  Outbursts were common — indoors.

Outdoors, his behaviors in the school’s Nature Explore Classroom were very different.  Outdoors, as indoors, he still avoided contact with peers and teachers when possible.  Yet the freedom to run around and to choose his own activities allowed him respite from his frustrations.  He often felt happy and relaxed outdoors, exploring as he saw fit, connecting with others occasionally, and only on his own terms.

DSCN4030_1 2One day, he watched from a distance as other children surrounded a small plant, observing something intently.  Johnny couldn’t see what they saw, and didn’t want to risk an outburst by entering the group.  So he stayed where he was, and continued to watch them.

When they left, he moved in.  They had been watching a small caterpillar inch its way up and down a plant.  Johnny, like the other children, found the caterpillar’s slow progress along the stem very interesting.  Transfixed, he watched its journey for a good four minutes.

Yet he wanted to experience the caterpillar’s movement more closely.  He ran to get a magnifying glass, and again, spent many minutes watching the show.

Blog pictureTeachers, who he often avoided, were nearby.  But this time he had something to share with them.  By using the magnifying glass he had discovered great details about the caterpillar and its journey, details that he alone had experienced.  This close observation was his discovery: he owned it.  He now had something to share that didn’t need words.  Now he was just like the other children when they wanted to share their discoveries.

He sought out a teacher, brought her to his caterpillar, and shared his experience with her. “In that situation he didn’t have to use any words, and that gave him a platform to invite a staff person into his world and share that moment of nature.  He was so thrilled,” said his teacher. 

 No words were necessary.

But Johnny found one.

“Cat-er-pill-ar,” he said.  “Cat-er-pill-ar!”

Nature Explore is still working on a title for this new blog series. If you have an idea, please leave your suggestion in the comment section below!

Anythink Libraries: Experiential Learning Indoors and Out

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

anythinkTwo years ago I visited the Nature Explore Classroom at the Wright Farms branch of the Anythink Library in Thornton, Colorado.  With full funding, the Thornton branch built an outdoor classroom as designed by our Nature Explore team. Two other branches of the Anythink Library system received Nature Explore design services but were unable to receive full implementation funding.

Inspired by Nature Explore and Wright Farms, these classrooms at the Brighton and Commerce City branches used the resources they had to create outdoor spaces where children now play, learn, (and sometimes read) both outdoors and in.

The Anythink library concept is a complete redesign of the traditional library, just as the Nature Explore Classroom concept is a complete redesign of traditional outdoor spaces for children. They are like two peas in a pod of learning and wonder.

You won’t find the Dewey Decimal System used to catalog and order reading materials at Anythink Libraries. You will find books and other materials arranged by subject, in attractive displays and shelves.  You also might bump into a full, living tree — indoors; or find a fireplace surrounded by homelike, comfortable seating; or see hatchling chicks; teens attending a technology seminar or camera club meeting; or preschoolers listening to stories.

Anythink Libraries invite people of all ages into spaces that support the richness of experiential learning, through multiple modalities. They are designed around people, not books. Nature Explore Classrooms break the mold of outdoor areas for children by also supporting learning through multiple modalities, in spaces designed around children and nature, not equipment.

Deborah Hogue, Branch Manager of the Commerce City Anythink Library oversees an outdoor classroom with some wonderful natural features that add drama to the space. A magnificent, old cottonwood tree spreads branches and leaves above the classroom’s stage area, giving needed shade to dramatic activities. Many of us have warm memories of trees that were significant to us during childhood. I have no doubt that this tree, along with the outdoor classroom and library, will be touchstones in years to come for the children who play there today.

The other natural feature is a long berm near one edge of the space. A three-step stone staircase leads to the flagstone path along its top surface. Benches surrounding a picnic table sit on a patio-like circle on one end. This area affords a slightly elevated view of the nearby music area and stage, a perspective that is exciting for children.

A few miles away, in Brighton, Colorado, Jackie Kuusinen has a small space to work with, yet still gives children transformative experiences in the outdoor classroom.

The library is in a largely commercial area. Yet when children play in the music, building, sand and other areas, they are miles away from the library building and large parking lot that border the space. It is truly an outdoor “oasis.”

Anythink Library gardenA planter-box garden allows children to observe, tend and harvest its plantings. It is currently home to three varieties of peppers. During a previous planting a child smelled one of the plants and exclaimed, “This plant smells like squash!” To a small child, this is more than just an exciting discovery; it’s a confirmation of her strength in making associations between subtle observations in different environments.

Anythink Libraries attract people of all ages, and are havens for teens. Teens are offered many avenues for thoughtful activity, with computers being in the mix. Conversation works in the library, but rambunctiousness doesn’t. To her own initial disbelief, Jackie has found that teens directed to the outdoor classroom don’t take their rambunctiousness outside, but are calmed by the space. The outdoor classroom allows teens to remain on grounds and return quickly, rather than simply to leave the library.

This spring and early summer has been extremely rainy in Colorado. During a brief interval between rainy days, Jackie went to plant an apple tree in the outdoor classroom. As soon as she picked up the shovel, she was surrounded by children. Jackie received enthusiastic help in planting the apple tree. Once planted, the tree needed fertilizing — with “sheep poop and worms,” that is. The children’s disbelief that they were handling sheep poop rapidly changed to pride in caring for the tree. Anytime a timidity towards engaging with natural materials is overcome, learning and expanded opportunities for experience result. The children were amused by their accomplishment, and proud, too.

Varied opportunities for experiential learning are the hallmarks of all Anythink Libraries. Taking ideas from the Wright Farms branch’s certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, the Commerce City and Brighton branches have developed spaces where children can play, learn, observe, and wonder. As Jackie said, “We wouldn’t be who we are without that space. A lot of libraries do a good job with their indoor space but forget about the outdoors.” The outdoors isn’t forgotten, but celebrated in these amazing Anythink Libraries.

Are you ready for a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom? Let’s do this!

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By Kara Ficke, Nature Explore Program Resource Development Manager

 karaEvery day, I want to shout from the roof tops, “The Nature Explore program is changing education!  Come on world, let’s do this together!” I have the absolutely incredible opportunity to live and breathe Nature Explore and watch the lives of children, families and educators completely change as a result of embracing the outdoors as an extension of the indoor classroom.

As a non-profit organization dedicated to the mission of connecting children with nature, we are here as your support system and to provide expertise from a wealth of research and experience…I’m talking A LOT. I have seen our program grow  immensely– because of passionate people like you that are deeply committed to outdoor exploration and discovery.  With more than 500 outdoor classroom designs under our belts and over 15 years of research, we know what works and we are passionate about working in collaboration with you and your planning team. The Nature Explore program design process is FAR from typical.  It is innovative and all encompassing…everything we do comes from the heart. So…are you ready to get started?

Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms are uniquely designed for each location. These outdoor environments promote whole-child learning in nature, child-initiated exploration, and adult-supported discovery that goes well beyond recess. This is a nitty gritty step by step guide to ensure your experience is effective, efficient and most importantly…FUN.

Step 1: Call us!

The folks on the Nature Explore Client Relationship team are excited to get talk to you – no matter where you are at in the process.  Throw as many questions as you can to these team members…trust me, they are ready! You will have the opportunity to talk with Ken, Tara, Carly, or Kara (that’s me) and from the moment we start conversing, you will be supported by one of us through the entire process and beyond…we will be your “go-to” here at the Nature Explore Program! Let us introduce you to the design process, create a proposal of services and provide you with any additional support material you need to make an informed decision.

“One’s mind, stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Step 2: Scheduling your outdoor classroom design

If you rent from another entity, or have a governing board, be sure you have taken all appropriate measures to get permission for the transformation of the space.  Sometimes this means meeting with a Board of Directors to get approval of land use and in some cases, access to money budgeted for “playground improvements.”  Once you have crossed your “t’s” and dotted your “i’s,” call your Client Relationship Manager to move forward in scheduling the Outdoor Classroom Design 2-day visit.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question: What are you doing for others?” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Step 3: Gather the troops!

We will talk a lot about the importance of a diverse planning team to help support your efforts and hard work.  From our experience, a team of 6-8 individuals seems to be the perfect number. People to consider for your team may include: program administrators, teaching staff representatives, board members, facilities/maintenance staff, representatives from community organizations, parents from your program, etc.  Nature Explore will personally reach out to a few of our partners like Keep America Beautiful and Tree City USA to see if representatives from your local chapters may be able to attend the meetings during our 2 day visit as well.

“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Step 4: Preparation for the onsite design visit

We want to learn as much as we can about your program, so before our team arrives for the two day on-site design consultation, your Client Relationship Manager will send you resources and educational materials to inspire you and your planning team.  We will also schedule a conference call that includes your Nature Explore Landscape Architect and Educational Specialist team – this is a fun opportunity to chat a little bit about the upcoming visit and answer any questions you may have.

“Work is love made visible.” – Kahlil Gibran

kenKnowledge is powerful and great change comes with determination, passion and good old-fashioned hard work. You can do this. We look forward to hearing from you soon!

Want to learn more about the design visit itself?  Click here to learn more:

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. Read the rest of this entry.

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.


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.