Learning without Limits with Nature’s Loose Parts

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By Heather Fox, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation

26402 Arbor Day FoundationImagine a shoreline after high tide speckled with seashells, kelp and driftwood. The beach, filled with treasures more tantalizing than anything found in a department store, encourages children—and adults—to explore, create and imagine.

With no specific set of directions—and powered only by a child’s imagination—an assortment of conch shells might be gathered and classified, or used to transport water and mold the archway of a sand castle. Nature’s collections can be harnessed to create infinite play possibilities. Architect Simon Nicholson refers to items that are moveable and adaptable as “loose parts,” and encourages educators to provide children with a variety of these kinds of materials. He contends that, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.” Sand, water, rocks and shells provide variability and intrigue, which is why we can play for hours by the seashore.

Parents, grandparents and educators want children to grow up exploring, creating and imagining. We know that these play activities lead to independent, creative thinking, adaptability and empathy—the exact skills we hope to foster in future generations. Nature’s loose parts can be found in any region, during any season. Just look around for seedpods, pinecones, sticks, rocks or flowers.  It’s learning without limits, brought to you by nature. Read  more from Simone Nicholson’s The Theory of Loose Parts, then post your own ideas and comments here.

Growing Nature Advocates

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

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For years, Brett Dabb, Director of the Learning Center at Warren Village in Denver, Colorado, has been thinking of connecting children with nature.  He has long studied the benefits of time in nature for both children and adults.  He is getting closer to his ultimate goal of creating Denver’s first “forest preschool,” in which children will be outdoors as much as possible.  So when he learned that the Learning Center would be getting a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, Brett was delighted.   More importantly, he was prepared to inspire and mentor his staff to maximize the holistic benefits of the outdoor classroom for the children.  Yet thinking beyond the children, Brett clearly sees the transformational potentialities for the outdoor classroom for families, and for the entire Warren Village community.

The Warren Village Nature Explore Classroom has replaced the traditional climbing structure that had been the totality of the school’s playground — and none too soon for Brett.  When children see a playground with traditional equipment, “they innately know how to interact with that space,” he says.  Not so with a space filled with nature and natural materials.  In place of an unchanging playground, the children now delight in the learning opportunities of a constantly changing environment.  How will the children negotiate the growing plants, the natural breakdown of certain materials, modifications of play required by changing weather and seasons?  “This space creates the foundation for them to develop competence, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills,” he says.  Social-emotional skills and teamwork are also developed outdoors.  “If they need to navigate or negotiate something they might need a friend’s help… Those are life-skills that young children, especially the population that we work with tend to lack in their development.  I think this space will lend itself greatly for them to further hone that craft.”

As noted in our first post about Warren Village, the Learning Center uses the Creative Curriculum.  It is a child-centered approach in which the children’s interests drive a variety of projects.  Each room is divided into interest areas — much like the Nature Explore Classroom — including an area for reading, science and art.  In these interest areas children can explore the subject as they wish.  Tables in the center of the rooms may have materials placed by the teacher to support projects in subjects the children are exploring.  Teachers create the environment, yet children determine how they will interact with the materials.  “The space turns into whatever the children want it to be,” said Brett.  The child-centered emphasis and richness of materials of the indoor environment will now be matched by the children’s outdoor classroom, and Brett is interested in deepening the association by connecting curriculum indoors, such as science, with teaching in the outdoor classroom.  Brett’s ideas for involvement with the outdoor classroom even extend to Warren Village’s Board of Directors, and beyond.  He recently brought some of the natural play materials to a board meeting.  “I pitched this to the board last month, and they were thrilled — playing with the loose parts as children do.” On the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of the board members brought a large plastic pail filled with pinecones he had collected with his family.  Both pail and cones are now in avid use by the children.  Social Workers involved with Warren Village families were included, too.  “I presented it upstairs to our family advocates who support all 93 of our families.  They were very excited about it.”  Children, teachers, board members, social workers and families — all members of the Warren Village community are being involved in the outdoor classroom experience.

To Brett, time exploring nature is important for many aspects of children’s learning and brain-development.  He believes this so deeply that he will, before long, bring a true forest preschool to Denver.  He also knows that in a fast-paced world, in a community where stable housing is a recent living situation, time in nature can be a rare opportunity to leave daily stresses behind.  To him, the outdoor classroom is for adults and children, teacher and student; a universal area for learning and respite.

Brett feels fortunate that Nature Explore found his school.  We are all fortunate to have, in our growing Nature Explore family, such a thoughtful and passionate advocate for nature’s varied benefits for everyone.

 

The First Step in a Transformation

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

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An existing playground’s days are numbered.  It was a typical playground with soft flooring, and a multi-use, ruggedly constructed steel climbing structure.  “While it looks like fun when you first see it, the kids get bored really fast,” said Carie Cagnina, Assistant Director of the Learning Center at Warren Village in Denver, Colorado.  “There are only so many ways you can use it… There’s a lot of hiding when they’re upset…  It’s hard for teachers to see them or to get to them sometimes because of the design of the play structure.”  Some older children don’t engage with the space, and congregate in one area.  “Their play often turns pretty violent pretty quickly because they don’t have enough.”

Now, children are learning from their teachers about a “new playground” they will soon have.  But this playground will be different.  Rocks, flowers, new trees, musical instruments, climbing and art areas — and more — will soon be in place.   A playground that does not “have enough” for children, will be replaced by a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom that will have something for everyone- teachers and parents included.

The children grow excited, and talk about the new “classroom” that will soon be awaiting them outside. One day a transformation begins. The old playground structure is removed.

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Flooring is ripped apart to reveal the long hidden dirt underneath.

 

 

 

 

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Flagstones are chipped into shape for a path.

 

 

 

 

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Trees and shrubs are planted.

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After careful measurement, a musical instrument is placed in the earth.

 

 

 

 

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Large planter boxes are built and treated.

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Irrigation lines are placed, to feed each plant.

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A mother, whose excited children have told her about the plans, drops by to take photos.

 

 

 

 

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For now, it is the space that is transforming.

Further transformations coming soon…

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Join Us On The Journey

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

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Thanks to the generous support from the US Forest Service, families of Warren Village, in Denver, Colorado, are about to embark on a journey into nature.  Warren Village is transitional housing for single parent families.  The traditional playground and large metal climbing structure that had been part of the Learning Center’s outdoor space is now being replaced with rocks, logs, wooden benches, a performance stage, a flagstone path and a variety of local plants, new trees and more.  This natural oasis will be richly supplemented with other field-tested materials from our Resource Guide such as colored scarves and art table and slap drums.

Warren Village houses ninety-three single parent families, and has approximately three hundred child residents.  Parents must have at least 50% custody of their children to qualify.  Of the Learning Center’s 106 students, most live upstairs, although residents are not required to send their children.  The Learning Center follows the Creative Curriculum, which is a child-centered and project-based approach to learning.  The Infant Program serves children from six weeks to one year; the Toddler Program serves one through three year-olds; the Preschool Program serves three to Five year-olds; and their after-school program serves five through ten year-olds who attend the local elementary school.  Recognized for its rich learning environment, the Learning Center is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and received a four-star Qualistar rating.  Its reputation attracts children not living in the Warren Village housing, who comprise about ten percent of the student body.  Greta Horowitz Learning Center’s commitment to quality education and the rare diversity of the children it serves rendered it richly deserving of the US Forest Service’s heartfelt award.

During the past few weeks, there’s been a definite buzz at the Learning Center.  The children are excited and ready.  They’ve been telling stories of how they’ll use their new “tree house.”  The teachers are ready.  One asked if she could hold classes all day outside.  Parents are ready, because their children have been talking about the approaching Outdoor Classroom for weeks.  Patricia, a parent, told me that she can’t wait to spend evening time with her four and six-year olds in the space.

The Warren Village and Greta Horowitz Learning Center communities are ready and eager to begin their journey.  But this is a journey with a difference–because you, the reader, can join them.  Over the next several months we will be documenting and blogging, in words and photos, the course of Warren Village’s Outdoor Classroom, and the transformations we know it will inspire.  We invite you to join with us to meet Brett Dabb, the Learning Center’s Director, who has been studying nature-based education for years.  Join with us in meeting Patricia, mother of two, a Warren Village resident who is now studying Graphic Design, an education made possible by stable housing for her family.  Join with us in meeting the children, teachers, school volunteers, and others who will experience transformations large and small.

You’ve probably been with our Nature Explore Community Blog for a while, and have read overviews of many wonderful outdoor classrooms.  Those of you who have our books understand the theory and practice of what we do, and have felt the passion of our mission.  Now is the time to chronicle, in depth, the story of a single Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

For the children, families, educators and friends of the Warren Village community, a journey is about to begin.

Join us.

Visual Spatial Learning in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom

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392_167This is the final in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing with Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.

Visual/Spatial Learning: The ability to perceive the visual information in the environment, to represent it internally, to integrate it with other senses and experiences, to derive meaning and understanding, and to perform manipulations and transformations on those perceptions. It is the first language of the brain.

People with highly developed visual/spatial skills pay more attention to the world around them. They notice and appreciate the details of life: the architecture of buildings they pass, the kinds of trees in their neighborhoods, the litter that mars a city park. Visual/spatial skills give people the ability to negotiate well in space: to follow maps, traverse a forest trail, or maneuver a car into a tight parking space. Fluency in these skills is especially crucial for professions such as architecture, engineering, computer science, aviation, and so on.

In a world in which our senses are bombarded by a confusing array of visual information from television, video games and advertisements, people with strong visual/spatial skills are able to make sense of the chaos by “sorting out” the distracting images. Those who haven’t learned to do so often stop paying attention to the details in the world around them in order to guard against visual overload.

This is exactly what we don’t want our children to do. Happily, time in nature provides countless antidotes to “image overload,” as well as opportunities for growth and development in visual/spatial awareness. Here are some spectacular examples, submitted by educators from around the country.

In the outdoor classroom, our preschool children are able to use natural loose parts to explore connections and concepts such as physics, fulcrums, bridges, balance and others. When allowed to manipulate boards, sticks and wooden tree cookies, children can bridge ideas and hypothesize together to discover answers. One day, children gleefully discovered they could move water from one place to another safely across a mud hole.

–Johanna Booth Miner, Director

Live and Learn Early Learning Center, Lee, New Hampshire

I watched as Thea, three years old, carefully lined up mini-bricks on the newly installed tree cookie flooring in our Building Area. She created two joining circles and a line of bricks curving away. “This is the pond I went fishing in.” Then pointing to the line, she continued, “This is the way to get there.” I made a sketch of the pond and Thea and put it in her portfolio. When I showed Thea’s mother the sketch, she told me that their family had just been fishing together for the first time the previous weekend, and Thea caught the only fish.

–Christine Kiewra, Education Specialist, Dimensions Early Education Programs

One week, a child in my group had just returned from a vacation to the Grand Canyon. He brought stories, photos and postcards to share his experiences with his friends. The group was inspired to create the Grand Canyon in the Sand Area by scooping channels and filling them with water. There was lots of discussion about the size of the canyon in relation to the riverbed, estimations of how much water the channel would hold, and what the length would be from rim to rim.

–Kris Van Laningham, School-Age Teacher, Dimensions Early Education Programs

 Thoughtfully designed outdoor classrooms provide great opportunities to capitalize on children’s immediate enthusiasms or interests, all while enhancing their opportunities for visual/spatial learning. For more inspiring stories—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards—“Growing with Nature” is available here.

The Power of Trust

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

Gano Blog Photo 1Learning involves risk-taking.  Children, driven to learn about the world around them, naturally take risks.  When we provide children with an environment that supports learning through appropriate risk-taking, we trust them to figure out their world, and to ask us for help when needed.   Yet our societal attitudes about protecting children have resulted in squeaky-clean, “safe” playgrounds, where risk is minimized.   And we’re now learning that these playgrounds inspire many children to take greater risks because they’re uninspired by the watered-down challenges left for them.

Diann Gano, owner of Under the Gingko Tree preschool, in Rock Island, Illinois, survived childhood.  By today’s standards, some would consider this a miracle.  Forests were her playgrounds, and manageable risk was a natural part of daily adventures.  Looking back, she’s glad she grew-up when, where and how she did.

Diann had no girls in her neighborhood (which bordered a state forest), so she had to play with her four brothers and their male friends.  To keep up with them, and to not lose face, Diann developed what she thought of as a boy’s sense of “risk-taking.”  Following the boys’ path in the woods made all the difference to her.

“I grew up with four brothers, and no sisters, and our neighborhood was all boys.  In our backyard was a state park, so we were given tons of freedom and we grew up in those forests… When you’re with four boys in the forest and they’re walking across logs, you don’t get to go down.  You’ve got to go across with the boys.  You might do it differently, but you’ve got to go across that log.  It’s just an unwritten rule.  Those are your playmates, and that’s how I played.”

Since 1986, Diann has developed a preschool in which children are outdoors most of the day for most of the year.  In a standard playground the major variables (wet-dry, hot-cold) are few, weather-related, and can limit how the space is used.  Diann’s Certified Nature Explore Classroom is alive with variables that constantly support new learning.   She says, “The weather changes, the erosion changes…  One day a child jumps over a plant.  Six days later it has grown too tall for him to jump.  Your classroom changes constantly.  You see what works and what doesn’t…  You see it as a challenge to keep adapting to your classroom.”

The fortunate children in Under the Gingko Tree find challenges that sharpen their physical, intellectual and social-emotional growth.  Diann, trusting that the “risk-taking” in her childhood was profoundly valuable to her own growth, allows greater leeway for challenge than would most preschool operators.  Children don’t experience a greater rate of bumps and bruises.  Parents deeply value the wider arena of challenge that Diann provides.  And graduates send their own children there.

Let’s look at one example of how children (and Diann) are challenged by the environment nature creates for them.

One day, a four-year-old boy and five-year-old girl noticed a leaf on the roof of their sandbox, about four feet off the ground.  They wanted the leaf off the roof, and for two days, tried using stumps and other objects to assist in their quest.

Day three brought an “ahaaa!” experience.  Earlier, children had experimented unsuccessfully in trying to push an open box, with child inside, down a gently sloping plywood board.  They learned that plywood is not a slide, and that some things stay in place on a sloped plywood ramp.  Using this information, the boy and girl angled the plywood up to the sandbox roof.

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Standing nearby, with camera in hand and heart in throat, Diann watched- ready to intervene.  The boy quickly got on the plywood and cautiously shinnied to the roof as the girl watched.  Knowing their styles, Diann saw the girl as evaluating the best method of climbing, while the boy, younger, and less developmentally advanced, just charged ahead.  As do all great climbers upon reaching the summit, the boy savored the moment, as he sat beaming with pride.Gano Blog Photo 3

An entire article could be written about the many layers of learning and accomplishment represented in this episode- both for the children and for Diann.  She had to stand aside and trust that the children would solve this problem safely.  Diann saw the girl, understanding her own limits, choosing not to climb, but to support her friend.  Diann understood that the boy’s embrace of the challenge might have been due to his not having the cognitive development to understand the “risks.”  But his caution, and use of prior learning, resulted in success.  This challenge, full of advanced problem solving, teamwork, trial and error, physical dexterity, and the sweet savoring of success- is a rich learning experience that could never have happened in a typical playground.

In talking with Diann, I was moved by a very simple core value that underlies her relationship with “her” children, and that makes possible the unusual learning opportunities they all experience daily.  Trust.

Diann trusts that her own childhood experience is a valuable guide in how she runs her preschool.  She trusts that children, when they are at the hard edge of challenge between what they know and what they are seeking to experience, will take one of three courses.  They will either back-off, ask for assistance, or forge ahead with care.  Each action is a learning experience.

Diann has a profound trust in the wisdom of children who daily take managed risks in the continually changing landscape of her Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  And she places deep trust in nature as being the greatest provider of enriched learning experiences for her children.

What if we all retained this valuable trust in our children, and in ourselves?  What if we all recognized, and trusted, the power of nature to teach?  In one small corner of the natural world, Diann Gano retains that trust, and that is making all the difference.

On the subject of differences- do you know the difference between Snow Mittens and Car Mittens?  Visit our blog post, written by Diann, in which she clarifies this distinction in a very entertaining story. Click HERE.

The History of Playing Outdoors

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

DSC_0054Playing outdoors has a history. Until fairly recently, children playing outdoors was widespread.  Yet back in the 1880’s, as America’s cities become more densely populated, children’s options for free play outdoors became more limited.  At the same time, people began realizing that young children needed the benefits of outdoor play, and America’s first playgrounds were created.

A Letter Seeds a Movement

In 1885 while travelling in Germany, an American woman noticed children playing in large sand-piles that had been constructed in public parks, and which were supervised by police. These were the result of the German Kindergarden movement, that had spawned sandboxes in homes and schools as vehicles for free play outdoors. She mentioned the sand piles in a letter sent to a friend in Boston.

In 1886, Boston introduced what were then called “sand gardens.”  Placed largely in poor neighborhoods, these sandboxes featured digging toys and wooden building blocks.  Sand gardens proved extremely popular and were widely replicated.  Over time, sand gardens became the inspiration for larger outdoor recreation spaces catering to people of all ages.

The Playground Association of America, formed in 1906 began concerning itself with all forms of outdoor recreation, and itself soon became the Playground and Recreation Association of America.  As the movement grew, the “free play” of the sand gardens gave way to activities directed by adults.  Around the turn of the century, play equipment became staples of the playground.

Free Play Becomes Standardized

The sand gardens’ free-play for young children transitioned into supervised activities for all ages, and increasingly involved swings, merry-go-rounds and other similar equipment.  Various movements then swept the playground landscape.  “Adventure,” “Novelty,” “Standardized,” and  “Modern” designs took turns as the paradigm.  Your local school playgrounds have probably reflected some of these ideas in the equipment they feature.  Yet despite periodic updating, our school playgrounds still promote repetitive play on standardized equipment.

Outdoor Classrooms Return Free Play to its Roots:

As early as the 1920’s, the outdoors was seen as an environment rich with possibilities for learning.  The very first “forest schools” started in 1927 in Wisconsin, and their adoption in Europe, beginning in the 1950’s, largely involved children in their preschool years.  The forest school movement has always been small, whereas the school playground has dominated America’s school landscape for over a hundred years.

During the past few generations, for many Americans, nature has been seen as too “risky” for children.  As families increasingly retreated indoors, visionaries in the outdoor classroom movement passionately believed that much was being lost to America’s children.  The true Outdoor Classroom, as exemplified by the many Certified Nature Explore Classrooms around the country, returns to children the profound physical, educational and spiritual benefits that “playgrounds” leave largely unaddressed.

Nature Explore has been at the forefront of organizations that reconnect children with nature. In a very real way, Nature Explore is returning children to the benefits of nature that were routinely experienced generations ago.  Yet this time, due to the research behind Nature Explore’s classroom design services, these benefits to children’s health and learning can be experienced even in small spaces, and in nearly any setting; from urban to rural.  Nature Explore’s outdoor classroom design services are constantly informed by research on children’s learning processes, and on the benefits of tested natural materials.  The outdoor classrooms are not so much “designed by adults,” but rather by the results of our research that are translated and tailored for each client’s needs and resources.

American children’s relationship to nature has changed drastically in the past 150 years.  What had originally been free play in nature became routinized play in playgrounds.  Of course, for many of those years, play in nature was the staple of many suburban and rural children- but even that became lost to most.  Now, with the added background of solid, ongoing research, Nature Explore outdoor classrooms bring these lost benefits of nature to a diversity of children in urban, suburban and rural environments.

Discover compelling pathways for reconnecting the children in your life with nature.  Visit www.natureexplore.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Our Place Through Creativity

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This is the seventh in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing with Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.

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Perhaps one of the first—and most enduring—lessons an educator learns is that creativity is the way children express their uniqueness. Whether they act out stories, make music, paint or draw, they make visible what they know, what they feel and who they are. The creative arts manifest in myriad ways in an outdoor classroom, among them creative dramatics, music and movement and visual art.

Many adults express growing concern that children’s play has become dominated by commercial media. Teachers often observe children acting out popular television shows and movie characters, rather than creating their own ideas. Often, this scripted play is repetitive and violent. When children have access to open-ended natural materials which with to create their own props, it seems to fuel their innate creativity. Here’s one example:

“You know what we can play? Let’s skydive,” Peter whispered to a group of friends on the climbing platform. And just like that, the adventure began. The boys gathered materials (sticks, bark and scraps of cloth) for props such as parachutes and backpacks. One boy wanted a camera, but the group was unable to decide which material was the right shape to be a camera. Eager to keep things moving along, Peter told the others, “Pretend it is in the attic and we can’t find it. Let’s play, dudes!” One by one the boys enjoyed “skydiving” by jumping down from a platform, racing to a far building, tagging it, and racing back.

–Sharon Young, Outdoor Classroom Coordinator, Children’s Place at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas

Nature, music and movement are a perfect grouping. We know that children must move to learn, and Nature Explore Classrooms—with their loose parts and handmade musical instruments—provide just the setting. These opportunities can be particularly profound for children with special needs.

Kevyn, who exhibits autistic characteristics, usually spends his time outside by himself, not interacting with other children or teachers, despite their efforts to include him. One day, Kevyn’s class was playing in the Nature Explore Classroom. As usual, Kevyn began outdoor time by walking around by himself. He stopped when he noticed another child, Bobby, at the akambira in the Music Area. Bobby was playing with the small rubber mallets. After watching awhile, Kevyn moved to stand close. A teacher asked Bobby if Kevyn could use one of the mallets, and he handed it to her. When she passed it to Kevyn, he began playing also. This was the first time the teacher had seen Kevyn initiating play with another child or even using the same material or toy simultaneously. The two children played together for a few minutes before Kevyn moved on. Kevin has returned to the akambira several times since to make his own music with other children.

–Barbara Hughes, Program Coordinator, The SPARK Center, Mattapan, Massachusetts

Learning to interpret the world around us so that we can find our place in it—and contribute to it—is what education is all about. Creating art is one way children can synthesize all that they are learning about the world. In the following story, an educator infused art into children’s learning with nature, setting the stage for a broad range of magical new skills.

Our infants were encouraged to work together to cover a large stone with freshly fallen leaves from the Discovery Play Garden. This was a project inspired by artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work with natural materials. This type of exploration not only provides a unique tactile experience, but also encourages both fine and large motor development and control over wrists, hands, and finger movement.

–Caitlin Bouse, Nature Curriculum Specialist, Elmhurst Academy of Early Learning, Elmhurt, Illinois

For more inspiring stories that highlight flourishing creative arts—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards— read “Growing with Nature” .

 

The Story of the Sand Pile (1886)

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

Maggie in the sandDimensions Educational Research Foundation continuously yields valuable information about the powerful benefits outdoor play holds for children.  Its research unambiguously demonstrates that young children develop academic and social skills during self-motivated free play; learning that happens spontaneously outdoors.  Dimensions Foundation is at the forefront of researching and articulating these benefits.  G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), a pioneer of academic psychology in the US, would have been delighted by Dimensions’ work. Just look how his observations of children playing in sand mirror finding still true to this day.

In 1886, the humble sandbox was introduced to Boston neighborhoods, as a means of giving city children safe places to play.  Called “sand gardens,” these play-spaces became the inspiration for our country’s earliest playgrounds.

In 1888, a professional couple from Cambridge, Mass., dumped a large pile of sand in the back yard of their nearby summer home.  Their sons, three and five, together with friends, then embarked on a journey of outdoor learning that sustained them for years.

Fortunately for us, G. Stanley Hall was a friend of the family. Deeply impressed by the story of the children’s activities and the quality of their learning, Hall wrote  The Story of a Sand-Pile.   He describes how, over many years, the children develop an entire society in their back yard.  With their friends, they learn concrete skills such as woodworking and modeling.  They learn about farm animals and their care, about business and commerce.  They learn about forming an equitable social structure, with town governance and laws.  Most importantly, they learn about themselves and each other.

Their backyard community became a powerful presence in the boys’ lives.  “Most of the playtime of nearly every day of the boys most interested, for several summers, has been devoted to its diversified direct and indirect interests.” Creating a town and its society in what had started as a sand pile was the children’s idea.  “The parents wisely refrained from suggestions, and left the hands and fancy of the boys to educate each other under the tuition of the mysterious play-instinct.”  And because the children took ownership over their learning, they showed care and respect for the space.  “It seems remarkable that during all the years of its existence no boy has been mean enough to injure or plunder it at night, or angry enough to demolish anything of importance.”

In Hall’s day, outdoor play was probably the norm in suburban and rural areas.  What about this specific group of children and their play would captivate one of the great academic minds of the time?

Hall clearly believed—as we do today— that the children, through the development of their play-town, had been engaging in mature problem-solving, learning to observe closely, and developing self-control: and doing, all in a spirit of fun and adventure.  He notes that,  “On the whole, the “sand-pile” has, in the opinion of the parents, been of about as much yearly educational value to the boys as the eight months of school.”  Hall agrees.

The Story of a Sand-Pile concludes with an astonishing observation.  After seeing the intensity of the children’s commitment to their outdoor play, and the high skill-levels they’ve developed across many academic and social domains, Hall finds that this experience couldn’t have happened indoors.  He observed the children’s self-motivated explorations organically probing into many interconnected subject areas.  He reasons that this learning is deeper than learning that happens when skills are broken down into disconnected subjects in school.

At Dimensions Foundation, we would say that children’s’ experiences in our carefully designed Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms extends and deepens learning that happens indoors.  Because outdoor learning takes place in an environment of self-initiated explorations of natural materials, to the children, it’s simply “play.”  The powerful learning dynamics that intrigued G. Stanley Hall can be seen daily in any Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

We believe that G. Stanley Hall would have been very pleased by your efforts to connect children with nature.  Onward to the past!

Discover for yourself the Nature Explore program’s vast collection of Outdoor Classroom Natural Products online by area of interest or request a free Resource Guide to learn more.

Get those children moving!

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This is the sixth in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing with Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.

DSC03409KVL Dimensions Henry body bridge

The importance of movement thinking should not be underestimated. If the six-year-old child does not have fundamental control over both general and discriminative movements, he will find it difficult, if not impossible, to move his eyes across the page, look up and down from the chalkboard to his paper, hold a pencil, or compete in play with his peers… If bodily movement is well under control, children can expend minimum energy on the physical mechanics of the task and maximum energy on the thinking related solution.” –Hans Furth and Harry Wachs, “Thinking Goes to School: Piaget’s Theory in Practice”

Active running, climbing and games are often associated with recess in school and backyard play at home. These experiences are important to physical health, but are only a part of overall physical development. In Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms—with their complete mix of activities—children have opportunities for comprehensive physical development. These include chances for multi-sensory learning, appropriate risk-taking through active play, real work, healthy eating and self-calming activities, all of which are essential for physical (and emotional) development.

One outcome of children’s disconnection from nature is lack of sensory stimulation. Increased time in sterile indoor environments, use of manufactured plastic toys, and earlier use of electronics all decrease opportunities for children to use all of their senses. Many educators are wondering if the growing rise in children identified with behavioral problems and sensory-processing disorders is linked to lack of consistent time outdoors. This first story illustrates the simple-yet-powerful sensory experiences that can be found in a Nature Explore classroom.

blog 2“Snow and winter weather changed the outside experiences for the children with the new scenery and terrain. The toddlers have been able to observe how the snow feels, what it looks like and sometimes how it tastes! The children love being outside in any weather, and for many of the children at this age, snow is a new experience in temperature, texture and mobility.” –Kaysha Brady, Toddler Teacher, Dimensions Early Education Programs

Just as an active lifestyle is beneficial for adults, children need active play to support healthy bodies. Natural outdoor spaces full provide that kind of play for young children, and these spaces become even more vital for older children who many spend most of their school day sitting in desks.

blog 7  DSC_0159“In my advisory class this year, I had several of the athletes, the big, big boys. One day I brought them out to our Nature Explore Classroom for homeroom time and I said, “Okay. We’re just going to chill out here for a while.” Before too long they were playing leapfrog on the giant tree cookies that we had salvaged from a tree that came down on our site. All of the seventh grade boys were playing! It doesn’t matter that you’re thirteen and six foot one, or if you’re four and three feet high, they love this place and their bodies need it.” –Debbie Harris, K-8 Science Department Chair, St. Francis Episcopal Day School, Houston, Texas

When children are involved in the gardening and growing process, and understand where the food they eat comes from, healthy eating habits almost magically fall into place. Simple gardening activities engage children from planting and seeding to harvesting and cooking.

P1100734“Our experience with the school garden in the outdoor classroom has been invaluable. One of my students with autism, an extremely picky eater who would never touch fruits or vegetables, began to sample the fresh garden tomatoes, squash and other produce that he picked in the school garden.” –Tonia Liss, Special Education Teacher, Beard School, Chicago, Illinois

For overall well-being, children need changes of pace in physical activity throughout their day. Chances to quietly reflect and be calm are just as important as opportunities to be boisterous and active. Here’s an innovative approach to nap time undertaken by one early education program.

“Student teachers were skeptical when lab faculty proposed an experiment to move nap time outside when the weather was mild. They later reflected that the children were calm, and that even children who did not sleep were relaxed as they listened to the breeze move in the leaves overhead. For example, one child stated, “When we sleep outside it is better because the wind blows me to sleep.” Teachers also reported feeling more relaxed in the outdoor setting.” –Jenny Leeper Miller, Master Teacher, Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory, University of Nebraska

Whether children are running, building or snoozing, activities that improve body competence can be found around every corner in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. For many more inspiring stories that highlight physical skill development—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards— read “Growing with Nature”.