Outdoor Classrooms: Grounding Children in Reality

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

*Originally posted February 2015

8752810-hand-holding-the-earthSoon, a new form of Augmented Reality (AR) technology will be available for educational, business, and home use. Through the senses of sight and sound, AR vividly blends the real and virtual worlds. We believe that children who have frequent, meaningful contact with nature will be better able than their peers to balance attractive technologies with other educational and recreational interests. Also, they will be better able to differentiate AR’s strengths from its limitations. These are yet more reasons why we believe that ALL children could benefit profoundly from daily contacts with nature.

In past blog posts, we met a child who preferred outdoor play to watching videos before dinner—only after his exposure to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. We met two sisters who asked for binoculars and clipboards for Christmas, so they could deepen their outdoor explorations. And we met the device-dependent students on a multi-day nature field trip to an area where their smartphones wouldn’t work. After exploring the terrain, swimming, and watching buffalo for three days, they didn’t miss their phones. I think we would agree that all these children have the possibility of finding a healthy role for technology in their lives; a balance that is often difficult for many other children to develop.

Now, fast-forward to the (near) future! Windows 10, a free operating system upgrade for PC platform computers, will soon support AR functionality via the use of the “HoloLens” visor. You’ll be able to see and adjust translucent holograms (three-dimensional images made of light) projected into the real world.

With this technology, you’ll be able to walk around the room, interacting with both the real and virtual worlds at the same time. You’ll be able to manipulate a hologram’s size, position, and more. An example of AR’s usage is in toy design. A holographic representation of the toy is projected against an environment in which it will be used. Its dimensions, colors, etc. are adjusted by the designer’s hand movements, which result in the actual design modifications sent to the manufacturer. Many of us will soon be watching films on a screen size we customize with a few hand movements. Rumor says that the HoloLens goggles will be released as soon as the technology has matured to where the average user can control its functions consistently.

Yet more basic AR is already used in educational products. Some of these products are designed for very young children. If you can hold a smartphone or tablet computer, you’re old enough for Augmented Reality. For example, by holding a smartphone or tablet computer over a specially encoded book page, a three-dimensional image will appear. I’ve seen a cartoon-like dinosaur, which can be rotated and viewed at all angles, hovering over an encoded page. I can’t imagine this experience not being enormously engaging for a small child.

AR technology holds fascinating potentials for education. iPads and other tablet-style devices have long been used in preschools and elementary schools. Increasingly sophisticated AR, in some form, will probably soon find its way to very young children in homes and schools.

But what does Augmented Reality really have to do with Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms? A lot; IMHO (in my humble opinion). In fact, I believe that early experiences in an outdoor classroom can actually augment augmented reality—by keeping it honest.

The hologram of a flower, seen from all sides against the background of a real room, is still not a real flower. The hologram-flower would be engaging and fun to play with, but it will lack the visual complexity, aroma, and texture of a real flower.

Why should the extra qualities of a real flower matter when we can conjure fun flowers seemingly at will? After all, we often substitute texting for real conversation, despite the fact that texts carry only a fraction of the rich information of face-to-face dialog.

Today, we can easily find three- and four-year-olds whose first close-up experience with a flower is in an outdoor classroom. Like a hologram-flower, a real flower (in the ground) can be experienced from all angles. Unlike with the real flower, you’ll be able to change the shape and color of a hologram-flower. If you are designing a toy flower, these capabilities could be useful. But they are of limited usefulness for the ever-churning intellect of a small child.

If I were a normally inquisitive four-year-old who was closely experiencing a flowerbed for the first time, here are some of the questions I’d be asking myself:

“Why are they stuck in the ground? Why are some one color and some another? Why do they have different shapes? Why do the red ones smell different than the yellow ones? Are these like the ones I see at home? These flowers aren’t in water like at home—how do they drink? Why are there bugs on these flowers? Why does the teacher say to be careful with them? Do I have crayons these colors? Why does this leaf feel fuzzy, while the other doesn’t? Why are flowers colorful, when the trees and bushes aren’t? What will happen if I pick one?” Etc., etc…

To see, touch, and smell a variety of flowers in an outdoor classroom is to unlock a treasure chest of inquiry, to raise questions and theories, and to invite stories and drawings. Isn’t this exciting engagement with the beauty and complexity of nature an excellent grounding that will help place Augmented Reality into a proper context?

When the boundaries between AR and RR (real reality) are clear, the true benefits of each can be appreciated. And this is exactly why outdoor classrooms become even more critical to a child’s development as our societal engagement with virtual worlds deepens. With the scaffolding of experience that a wise adult can add to a child’s explorations in nature, the ideal foundation for further learning results. Children with rich grounding in nature will differentiate between the virtual and the real. They’ll know the limits of what can be learned about the real through the virtual. They’ll also, I suspect, be better prepared to reap the true benefits of Augmented Reality.

How Do Children Learn in Nature Explore Classrooms? Let us Count the Ways…

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

This is the second in a series of “Roots in Research” blog posts, in which we summarize key findings of research conducted by Nature Explore staff and our colleagues at other institutions.

468_128An increasing body of research has documented the powerful role of play in children’s development and the importance of getting children outdoors. Our researchers have discovered that Nature Explore Classrooms encourage children, families and educators to connect with nature in meaningful ways and to play authentically; this play, in turn, yields rich learning opportunities.

In short, for young children, play is learning and intentionally designed outdoor spaces provide powerful contexts for growth and development. Peek into a dynamic Nature Explore Classroom and you will see:

Social skills blossoming. As children work together to build a bridge with tree cookies and wooden beams, they intuitively learn to work in harmony and partnership with their peers. Creative play fuels natural cooperation, and celebrations of mutual accomplishments cement newfound friendships.

Intrapersonal skill developing. Observers of Nature Explore Classrooms noted countless opportunities for children to develop intrapersonal skills including initiations, expressing preferences, problem solving and critical thinking. These powerful skills fuel traditional learning throughout the school years.

Language and literacy skills flourishing among children of all ages. It’s butterfly day in a Nature Explore Classroom. After days of careful observation of a Monarch chrysalis, the children watch in real time as she breaks free and stretches her wings for the first time. As they gasp with delight, they also experiment with rich vocabulary (transformation, reveal, milkweed) and clamor to share their words with their peers and teachers. Later, the children sketch the butterfly and annotate their sketches with descriptive language. Such an activity is but one example of how the natural world fosters an appreciation of language and the development of literacy skills.

Profound development of kinesthetic skills. Climbing. Crawling. Leaping. Planting seedlings. Lifting and rolling heavy logs to build a fort. Nature Explore Classrooms are alive with opportunities for both gross and fine motor development.

Visual-Spatial learning happening around every corner. A great deal of our earliest research focused on the powerful development of visual-spatial skills that occurs in Nature Explore Classrooms. When children work with blocks and related materials, they practice construction skills, convey their knowledge about structures and systems, share emotions, make visual analogies, and develop important social and verbal skills. Happily, natural building materials—from rocks to cicada shells to giant fern fronds—are free and accessible to even the youngest architects. When it comes to finding unique materials for block play, the natural world will never disappoint.

The genesis of science learning. The connection between science learning and Nature Explore Classrooms is both obvious and profound. Time outdoors allows children to connect with seasons and cycles, closely observe plants and animals, and delight in tending their own gardens and orchards. Paired with thoughtful conversations and educator-led activities, this time in nature provides a hands-on introduction to science concepts.

The beginnings of math knowledge. Both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Association for the Education of Young Children call for young children to learn in realistic contexts and to study the world in which they live. In Nature Explore Classrooms, children develop key math concepts as they interact with the environment, each other, teachers and materials. Natural and living materials unique to outdoor classrooms contribute to math learning, and daily opportunities outdoors allow children to use their whole bodies and physically experience math concepts.

Source: Young Children’s Authentic Play in a Nature Explore Classroom Supports Foundational Learning: A Single Case Study (2013) by Miller, D.L., Tichota, K. & White, J.

Water Conservation in Your Nature Explore Classroom

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By Heather Fox, Nature Explore program Director of Communications and Outreach

Water PlayIn most regions, the long days of summer lend themselves to water play. While water is refreshing and fun, it is also a precious natural resource. So how do we balance our desire to conserve with the joy of learning with water in a Nature Explore Classroom?  Here are 5 tips to keep you splashing.

1) Consider the water cycle in your Nature Explore Classroom. There is no new water and every time we use it there is a chance it will be changed. I’ve heard children describe this by saying, “It is raining the same water dinosaurs once drank.”

2) Find a dual purpose for the water you use. For instance, if you want the children to cool down in a sprinkler, you can water your grass at the same time. Empty leftover water from snack into a planter bed, or drain water from your water table into a dry creek bed or flower garden. Have children help with this task and describe how water nourishes all living things.

3) Think about water quality. While water barrels have traditionally been used for collection, consider the water source. Sometimes run off from a roof is not safe for children. If this is the case, fill rain barrels with water from a faucet and allow children to dispense when needed.

4) Focus on physical properties. Watch how water displaces loose fill or mixes with clay or mud. Use clear containers whenever possible and see, feel, and touch the changes. Always be aware of local licensing or accreditation requirements regarding use and disposal.

5) Look for natural occurrences. Dance in the rain, shape the snow, and celebrate the sleet. Plant local vegetation and seize every opportunity to be in the natural elements with children. Have appropriate clothes on hand to take advantage of various weather conditions.

We know that hands-on experiences with water help children internalize the physical properties of the natural world. Try some of these tips or see the Learning with Nature Idea Book for more ideas on how to incorporate water into the daily lives of children.


Cultivate the Resiliency in Every Child

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

DSC00358Resilience. Means of developing resilience have been studied for decades. Some believe that children need to be taught to be resilient; others that children are born with an innate capacity for resilience. Which is it? Do adults, having learned how to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges have the skill-set to teach resiliency to children? Or are children innately resilient? Is the best way to elicit this skill development more a matter of finding the best environments? Is it a bit of both?

During my recent visit to the Nature Explore Classrooms at Warren Village, in Denver, I saw “resiliency development” in action during simple play. In the last post we met children playing “owie” with a visiting adult. Using washable paint pens, they made owies on the woman’s hand. But then the “resiliency” part of the play emerged. The children comforted her, and fixed the owie with imaginary bandages. Nurturing and social skills are components of resiliency, and they were originating from within the children. No lessons needed.

Most of the children at the Warren Village Learning Center are emerging from homelessness. “At-risk” children have been a core sample for decades of academic study of resiliency. For children in this Nature Explore Classroom, the ability to develop resiliency is not just important, it is a survival skill.

And here the children were developing resiliency naturally, through play. Something innate seems to be going on. One might think that such at-risk children would face compromises to developing resiliency.

Then I remembered another child I’ve known at Warren Village. Mark was emerging from a spirit-crushing environment. His impulsivity and awkwardness ensured that his outdoor experiences on Warren Village’s original, traditional playground were punctuated by real owies. By expressing his feelings of helplessness physically, and through the violent example set by his father, Mark had been a danger to himself and his family. If any child should have had barriers to finding “innate resiliency,” Mark should have been a textbook example. And in the traditional playground, Mark was anything but resilient.

But then Warren Village built the first of its Nature Explore Classrooms. Suddenly Mark had new and interesting challenges that he could explore on his own terms. His dangerous clumsiness was tested when first jumping off rocks and swinging on an overhead wooden pole. He mastered swinging and jumping skills. Pam, his mother, said that the space became his castle, that he became Superman, and that the Nature Explore Classroom was his laboratory for growth. As he gained confidence in his developing motor control, his social skills improved through play. As play in nature helped Mark gain newfound mastery of motor and social skills, he rapidly moved from hitting his mother to helping her. Of course he had the skilled support of his teachers and therapists during this period, yet his mother still believed that without play in the outdoor classroom, Mark might not have become so resilient, social, and helpful. Something innate seems to be going on here, and nature (along with skilled teachers) seems to have contributed to its flowering.

Then I remembered another child who, like Mark, had responded to environmental challenges with anger and despair. Antonio’s mother was going through a bitter divorce. He had a very rough start at the Fourth Street Early Childhood Center preschool in East Los Angeles, California. Teacher Edith Figueroa told me that when first at the school Antonio would hit teachers. In their Nature Explore Classroom he stepped on bugs and tried to break plants. Edith cautiously introduced him to the garden. As he grudgingly planted seeds, he told her that they would never grow, because, “everything dies.”

Within days, upon seeing tomato plants beginning to lift above the soil, Antonio started to become their caretaker. He quickly grew to be protective of the plants.

Two months later Antonio’s mother came to the school’s office, crying tears of gratitude. Over those eight weeks Antonio had become caretaker of the plants at home, she said. He then became her caretaker, telling her that she could “go to the park” (the Nature Explore Classroom) with him when she was having a bad day. She asked if she could spend time there. They said yes. She did. After her time in the Nature Explore Classroom with Antonio, she said, “Now I know why my son never wants to leave.”

We may be tempted to theorize as to why the simple act of gardening, paired with the attention of caring adults, contributed to such a rapid and powerful change in this young boy. Maybe his seeing the actual beginnings of the plant growth contradicted a deep-seated fantasy that nothing good can happen. Maybe he simply felt responsibility for having brought about this new life through planting the seeds; a new feeling for him.  Maybe he was desperate for a new beginning within himself that the seedlings represented. Maybe if he could care for these plants he could show caring for his mother, fixing her sadness. What we do know is that Antonio felt the natural space to be calming and healing for him, and thought that it could be so for his mother.

Behind all the maybes is a simple fact that held true for both Antonio and Mark. Nature provided a healing environment for two boys who had been out of control. Nature didn’t judge, or try to correct. Nature didn’t express an attitude towards them that they could use as a sign of rejection. Nature didn’t try to soothe them with promises that they would feel better.

Nature was simply there for them. Materials in their Nature Explore Classrooms gave them a wide variety of options for self-exploration through play, on their own terms, under the care of knowing adults. Maybe, on some elemental level, given the right environment, children innately know how to heal themselves, how to self-develop resiliency. Seemingly against all odds, these two boys certainly discovered resiliency within themselves.

Mark and Antonio are vivid examples of children who had seen themselves as helpless to change their difficult environments. Anger and hopelessness were rational responses while they lived in environments chaotic beyond their control. In Nature Explore Classrooms they learned to be in control. Their transformations in self-image, from hopelessness to helpfulness, allow different futures for themselves and their families. The toddlers playing “owie” in Warren Village’s infant/toddler outdoor classroom are on the same journey. Their travel is more gradual, but it is also a journey toward a more resilient present and future; towards their best selves.

Whether resiliency skill-building happens in simple group play, or starts in a very dark place for the individual child, the examples described here suggest an innate strength that, for these children, were found and developed during experiences in nature. For Antonio and Mark, whose caretaking behaviors transferred from school to the home environment, their transformative self-discoveries were life-changing. Their new, resilient behaviors rippled throughout their environments, enveloping others in the transformations.

How we see children determines how we are when we’re with them. If we see young children as needing us to teach them skills in resiliency, we will treat them certain ways. If we see that children have innate strengths that flower in the right environments, we can facilitate their journeys.

Nature + natural materials + freedom of self-directed play and exploration + caring adults = physical/intellectual/ spiritual growth; and, yes, resiliency.  Naturally.


Healing “Owies” at Warren Village

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

The other day I had the pleasure of visiting the Nature Explore Classrooms at the Warren Village Learning Center in Denver, Colorado, for the first time in almost a year.  Separated by the main walkway to the school are two distinct spaces, one for infants and toddlers, the other for older preschoolers.  Both were bustling with activity.

Warren Village provides temporary housing for families emerging from homelessness.  Most of its residents are families headed by women.  Some of these families are escaping domestic violence, and all have faced severe hardships.

Two years ago, the Warren Village Learning Center had a traditional playground.  One, large, state-of-the-art, multi-functioned climbing structure, securely footed in earth that was hidden below inches of safety flooring, was the site of play.  By current normative preschool standards, this was a good space for children, and Warren Village was fortunate to have it.

Yet numbers and images on the climbing structure’s surfaces, apparently there for educational use, were irrelevant for the children.  Running, climbing and sliding were their basic options.  Children who had endured emotional bruising (and sometimes physical, as well), when outdoors with only this climbing structure, ended up in highly physical play.  The environment simply promoted gross motor skills development to the exclusion of other kinds of learning or play.

Warren Village’s caring teachers interacted playfully with the children, but also had to be observant for situations requiring intervention.  Redirecting behavior, and soothing bruised feelings were among the limited options for teachers on that playground.  Highly physical play, often reflecting emotional bruising in children’s backgrounds, was the option for children.  The healing that did happen on that playground was through the teacher’s skills during interventions.

Back then, who could have imagined a nature-filled outdoor classroom?  Warren Village’s outdoor area was what playgrounds were, and are, across the country.

If you visited the Nature Explore Classrooms at Warren Village you might see occasional conflict.  But conflict is now rare compared to the level I saw on the old playground.  Most importantly, what little you might see can be addressed with a variety of healing responses, as opposed to the very limited options for intervention available on the traditional playground.  Learning and healing are always available in these Nature Explore Classrooms.  “Time outs” can be timed out; permanently.

Here, where children have a variety of play areas and an abundance of materials, they learn that they have freedom of choice, both in activities, and in the ways they can respond to issues originating in their pasts.  In both Nature Explore Classrooms, the children of Warren Village have new options for healing and growing.  One heartfelt exchange in the infant/toddler outdoor classroom was a charming illustration.

Toddlers were using washable paint markers to make dots, squiggles and designs on their see-through Art Panel. A woman in our visitor group sat on the opposite side, watching them through the clear pane.  Children soon went around the panel to interact with her.  Some had markers in hand (and marks on their hands).  One child made a paint dot on the woman’s hand.  A slight flinch told the children that the mark was an “owie,” that needed care.  Imaginary bandages were retrieved from pockets and placed on the “wound.”  Healing was instant.  The woman received another playful owie.  Healing was again performed with love, care and laughter all around.  This play-acting continued for a few minutes with both the “ouch” and the caretaking increasing in drama.

What had started as the children’s ritual invitation into their world of play, placing a dot on the woman’s hand was transformed into multiple opportunities for the children to “heal the owies.”

For children who themselves have had limited power to control the emotional “owies” of their past, healing play owies in the present is a measure of control, and a means of defining one self as a “healer.”

Many children were involved in this play.  It’s most likely that some of them have suffered physical or emotional wounds that were beyond their control to avoid or heal.  Now they were in control.  They were the healers.

Transformative play such as this was unavailable on Warren Village’s former playground.  These children need and deserve the learning, healing, growth and transformations available daily in their Nature Explore Classrooms.

All children do.

A Simple Idea That Could Transform Your School, Too

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Grace School Recess CoachesWhat self-respecting eleven year old would spend valuable time during a school lunch hour playing outdoors with kindergartners?  After all, a six-year age gap during this period of life seems generational on both sides.  And lunch hour is valuable time to spend with friends.  The younger children probably want the status involved in spending time with older students.  But what’s in it for the fifth graders?

A lot, if you’re a Recess Coach in the Nature Explore Classroom at the Grace Lower School, in Houston, Texas.  Coach Lily McClanahan says, “Being a Recess Coach and mentoring the younger students makes you realize how much they look up to you.”  Coach Julia Marshall, “Recess coaching impacted my life because when I came I was just a stranger to the kids on the playgrounds and the blacktop.  But when I left I had developed a life lasting bond between many children I did not know.”  And Coach Mason McIntosh says, “Recess Coach shows responsibility and how younger students can look at us.  We also learn from them.  They teach us how we should treat others, too.”

Older Grace students may be inducted into the school’s Leadership Council.  Its members have functions throughout the school.  Most popular of the positions within the Council is that of Recess Coach.  This is a serious position of responsibility for which each student receives training.  Conflict resolution, drawing reticent children into activities, and outdoor classroom pedagogy are among the subjects Coaches learn as preparation for their position.

Leigh Anne Shumate, Head of the Lower School, says, “All the students really love the Nature Explore Classroom, but when they have older students to play with they just really become engaged.  It has definitely reduced any disciplinary concerns… It allows our teachers to supervise play and to engage students instructionally, versus spending time supervising behavior.”

And Recess Coaches are right in there with the teachers in promoting learning in “The Outdoor Space at Grace.”  As with any effective teacher-student relationship, the learning goes both ways.  The younger children learn how to try out their ideas, and the Recess Coaches gain invaluable leadership and relationship skills.

 The older children are taught to enhance the kindergartners learning by encouraging them to experiment.  Participating side by side in activities with their mentees, Coaches ask questions such as, “What would happen if you tried this?  What about trying that?  How did you come up with that idea?”  Exploring different ways of approaching an activity, imagining the consequences of different approaches, and encouraging learners to be aware of their own creative processes.  These means of honoring the younger child’s learning are touchstones of effective educational mentoring.

Five or six Recess Coaches are in the outdoor classroom daily.  They are easily identified by their larger size, and by their hats.  Each mentor wears a hat with ‘Recess Coach’ in bold lettering, surrounded by other custom decorations.  In addition to playing with and mentoring the younger children, they set up and take down those natural materials that live in storage when not in use.

Relationships between Coaches and the kindergartners deepen beyond the boundaries of the Nature Explore Classroom, affecting the school at large.  More grade levels have been added because the program has proved so successful.

Now its benefits are available to most of the school’s students.  Mentors and mentees have lunch together, learn together outdoors, and attend each other’s graduation.  On a more personal level, some of the relationships have extended to play dates between older and younger children.

If the name Grace School seems familiar, it’s because we learned about the school’s other Nature Explore Classroom from Jil Jaeger, in a previous blog post.  Yes, the school has two outdoor classrooms.  The Grace Primary School’s “Outdoor Learning Center” was profiled last year.  The Recess Coach mentoring program takes place in the Lower School’s “Outdoor Space at Grace.”  We believe that such an innovative use of the outdoor classroom richly deserves the special attention of a separate post.  We also hope that it seeds similar programs in other Nature Explore Classrooms that have as wide an age spread in their children.

The Grace Lower School’s outdoor classroom has been transformational for all involved.  Leigh Anne captures its influence beautifully.  “What we started with Recess Coaches in The Outdoor Space at Grace has really transferred into other parts of our instructional day.  Those relationships in the community, and the sense of belonging that our students experience, has all been because of the Nature Explore classroom.”

Nature Explore Classrooms: How Effective Are They… Really?

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

This is the first in a series of “Roots in Research” blog posts, in which we summarize key findings of research conducted by Nature Explore staff and our colleagues at other institutions.

Nature Explore Outdoor ClassroomA team of researchers in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently set out to discover if outdoor classrooms—in particular those certified by Nature Explore and the Outdoor Classroom Project—are experiencing their intended positive learning, behavioral, health and development outcomes.

By conducting interviews and analyzing data from 11 research sites, the researchers compiled overarching themes shared by people affiliated with successful outdoor classrooms.

Being Outdoors in Natural Settings

The strongest theme that emerged centered on the importance of being outdoors in a natural setting, as opposed to being in an indoor classroom or on a traditional playground. Children in outdoor natural settings were more relaxed, happier, less impulsive, more focused, more creative, and better behaved during time spent outdoors.

Beyond behavioral benefits, nature-based classrooms allowed children to connect personally with natural cycles. They could closely observe the life cycles of plants and animals, notice the changing of seasons, and interact with natural materials as play props.

“Respondents mentioned the importance of seeing wood decay, leaves turn to humus, and seeds begin to grow. Children understood how the outdoor classroom changed from season to season and year to year.”

Finally, time in nature-based outdoor classrooms often sparked interest in learning that continued once children and their teacher(s) moved indoors. Plants and animals fascinate children, and teachers were able to capitalize on that interest to stimulate further inquiry.

Performance of Designed Spaces

As anyone who has spent time in a busy outdoor classroom might expect, the most popular areas cited were sand play, climb and crawl, messy materials and water play areas. The more materials available and the more variety of small, child-scaled settings available, the more the interviewees perceived their outdoor classroom to be successful. Noted the authors:

“A common thread running through the interviews was that outdoor classrooms provided more interest than traditional play spaces simply because they were embedded in natural settings. Nature provided far more play props and open-ended play opportunities than sites with fixed equipment set in large areas of safety surfacing.”

Maintenance and Sustainability

One of the most frequent questions asked during Nature Explore’s outdoor classroom design process is, “Is this sustainable?” Indeed, the researchers found that study participants frequently linked maintenance challenges with the sustainability of their outdoor classrooms.

Ironically, those activities and props that tend to be most popular—sticks, pinecones, branches, tree cookies and other “loose parts”—also require the most attention and replenishment. Natural structures age more quickly than artificial play structures. Plants must be weeded, watered and pruned. While children may help with some of these tasks, ultimately they require additional commitment from staff or volunteers.

Formal Recognition

392_223Classrooms that spend the time and energy to develop spaces aligned with the principles outlined by Nature Explore or the Outdoor Classroom Project appreciate the credibility and value lent by a formal certification process. Both programs offer such a designation, based on ongoing training, updates to the classrooms, and evidence-based design guidelines. Teachers noted that these distinctions help them communicate the value of outdoor classrooms and also help support outreach and advocacy to donors and community members.

What does this mean for YOU and YOUR Nature Explore Classroom?

The researchers highlighted commonalities among the most successful outdoor classrooms. Take their suggestions and run with them in your own outdoor classroom:

1) Offer maximum choice to children regarding where to play, what to play with, and with whom to play. Plenty of natural materials resulted in the most open-ended play and the least competition for resources.

2) Feature many small spaces: Nooks, crannies and hidey-holes emerged as the most important and beloved areas of outdoor classrooms. They support children’s need for autonomy, quiet time and solitary play.

3) Feature well-defined pathways and borders, which afford experiences for children with mobility challenges as well as overall clear spatial organization of the site.

4) Remain flexible! A classroom’s needs change over time. Those outdoor classrooms that were designed for growth and change flourished. These flexible spaces also tend to respond best to natural changes.

5) Offer opportunities for engagement from stakeholders including children, educators, parents, community members, donors and neighbors.


Source: A Post-Occupancy Study of Nature-Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Settings Author(s): Samuel F. Dennis, Jr., Alexandra Wells and Candace Bishop
Source: Children, Youth and Environments, Vol. 24, No. 2, Greening Early Childhood Education (2014), pp. 35-52.

Why Mud?

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By Heather Fox, Nature Explore program Director of Communications and Outreach

As we prepare for this year’s International Mud Day, let us be reminded of the years past. Many of us can remember the squish between our fingers and the deep earthy smell. We recall the sound of mud when thrown with force against a fence or the slime it creates when too much water is involved. For some of us these are distant memories, but for others they are vivid recollections from June 29th (Mud Day) last year.

Why celebrate a day dedicated to something so common?  This is what a few children have to say.

Mud is Universal: The original International Mud Day was created in 2009 to connect children from across the globe. The more we know about the things we have in common and share with people everywhere, the more likely we are to understand and care about each other.

“When I was around five I experienced Mud Day for the first time with some confusion. Mud—why would you play in that sticky, brown, wormy substance? But under the murky appearance there is much more. It is a bonder, a connecter, something to talk about.”

–Ivy, age 10, a repeat participant in yearly Mud Day celebrations

Mud is Timeless: Mud can be played with over and over and never wear out. Our ancestors likely played with the same mud our children play with. Experiences with mud can help children develop a sense of being connected with themselves, with others, and with the natural world.

“Mud changed me.”

–Kyla, a jubilant 6 year old having been timid and clean moments before

Mud is Surprising:  When you invite messiness into learning, it increases the complexity and opportunities for children to solve problems and figure out how the world works. The longer and more often you play with it, the more delighted you are with what you discover and create. Leading scientists are even studying dirt. One recent discovery is that in addition to some harmful bacteria, there is also beneficial bacteria that may boost our immune systems.

“It’s great to come to school and do something unexpected.”

–Levi, an Australian grade school child, when asked what he liked about Mud Day

Join these children and more in celebration of mud. It promises to be a day filled with surprises, connections, and fun! What to do? Here are a few ideas from past celebrations.

*Mud Painting:

Use mud instead of paint. Needed are easels, cups of mud, sponges and/or brushes.

*Huge Field of Mud:

Go for it!

*Mud Face Painting:

Apply with Q-tips from cups of mud. Be sure to have hand mirrors handy so children can see the results, or guide the painter.

*Barefoot Walk:

Using roll paper, lay a long sheet on the ground. Mud Walkers dip their feet in mud (made in a tub or some other similar container), and walk the walk.

*Mud Splatter Painting:

Throw small mud-balls at paper hung on a wall, or throw mud-balls in the air to land on paper lying on the ground.

*Mud Texture Table:

Spread mud on a tabletop and make designs as in finger painting.


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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant

455_025Fine motor skill levels in children entering kindergarten are in decline, relative to what they were a decade ago.  This issue has been reported worldwide.  Concerns include infants not being able to play with blocks, and kindergartners not being able to hold writing tools or use scissors.  No comprehensive research seems to have been conducted to explore the extent, degree, or wider implications of the problem, yet usage of electronic devices is the most often cited causal factor.  Adding urgency to the issue are solid research findings tying fine motor skills in kindergarten to later achievement in reading and math.

Children’s failure to develop fine motor skills along timelines normative just a few years ago suggests an increasingly widespread, preventable developmental delay.  A solution to this problem available to us in the Nature Explore family is our outdoor classrooms.

Children, including many infants and toddlers, enjoy using touch screen devices.  Any response to the fine motor skills issue that suggests removing these devices from preschooler’s lives is unrealistic, and bound to fail.  For one thing, kids love them.  And for another thing, many parents and some teachers do, too.  Children can and do learn from apps.  The issue is not that touch screen apps are never beneficial for learning.  The problem is that an overreliance on apps leaves out a specific kind of learning that was once commonplace, and that is always necessary.  A realistic solution to the problem is balance, not total restriction. Nature, especially in the form presented to children by Nature Explore Classrooms, is just that balance.

Profoundly important elements of early childhood learning are integral to Nature Explore Classrooms, yet missing when the child uses touch screen devices.  The first is the social aspect of play, and the second is playing with a variety of objects in the real, three-dimensional world.

Children using touch screen apps, educational or otherwise, might draw parental involvement. But rewards for correct responses, in the form of cartoon characters, sounds and vocal praise, are built into the app, rendering the adult unnecessary once the program is learned.  The social element of this play is gone.  And by definition, experience with touch screens is two-dimensional.

Play in your Nature Explore Classroom is not only social, but deeply social.  Many of you have told us that play became different when your venue transitioned from a traditional playground to a Nature Explore Classroom.  You’ve said that play becomes less competitive, that bullying goes way down or disappears, that children work on projects creatively in groups or that they simply explore nature together.  Recognizing and nurturing the social play in your Nature Explore Classroom is a means of restoring balance to a child’s life that is lost during isolative play with apps.

And then there are the materials.  Three-dimensional, rough, smooth, large, small, sticky, hard, soft, fragrant (or not), heavy, light, wet, dry, long, short, jagged, breakable, unbreakable, growing, decaying, too large to move, just large enough to move with the help of friends, high enough to jump from, strong enough to swing from, etc., etc., etc.  When enough objects are collected during play in an app, magical powers or rewards might be given out.  When a toddler handles small objects in her Nature Explore Classroom, she is rewarded by increased fine motor control.

Each time a child picks up a stone her fingers move uniquely to conform to its shape, and to exert enough gripping pressure to accommodate its weight.  The complex feedback going to an infant/toddler’s brain is different for each piece of natural material she handles because no two are alike.  The more she plays, the greater the variety of materials she handles, and the more she develops true fine motor skills.  This can only happen in 3-D.

392_021The social feedback she receives from teachers and peers also varies during play.  A friend might want to explore materials in the way she does, or differently.  A teacher might give her praise, encouragement, a pat or a hug, or play with her.

Lights and sounds that are considered to be reinforcing feedback in touch screen apps pale in comparison.  The friend, who may be a playmate for years, may be remembered throughout life.  The feedback from one of the many touch screen apps that pass through a child’s life will probably be forgotten.  This element of companionship during learning in the Nature Explore Classroom, the social context of learning fine motor skills, is hugely important in balancing the isolative nature of play with computers.

Here are just a few of the countless ways that we can encourage eager development of fine motor skills in our Nature Explore Classrooms.

*Make available a wide variety of age appropriate natural materials for children to explore, depict or use in artwork, build with, handle, think and learn about.

*Stock your Nature Art Table with small natural materials such as shells, stones, twigs, pinecones, and materials found in your surrounding area, along with modeling clay, scissors, paper, coloring pens, pencils, paints, etc.

*Irregularly shaped blocks encourage experimentation with construction, and mini-bricks encourage fine muscle development in small hands. Your well-stocked Building area will support fine motor skill development.

*Be sure to play with all these materials yourself. Especially if you begin exploring materials alone in an area, curious minds will want to see what you are doing, and maybe help or imitate.

*A construction using mini-bricks, secretly made before the children enter the Nature Explore Classroom will also draw curiosity.

*When a toddler reaches a milestone in developing fine motor control, whether it’s the first mini-brick tower, a mark from a writing tool held in a fist, a worm held carefully in the fingertips—your “FANTASTIC!” expressed with a smile, and accompanied by a pat or hug, reinforces that success in ways a computer voice with unchanging words and inflection simply can’t.

We’ll never be able to remove touch screen apps from young children’s lives.  Nor should we.  Some can be very helpful—just not for developing fine motor skills. The easiest path to children’s development of motor skills lies in nature. Provide children with a rich natural environment and they will organically learn these skills through play.

Express your fascination with their achievements.

Play with them.

You’re likely already doing this.

Great job!

Our Roots are in Research: A Brief History of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation

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By Sara Gilliam, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Writer

Contributor: Christine Kiewra, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation Education and Outreach Liaison

treeWe like to think of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation as a wise old oak tree with deep roots in research that feed the whole organization and inform the work of those in our broad network.

At Dimensions we are serious about children’s learning. We understand the value of quality care and education during the early years and recognize that it is through close observation of children that we learn and grow as educators. We take this research seriously so that children don’t have to; we want their days and yours to be playful and joyous.

In 1996, Dimensions Education Programs initiated a research project in collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that investigated visual-spatial learning in preschool and elementary-aged children. The research also explored teacher interventions that might address children’s behaviors in light of the rise in diagnoses of attention deficit disorders and other similar behavioral challenges. Soon, researchers began identifying a positive link between time spent outdoors in nature-filled settings and children’s calmer, more focused behavior. Researchers also identified links between natural outdoor learning and children’s increased skill development in all areas.

As the project received more funding, its scope grew and in 1998 a team of researchers and educators formed the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Research was conducted collaboratively with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as Dimensions Education Programs faculty attended education programs at UNL and worked with professionals from diverse specialties such as architecture, music, mathematics and kinesthesiology. This early collaboration led to the formation of an expanded multi-disciplinary team that included the addition of professionals such as neuropsychologists, landscape architects, professors of early childhood special education, teacher-educators and both qualitative and quantitative researchers.

The research then grew to include collaborations with other colleges and universities. The cornerstone of all of Dimensions Foundation work is the use of a rigorous research methodology that is based on close observation of children over time. As research began pointing more to the comprehensive benefits children received from spending time learning in and with nature, the focus of the research steered more singularly in that direction.

Soon thereafter, the Foundation began partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation and the national Nature Explore program was launched as an initiative of both Dimensions Foundation and Arbor Day. Our original Dimensions research work remains grounded in close observation of children. Our model relies on the expertise of teachers who are trained in early childhood development and qualitative research—individuals who know children well and are reflective practitioners striving to create opportunities to learn and grow themselves along with the children and families they serve.

Current major research initiatives include a multi-year study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, to assess the effectiveness of Certified Nature Explore Classrooms and Outdoor Classroom Project sites. This research is an expanded version of a pilot study conducted by Dr. Sam Dennis and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin’s Environmental Design Laboratory. An advisory board for this study includes researchers from Yale University and the University of Illinois and from organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service and the National Head Start office.

DSC_0019In the coming weeks, we will be rolling out an eight-part blog series synthesizing our research for use by classrooms around the world. It is our sincere hope that this distillation of our roots of research will inform your teaching and ignite ideas for your Nature Explore Classrooms. In our work we use qualitative research methods implemented by well-trained teachers who are life-long learners themselves. These educators, like you, are thirsty for information they can use to inform their craft. Over the years, they have practiced the cycle of teaching, reflecting, and documenting. This is used to inform daily practice in our own Dimensions Education Program in Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as our other research sites and Nature Explore.

We hope you join this journey. We invite you to learn with us and use our research to branch out in your own practice. In other words, we welcome you as part of our family tree.