By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant
Flavia Nazario admits to not having been much of a nature person when her program, Care 4 Tots Learning Center in Killeen, Texas, was about to get a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. The first time she saw the designs for the space she thought they were “a little crazy.” She and her teachers were accustomed to traditional playground equipment, and were nervous about exactly how to add nature to their children’s day.
Kim Robinson is a nature person. “I’m a country girl from North Carolina,” she says. Retired after over thirty years as an early childhood teacher, she had wanted to spend time with her grandchildren, and to garden. For a few years she’d been providing home care for children, but she still wanted to stay away from teaching. Then came the call.
Flavia knew that she needed outside assistance. Kim agreed to help her get started. What happened next can easily be predicted.
Nature person meets Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom concept, gets excited by the possibilities, sees the project into realization, sees how the children embrace the space, gets hooked. Flavia and Kim are now a team, and their children have a charming outdoor classroom in the most unlikely location.
But let’s back up a bit. Flavia had been receiving Workforce Solutions of Central Texas consultation services to prepare for regional and national accreditations. As a condition for participating in this service, her program was required to get a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. This requirement pushed Flavia outside her comfort zone. But her dedication to quality care was far more important than her initial anxiety. Now, high quality service to children is as evident outside as it is inside.
The exterior of the Care 4 Tots Learning Center’s building would never suggest the rich child-friendly environment inside. Located in a light industrial area, it looks like a warehouse itself. It’s a metal building that is distinguished only by the Care 4 Tots sign, and a few decorations on the outside. Directly behind its outdoor classroom are rows of metal shed storage units. Based on its exterior, Flavia’s childcare center fits right in.
Inside is a different story. Flavia collaborated with the “Inspiring Spaces” consulting service, which assists in developing aesthetic and meaningful interior spaces in schools and childcare settings. Her classrooms are rich with materials, and beautiful in design. And her outdoor classroom follows suit.
Before the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom could be built, 25 metric tons of pea gravel had to find a new home, the chain link fence needed some decorating, and the traditional play structures needed to be removed. After the space had been prepared, the outdoor classroom was built with help from a variety of sources. Soldiers from nearby Fort Hood assisted in assembling some of the equipment. A child’s grandmother did protective wood staining. A father built the sandbox.
Yet, at first, both the children and the teachers had been so accustomed to the traditional playground equipment they were unsure how to use the outdoor classroom. Kim tells us how Flavia and her staff transitioned into true outdoor educators: “The journey of the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom was not an easy one. Along with Flavia, the teachers were not quite sure on how to use our new outdoor classroom. They attended several Nature Explore workshops, and also started doing research, finding new things to do in the outdoors. This approach opened up new avenues, allowing teachers to establish great lesson plans, full of indoor and outdoor activities! Needless to say, our teachers are now more than confident when using the Outdoor Classroom.
As directors we’re proud of our teachers in their accomplishment of increasing parental awareness, and of the high standards they continue to set! Through all of our great triumphs, this journey is far from over. We continue to strive for greatness by improving our outdoor classroom, and by inspiring life-long learners and lovers of nature.”
Children are now so engaged in activities they probably don’t even notice they’re just a few yards from a storage facility. Exploring natural materials, performing plays, digging in sand, riding bikes, and making artwork are foreground activities as they learn about their background of nature.
Now, planter box gardens, a nature art area, messy materials area, and the sand area are among the draws for the children’s interests and activities. One of the first projects in the new outdoor classroom was planting collard greens in the planter boxes, and tending plants remains an ongoing activity. When the children noticed some of the plants had died they asked teachers why this happened. These observations and questions are a far cry from the purely physical play on their old playground.
Before the outdoor classroom was installed, indoor learning and outdoor activity were separate events. Now, children observe, explore and question in both environments. Projects or dramatic play that begins inside may move outside. Questions asked outdoors may be answered by consulting books indoors.
Kim never needed convincing that nature held worlds of learning for children. Flavia “got it” as soon as she saw the changes in her children once the outdoor classroom was in place. She says the children are calmer outside now, and injuries are way down. Flavia now hopes to add more natural elements to her nearby infant/toddler play area.
Flavia, Kim and their teachers have developed an oasis of outdoor learning in a most unusual neighborhood. Just yards from rows of metal storage sheds, children water and tend to rows of plants.
Nature has the power to transform more than children. Ask Flavia. She knows.
Click here to read more from Flavia and Kim’s perspective.