You’ve Designed Your Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Now what?

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

Creating a sustainable and effective outdoor classroom can be a wonderful experience.  From dreaming about what the outdoor space could be, to getting the design in place, to construction and finally daily use by children, educators, families and community.  However, it is important to remember it’s a process, and we are here to support you along the way.

So…you have a design for your outdoor classroom. Now what? Your staff is excited and you  have a concept plan created by a Nature Explore landscape architect and education specialist, in collaboration with your team. The design is beautiful and incorporates a rich mix of activity areas that fit perfectly with your landscape and educational goals. Everyone is on cloud 9 and ready to get started. Let us help you keep that momentum going and get a game plan in place so you can continue moving forward!

Continue to Fundraise

Concept Plan – Your professionally designed, fully rendered concept plan is the perfect tool to start or continue fundraising. Show the community your vision!

  • Post your plan on a website, social media platforms, in parent newsletters, etc.
  • Create a wish list where donors can purchase specific items or sponsor an area of the outdoor classroom.
  • Your concept plan can also accompany grant applications. Visit funding resources on the Community Connection section of our website for a grant template  and a list of organizations who may contribute to the creation of your outdoor classroom.

Donor Dedications – Donor dedications are a wonderful way to add a very personal touch to your outdoor classroom.

  • Selling engraved bricks, pavers or personalized fence “pickets,” to be installed in your outdoor classroom, is a great way to honor donors, students, families,  businesses, and advocates.
  • Custom signage for each of your Nature Explore activity areas can be engraved with the donor’s name or a custom name for the area.
  • Create engraved plaques to be placed on planter boxes, benches, tables, etc.

Traditional Fundraisers – There are A LOT of fundraising ideas out there.  Here are a few classic fundraisers you may want to consider:

  • Selling organic or fair trade goods has great profit potential and also supports a great cause.
  • Hosting a walk-a-thon is a lot of fun and gets everyone outside walking together. Invite your community and plan fun activities for children and adults to  participate in!
  • Plan a silent auction with themed baskets full of items representing the outdoor classroom, such as exploration, gardening, music, building and outdoor art.

Funds for Maintenance – Maintenance and replenishment are important for a long-lasting, vibrant outdoor classroom. Here are some ideas to consider in the near future once your outdoor classroom is built:

  • Develop a “Green for Green” fundraiser in which families purchase a plant and care for it within the outdoor classroom.
  • Hold a “Farmer’s Market” with sales of produce and cut flowers that come from the outdoor classroom.
  • Rent your completed classroom out for birthday parties and other events with proceeds going to maintenance.

Engage a Contractor, Skilled Volunteers, or Both

Finding a Professional Contractor – If you are looking to hire a professional, ask for local recommendations for landscape contractors or design/build landscape architecture firms from your families, staff and other community members. Your state Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) chapter or Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) can often recommend a landscape contractor who will be familiar with the scope of your project. Ask for a contractor skilled at wood construction, flagstone and concrete, as well as designing and installing a planting plan.

Engaging your Contractor – It’s often helpful to set up a meeting with your contractor, or potential contractors, and your Action Team or Project Leader to further define the project. If you invited your contractor to your Nature Explore design consultation, perfect! If not, now’s the time to catch them up. Be sure to share with them all the materials and plans created by the Nature Explore team, and let him or her know they are welcome to call us with any questions that may arise.

Using Volunteers – A successful volunteer day will require planning, direction and setting reasonable goals for the day. Be sure that volunteers have the necessary skills for the assigned task. Volunteers are especially helpful in laying mulch, planting and assembling outdoor furnishings. If items require permanent installation (meaning the item needs to be set in concrete), be sure this step is done by a professional or someone with knowledge in this area. Remember — positive energy and a wealth of gratitude will go a long way. We love our volunteers!

Celebrate Along the Way!

Celebrating is so important. You are doing VERY important work and changing lives. Hosting a ground-breaking event prior to starting work on the outdoor classroom and a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the work is completed are great milestones to commemorate. We suggest inviting all stakeholders and local media to attend these events.

We’re Here to Help

Throughout your entire process of creating an outdoor classroom, we’re always here to offer continued support. Contact us with questions about additional services and resources we can offer you after your design consultation.

Need to Schedule a Design Consultation?

Our research-based design approach, coupled with strong educational knowledge really makes our process unique. Our multidisciplinary team will offer you professional knowledge and experience applied directly to the design of children’s outdoor environments. It’s also a collaborative effort: YOU are a part of this. We will help your team build consensus and create a unified vision. We help you ask all the important questions upfront, and our years of experience will help save you time and money in the long run. The end result: a space that really works for children and educators.

We would love to hear from you! Contact us at or (888) 908-8733.


Heart-Centered Teaching: Using Effective, Heart-Centered Gardening Tools

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This is the third in a series of blog posts by Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of Nature Explore. These posts were originally featured in 2013 and are a distillation of key ideas from her book, “Heart-Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature.”

498_131Now that we’ve begun to “prepare our soil” and provide ourselves with the deep roots needed to endure life’s tumultuous weather, we can begin to gather effective tools for cultivating our flourishing inner gardens. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a number of tools to help myself grow, and these are the four I’ve come to value most: time with nature, lifelong learning, gratitude and celebration.

Rachel Carson wrote, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.” Ah, humility. There is something changeless and powerful about the natural world that helps me put my personal challenges in perspective. At Nature Explore, we spend a lot of time discussing the benefits for children of time outdoors; I want to take this opportunity to underscore how equally transformative time with nature can be for educators. Perhaps, in your own life, you already find ways to connect with the natural world. If not, here are some simple first steps: visit a grocery store or farmer’s market to connect with the scents and textures of fresh produce; give yourself a few minutes to stare out a window watching the wind in the clouds; plan a nature walk with a friend or relative; plant a garden or even just a few fresh herbs in a pot. Repeat.

If I think of some of the happiest people I’ve ever encountered, I could universally refer to them as “lifelong learners.” The best educators I know are curious, passionate about ideas, and always ready to explore something new. They use the tool of lifelong learning to help their inner gardens blossom. Further, one of the greatest gifts we can give children is to be invested in our own learning. Our enthusiasm will trickle into our interactions with our students, creating an infectious commitment to trying new things and caring deeply for ideas.

Gratitude. We feel it on a daily basis—perhaps many times a day—but few of us take advantage of opportunities to express our gratitude to others. This is a societal challenge. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes, “We do not have a vehicle in our culture for telling people who mean the most to us how thankful we are that they are on the planet.” Expressing gratitude takes practice. I invite you to find small ways to bring gratitude into your daily routine. Making it a point to sincerely thank someone every day keeps us focused on our own gratitude while lifting someone else up—a win/win situation!

Perhaps the tool that offers the most “bang for the buck” is Celebration. We don’t have to wait for holidays or monumental life events to find cause for celebration. In fact, I believe celebration can be a daily ritual. All of us can benefit from seeking out more opportunities to celebrate life “just because.”

Here are a few possibilities to get you started…

*Pick a bouquet of fresh flowers

*Re-read a favorite book

*Cook a special dinner

*Take a walk in a beautiful park

*Enjoy a glass of wine or cup of tea by the fire

*Listen to your favorite album in its entirety, letting yourself contemplate and savor the music and lyrics

*Build a campfire and roast marshmallows

*Eat breakfast in bed

These four tools—Time with Nature, Lifelong Learning, Gratitude and Celebration—have consistently brought me balance and joy; they allow me to tend my inner garden. What tools have you discovered?

Other Heart-Centered posts: Prepare Your Soil; Self-Discovery

From The Ground Up: Build Day

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By Heather Fox, Nature Explore Education Specialist 

This series will follow the creation of a Nature Explore Classroom as it develops from a concept plan into a reality.  Heather is applying the theory she knows so well towards the less familiar territory of building, contracting and planting. We hope her experience will assist you on your own path towards a fully realized nature-rich outdoor classroom.

Build it and they will come…or should I say, they will come if they know they get to build. This was our experience at Southern Heights Food Forest’s first ever build party.

It was our next step in creating a Nature Explore Classroom from the ground up, and the purpose was to assemble our first round of furnishings.  Because this project relies on grants and donations, we chose to create simple representations of each of the recommended areas.

We purchased most of the natural products from the Nature Explore Resource Guide since we knew they were field-tested and teacher approved. The tables, benches and planters were to become the templates/inspiration for future outdoor classroom features.

Not being a natural builder myself, I was both excited and nervous about this event. Here are a few lessons learned:

1) Deliver near the site. I didn’t take my coworkers advice when he urged me to have all the materials shipped to the build site. It seemed to me he was just weary from the countless times I had asked for his help with the “heavy stuff,” and I vowed to carry everything myself from my office, to the car, and then to the site. Turns out he was right; my time and muscle power could have been better spent. Let UPS do the work.

2) Organize building kits. This was the best part! The day before the event, I took everything out of the boxes, read the instructions, then counted and grouped all the materials needed to build each item. When the volunteers arrived the next day they chose a “kit,” grabbed the needed tools, and went to work.

3) Use Communication tools. While it’s important to remember your physical tools (drills, screwdriver bits, hatchet wrench), it’s equally important to remember your communication tools. Each volunteer came to the building event with individual skills, understandings, and with their own way of communicating. In order to support multiple learning styles, I printed the directions for each of the Nature Explore Natural Products from the website.  By providing directions in writing, in photos and verbally, we met the needs of all. I also witnessed great negotiation skills in action as the furnishings took form.

In the end, ten eager adults and one tween built six benches, two tables and an art easel. We left proud of our accomplishments and excited to put them into action. These are my lesson learned. What are yours? Please join the conversation and share in the comments below.

Heart-Centered Teaching: Exercises for Self-Discovery

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This is the second in a series of blog posts by Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of Nature Explore. These posts were originally featured in 2013 and are a distillation of key ideas from her book, Heart-Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature.”

If you’re just getting started on your journey through Heart-Centered Teaching, click here to read the first post.

392_189In my fifth decade of life, I began to realize that my inner garden was choked with so many “weeds” that it was hard to nurture the strong and healthy “roots” I needed to keep me grounded and flourishing. Learning to understand myself better has helped me remove some of those weeds—the self-judgment and criticism that used to keep me from fully savoring life.

In my last blog, I invited you to consider ways in which you “tend your own soil” and keep your own weeds at bay. What did you discover? Share your best ideas in the comments.

For the next few days, I invite you to begin by trying a few exercises that I’ve found particularly effective. I believe these may help you launch your process of self-care and self-discovery.

*Spend a full week paying attention to your inner monologue. Resolve to change any negative messages you hear into positive, supportive statements. After just a few days of this deliberate thought shifting, you’ll be well on your way to a new, more authentically nurturing way of relating to yourself.

*Focus on a sense of purpose that will strengthen the deep roots needed to help you hold your ground during life’s storms. Find a nature filled setting where you can sit and write for an uninterrupted period of time. (I’ve found that when I’m surrounded by nature it’s easier to focus on something greater than myself, on higher purposes than I might connect to otherwise.) Don’t censor what you write; let your inner wisdom speak freely. Re-read what you’ve written… what clues and themes emerge?

*Create your own definition of heart-centered education. Consider how connections with the natural world can deepen your ability to support children from a place of appreciation, gratitude, and a genuine sense of wonder. Once you’re able to choose one phrase or sentence that expresses your commitment to your work, jot it on a post-it note and place it someplace prominent, so that you can begin each day remembering why you love what you do.

Self-nurturing—preparing our soil—takes time and is, for most of us, a lifelong journey. On those “rainy” days when things feel more frustrating than fulfilling, I invite you to keep in mind this quote by Pema Chodron:

You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.


Heart-Centered Teaching: An Invitation To Prepare Your Soil

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This is the first in a series of blog posts by Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of Nature Explore. These posts were originally featured in 2013 and are a distillation of key ideas from her book, Heart-Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature.”

“It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She (or he) must first love and understand the universe.” –Maria Montessori

392_065I’d like to begin by sharing my definition of “heart-centered teaching inspired by nature.” I’m talking about a way of supporting children that comes from a place of love for each other and a place of awe and appreciation for the wonders of the world around us. I’m talking about a belief that children’s skill development is only one aspect of learning, and not the most important one at that! I believe that helping children find out who they are and what they can contribute to the world is the most crucial work we educators can do. And I believe connections with the natural world can provide strength and inspiration for our personal journeys.

In the coming weeks, I am going to invite you to journey with me through a metaphorical garden, one in which educators recognize that caring for themselves allows them to care for children; in which strong roots are nurtured; and in which effective gardening tools—chiefly connection to the natural world—are used to grow balanced, creative teachers and, in turn, healthy and thriving “little plants.”

I believe that before we can examine our role as heart-centered educators, we must devote time and attention to “preparing our soil.” Although it can feel like an impossible feat in our fast-paced, frenetic culture, we must find ways to deeply and richly experience life in all its complexity: wonder, joy, sorrow, excitement, frustration, curiosity, laughter, inspiration and love. Declaring this commitment to our own growth allows us to be equally invested in our students’ development.

This sounds simple, right? Ha. While the idea of self-nurturing is not new, the preponderance of self-help books, spiritual healing movements and therapeutic retreat centers suggests that self-nurturing remains an ongoing challenge in our culture. In 2015, we tend to live reactive lives and particularly as educators, we use our precious energy and time in the service of others.

This week, I invite you to consider the ways in which you already care for yourself. How do you energize before a new work week begins? How do you unwind after a long day? Take a few moments to journal or just ruminate on this question. Next week, I will share a few of my ideas for self-care and self-discovery. But in the meantime, I suspect you can harness a few of your own!

From The Ground Up: See Your Space

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By Heather Fox, Nature Explore Education Specialist 

This series will follow the creation of a Nature Explore Classroom as it develops from a concept plan into a reality. Heather is applying the theory she knows so well towards the less familiar territory of building, contracting and planting. We hope her experience will assist you on your own path towards a fully realized nature-rich outdoor classroom.

Boy with leafSeeing is believing. This is how we felt when we took the Nature Explore Classroom at Southern Heights Food Forest from a plan on paper to an outline in the soil. Our outdoor classroom was becoming a tangible reality.

For many of us it is difficult to translate a concept plan into a three-dimensional space. I have a slight advantage here.  As part of an educator/landscape architect design team, I frequently help people understand their Nature Explore Classroom concept plans. However, I am always accompanied by a designer and it is usually a one time “walk through” with the group. Then we are off to the next site, never to put the plan in the ground.

So how can we make this jump from plan to reality if a professional designer is not by our side? Here are a few lessons I have learned through the process:

1) Walking is key. I like to drag my feet through a proposed pathway or reach my arms out to contain the placement of an area. Being in the place with your full body makes all the difference. Each time I visited the Southern Heights Food Forest site (concept plan in hand) I walked the Nature Explore Classroom. It became part of me. Part of my understanding.

2) Share the vision with everyone. Just because I had a picture in my head, didn’t mean that others saw the same thing. This became very evident to me as I spoke with a variety of our shareholders. I shared the concept plan and vision with donors, church members, volunteers and contractors. I even made a special trip to the site to talk with the bobcat driver who was excited to know that he was contributing to a child’s development. My frequent messages sounded something like this: “Here you will find a messy materials area. It’s a place for children to build with their large muscles using things like tree stumps. Children need this. It helps them learn.”

3) Map it out and know it might change. For over a year we were working with a certain concept plan. We placed a grid over the plan, measured it foot-by foot on the ground and created maps for visitors. This map changed (a bit) when we learned of a new site requirement.

Today the bobcat driver is making his finishing sweep, and the Nature Explore Classroom is forming right in front of me. It’s tangible and it’s beautiful. I’m learning so much through this process, and I’m interested in what you have learned too. Please join the conversation and share in the comments below.


Cultivating Myrmecologists* at the James R. Russell Child Development Center

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

*Entomologists who study ants.

P1100074When the scientists arrive in the designated area, their insatiable curiosities focus on — ants. They all want to know more about the industrious creatures they see in various locations around the space. Fortunately, consultants are on hand to help them organize their many questions and prioritize their inquiry.

They notice that not all ants look alike. Some are not only different sizes than others, but look different in other ways, as well.  Could there be more than one kind of ant?  What attracts ants?  What do their underground homes look like?

With assistance from their consultants, these scientists study ant anatomy, the structure of their homes, and map the distribution of different kinds of ants across the designated area. Also, they design studies to explore how ants could be attracted and influenced to move to different areas of the space. In addition to field study, the scientists consult books and the web for detailed information. They document their findings and impressions in maps, writing and illustration.

In this case, children are the scientists and teachers serve as consultants. The young scientists make inferences, test hypothesis and collect data through daily investigations in the natural world.

Loss of interest in science shouldn’t be natural, yet for most children in US schools this happens by the fifth grade.  Fortunately for the children at the James R. Russell Child Development Center (CDC) at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska, their inner myrmecologist is honored, encouraged, and scaffolded by their teachers. The children’s investigatory play in their Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom will, we expect, resonate with them in later years. We hope that, in a few short years, the foundational scientific inquiry they experience now will inoculate them against this loss of interest in science that so many of their peers will experience.

The CDC at Creighton University is unusually positioned to support their students’ inborn curiosity. Carol Houser, the school’s Director, is studying the approaches to early childhood education practiced in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The Reggio Approach involves child-initiated learning, scaffolded by teachers, in contexts adapted to each school environment. It dovetails well with the learning practices supported by Nature Explore. Carol and her staff are folding these pedagogies into their ongoing use of the Project Approach.

The children’s investigation into ants will take directions the children themselves desire to explore, and will last as long as they wish. Maps, artwork and stories are among their forms of documentation. Teachers document this project through photos and notes on each child.

The sum of their efforts is a project in which children and adults learn and explore together, and in which “curricular” learning flows freely. Math is everywhere.  Counting ants and anthills and mapmaking involves math; spelling, too. Science— that’s the whole project. Yet it’s a more in-depth usage of scientific concepts than most preschool children experience. In their attempts to lure one kind of ant into a different location, the children are making hypotheses, and testing them by using a variety of “ant attractants.” This is exciting “curricular” learning—without the need for a standardized course of study.

Some parents considering placing their children in the Creighton CDC opt for more kindergarten-like preschools, instead.  Those schools have a curricular focus. Carol is committed to the play-based model, in which the curricular learning that is foundational for later school grades is gained through projects rather than through lessons that require children to sit at desks.

A child’s curiosity can be a bit overwhelming even to the most dedicated early childhood professional. Fortunately for these children, the Creighton CDC’s teaching staff has a diversity of experience that answers this challenge. While some teachers have the full early childhood education academic background, others don’t.

“We have more teachers with a degree in something else. They have experience and a love for kids, so they chose to come here.”  While studying other fields, they worked in the CDC, and simply wanted to stay on after graduating. Carol values this blend of experiences that keeps the program academically sound and fresh to new ideas.

Creighton’s young myrmecologists, assisted in their investigations by a passionate and varied teaching staff, will head-off in new directions of inquiry as their knowledge of ants deepens. They learn curricular subjects, and the scientific method, along the way. Carol Houser’s ongoing blending of the Reggio and Project approaches in Creighton’s Nature Explore Classroom ensures richly rewarding experiences for both the myrmecologists and their consultants.

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: