Our Outreach, and Why We’d Love to Speak With You

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By Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist with the Nature Explore program

OutreachWe at the Nature Explore program are a lucky group. Along with supporting a mission we believe to be more important than ever—connecting children with nature—we also get to spend a lot of time working and speaking with others who are also deeply invested in our children. Educators, administrators, teachers, parents, legislators, nonprofits, you name it: There are all kinds of people supporting this mission. And our interconnectedness is vital.

In an ideal world, the topic of early education would be an ongoing global conversation. While it’s not quite there yet, it’s on its way, all because of early-education advocates like you.

This is particularly apparent during upcoming events like California Association for the Education of Young Children Annual Conference (CAEYC), Conference on the Young Years, Green Schools National Conference, and countless others. Within these communities, we have the distinct honor of sharing our vision that, by connecting every child with nature every day in outdoor classrooms, we can impart a richer natural experience for every generation.

As if that weren’t amazing enough, we are also able to connect with others who share the same passion for education, but who have refreshingly unique and different approaches than ours. And, in traveling toward the same goals from all different angles and with different trajectories, we improve and evolve early education more than we can know.

Let’s start a conversation, if we haven’t already. Give us a call (888.908.8733). Send us an email. Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. We’d love to speak with you.

Outdoor Classrooms: Grounding Children in Reality

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

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 be arriving soon. It will 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.

Give Yourself the Gift of the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute

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By Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of the Nature Explore program

lied-lodgeOne thing I’ve come to know for sure: I can only be as kind to others as I am to myself. That’s why I look forward to the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute every year. It’s a time to relax, renew, grow professionally, grow as a community, and perhaps most importantly, grow personally.

Here’s the personal part: The people who attend are beginning to feel like family to me. We are kindred spirits. We all work to support children and families in one way or another, and we know that connections with the wonders of nature help children grow better, in all areas of development. And we adults—educators, administrators, and families—have felt our spirits lifted as well. Attendees at the Institute know this, and we remind each other of this fact. We say: “Be good to yourself. Go out and delight in nature’s gifts. Take this time for you.”

Here’s the professional part: Great ideas. As more and more people sign on to join the Institute “family,” exciting new thoughts are added to the mix, and we are all enriched. I come each year to gain new seeds of knowledge and creativity. I leave excited to plant those seeds. I can’t wait to see what will grow.

Here’s the community part: We need each other. The work we are doing is bringing about a new way of thinking—about children, about education, and about our relationship with the natural world. Not everyone understands what we’re trying to do—yet. We need each other’s support to help spread the vision, and we must not work alone. Just like giant sequoia trees, we need to intertwine our roots so we can weather life’s storms together. We’re part of something important here.

So, once again this year, I am giving myself the gift of attending the Leadership Institute at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, NE, July 19–23, 2015.

I really hope you’ll join me.

The Outside on the Inside

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Perseid_meteor_2007We all have a favorite toy. Mine was a black-and-white dog doll, my companion when I was a baby and toddler. I still have it, over 60 years later. I loved it then and I do now. That dog was my buddy, but I didn’t learn much from carrying it around: at least not that I remember. Later, there were toys that I learned from during play. But I don’t remember any as distinctly as I do that dog.

A few years later, as my dad and I lay on the sand under the vast, starry sky over Cape Cod, we watched for “shooting stars.” Back then I consulted books to learn that those meteorites we saw were smaller than a pea. Later, I learned about meteor showers. I still hear the shouts of “WOW” and “THERE’S ONE” from my two best friends as we witnessed the incredible Perseid shower of 1968 above a secluded pond. I’ve watched for shooting stars over my lifetime, and seen many. Each carries a trace of Cape Cod and my dad. This is the depth of the learning and relationships inspired by early experiences in nature when they are shared with adults and friends.

And this is why so many passionate advocates for connecting children with nature are people whose own childhoods were blessed with significant outdoor play. We harbor deeply personal memories that may not be introduced to children who aren’t exposed to nature. We’re afraid that a profoundly meaningful type of relationship in our lives will be absent in the lives of today’s children.

Now, I’m not knocking toys or indoor play. Toys are great. Many toys teach. Social and other skills are learned when toys and friends are combined. Indoor and outdoor play are healthy complements. Yet, for many of today’s children, one side is missing.

Time spent outdoors with your child, engaging with nature, is an investment in learning and relationship. Just as small, regular deposits in a bank account ensure steady growth and long-term rewards, daily contacts with nature ensure a lifetime of learning and memories.

Please feel free to share special memories from your relationship with nature in the comments section below. These can be memories from your childhood, or memories-in-the-making from your current relationships with children. We can all learn from them.


A Call to Action by Design

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

1005222_692692820746076_1181661669_nThe Nature Explore program’s goal in outdoor-classroom design is to connect children with nature. When developing outdoor classroom plans, design-team members take into account the topography of the available space, local plants and animals, client desires, the Dimension Educational Foundation’s findings in its studies of children’s play in nature, and much more. The resulting designs promote nature that speaks directly with the child’s curiosity. These conversations lead to expressions of children’s learning through investigations, art, drama, construction, etc.

Nature Explore outdoor classroom designs trust nature’s variety and complexity to inspire curiosity and creativity, and to promote learning. The designer tries to step out of the way to let nature connect directly with the child.

This design ethic contrasts against the basis of many designs of outdoor spaces and playground equipment. Designs of traditional playgrounds and structures often reflect the ingenuity of the designer. Attractively designed playgrounds, especially those with durable metal climbing equipment, get children outside and active.

Of course, for most playgrounds and structures, the child’s connection with nature is not a consideration. Simple exercise and fresh air are the intended benefits. This limited intention has driven playground design for generations. When the benefit of a space or structure is merely exercise, we can easily see that product differentiation in a crowded market would be based on ingenuity of design. Yet our Nature Explore family knows the far greater benefits than just exercise and time outside. The design of a good outdoor classroom calls attention to nature—not to the ingenuity of the designer.

Nature’s incredible variety and complexity of materials and processes are powerful stimulants to the young child’s innate curiosity. Investigation, close observation, theorizing, and much more are inspired within a context of multi-sensory, whole-child learning.

Adults may scaffold these experiences for the child. Yet in this environment, curriculum based on the adult’s agenda often short-circuits the child’s natural learning. Educators in our Nature Explore family see this dynamic of child-initiated exploration in action. And they feel close connections with students when they have successfully scaffolded the child’s explorations into new levels of learning. These creative and joyful relationships between adults and children simply aren’t promoted by traditional playground and equipment designs: Ask any school playground monitor.

Many of us passionately understand the depth and richness of children’s connections with nature. Our numbers are growing—but we’re still a minority. Until the balance is tipped in our favor, the non-nature aspects of children’s outdoor experiences will be considered important. Ingenious design, durable construction, and risk-free experience are understandable considerations in outdoor spaces and structures for children. However, they are also relics of thinking that places limits on children, and on the joyful learning relationships we can have with them.

Let’s pledge to ourselves that we’ll talk about children connecting with nature whenever the subject is appropriate. And we’ll talk about our own deep levels of joyful engagement with children in natural settings. We already see how both children and adults are limited by the commonly accepted thinking about playgrounds. Outdoor-time at school can mean so much more than just “fresh air and exercise.”  Let’s change that thinking—one conversation at a time.

A Life-Saving Transformation: Mark’s Story

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant


We at Nature Explore are told many stories of children’s transformations through play in outdoor classrooms. Yet we rarely hear the back-story of the child’s original behaviors that change with exposure to nature. To know a behavior’s form is not to know its cause.

You are about to meet Mark, a lively four year old, through his mother, Pam. The outcome of this story is powerfully life-affirming. Yet it begins in darkly disturbing conditions.

We are deeply indebted to Pam for her openness during the interview. She says that nature is the touchstone to which she returns for solace and peace, and that it has given her child many areas of growth.

Pam wants this story told so that other children may have outdoor classrooms and the transformations they inspire.

All names in this story have been changed.

butterflyMark was a danger to himself. At four, his balance was very poor, as was his impulse control. Pam, his mother, says that he would quickly bend over to pick up a dropped pencil, gashing his head on a table on the way down. Getting from points A to B in the classroom often included bumping into furniture along the way. Pam said, “When he gets excited he just goes and goes and goes and he winds up hurting himself.”

He was also a danger to his mother. Mark frequently attacked her. “He would get so aggressive with me that I would have bruises all over my body,” she says. When frustrated, he used his fists instead of words. But at least they’ve been safe since last summer.

That’s when Mark’s father finally began serving 20 years in a state penitentiary for the severe abuse he inflicted on the family. For a year, Mark and his mother had moved between safe-houses. In one crisis, Social Services had them sent by taxi over a hundred miles to another program. As long as they were in the town where Pam was raised, they were not safe from Mark’s father. Or from her family, who would reveal their location to the abuser. The state closed her bank accounts, erased her credit cards, essentially “disappearing” her from available records. She changed her name.

As a baby, Mark was often ill with thrush and frequent ear infections. While Pam was at work, Mark had to be left with his father. She was told by a friend that Mark was not being fed or given his medications when she wasn’t home.

Pam says that because she was forced to flee between safe-houses with Mark, he was never able to develop age-appropriate balance skills. They lived in small, restricted spaces where time outdoors was rarely an option. He simply never had the space to develop gross motor skills outdoors as children often do. Understandably, Mark’s needs usually had to assume a back-seat to the family’s need for safety. Pam didn’t have the resources to care for him in ways that would teach him impulse control.

Then, a little over a year ago, they found a safe residential housing program. Last summer, Mark’s father was finally incarcerated. Environmental conditions began to favor Mark’s development.

In his new school, Mark received occupational therapy services targeted towards his impulse control and body awareness. Therapy helped, yet he was still attacking his mother. Although Mark’s preschool teachers understood his background and needs, only modest success was made in helping him improve his balance and impulsivity. Teachers noted that his clumsy movements in the classroom and on the playground rendered him vulnerable.

The school playground was fully covered by composite safety flooring. Other than running around, the large, multi-station climbing structure was the children’s only option for play and exercise. Two lonely trees poked out from the flooring, but they weren’t climbable.

Mark mostly stayed to himself in this space, as he had difficulty keeping up with the others. His attempts to play with his peers often ended badly. Impulsively, he’d climb the slide from the bottom, getting hit by other children sliding down. The playground was just another source of bruises. Its unvarying sameness didn’t challenge Mark in any way.

Then his school decided to replace their traditional playground with a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. This space would have boulders, flowers, bushes, a stage, a “treehouse,” a graded slope in the earth, loose parts, a mud pit, art and building areas, and much more.

Pam was excited for Mark when she saw the new space. She had every reason to be. Her own childhood had been punctuated by extreme physical abuse that ended only when she was removed from home at age 16. One of her early placements had provided a special kind of outdoor therapy that made extensive use of natural settings. Pam grew to love the outdoors as her place of refuge. “I remember that. I know how calming that is.” “It [Nature] gave me the serenity. It gave me the calming, the peace.”

Yet as much as Pam loved Mark’s new outdoor classroom, his teachers were wary. If he couldn’t even move safely through a classroom with a flat floor, how could he negotiate logs, rocks, and other uneven surfaces?

They wanted him to wear a safety helmet, but Mary, the school’s director, said “no.” She told teachers that Mark would get some bumps and bruises on his way to mastering all those uneven surfaces that weren’t as challenging to the other children. Mary asked her teachers for patience. And trust.

Mary was right. Yet even she wasn’t prepared for the speed and depth of transformation that Mark was about to experience.

“It was almost instant with the outdoor classroom… He’s always busy doing something. ‘Mommy come see this, come watch this.’… We were out there one time and he… was like, ‘Mommy watch, I’m Superman’ and he jumped off one of the platforms. It was amazing to see him do this… I can’t begin to tell you how happier he is out there knowing that he has more than just four items to play on. He has a whole world,” says Pam.

For the first time in his life, Mark had true choices of activities outdoors. He could play with the others, or by himself. He wanted to walk across rocks, and jump off them, so he learned how. Mark got a few bumps and bruises early on, though no more than he got on the old playground. To see him now, you’d never know Mark had ever had problems with balance.

But this is only half of Mark’s transformation.

At home, for the first time, Mark is learning “to use his words” when he needs assistance with something. And rather than hitting his mother, he now asks to help make dinner.

Pam says that the outdoor classroom is behind all these transformations. She believes that it is Mark’s testing ground for the skills he learns in occupational therapy. The old playground left him few options other than running around or trying to keep up with children who were more developmentally advanced. Now he easily joins with other children in activities centered on shared interests, boosting his social skills. He is able to practice his climbing and jumping in many locations, alone or with friends, at his own skill level, non-competitively.

Pam says that nature inspires Mark’s intellect and imagination like never before. “He’s learning how to think. And I think that’s pretty amazing… I really do believe it brings more problem-solving skills to the table… Having the chance to explore nature I feel is the best… He’s using his imagination a lot more now. He’s able to use his words instead of crying, having those temper tantrums when he’s not getting what he wants… [The outdoor classroom] has been a castle, it’s been the heroes’ safety ground. It’s been a Christmas tree. It’s been everything.”

Near the end of our interview, Pam wept as she spoke of nature’s powerful healing force in her own life, and now in her son’s. “It doesn’t only work for my son. I feel it transforms a lot of children,” she said through tears.

All children deserve a stable, safe environment. Mark never had one until last year. All children deserve to have their emotional needs met. Pam was not fully able to focus on Mark’s emotional needs until they were both safe. All children deserve the space and environment necessary to develop their physical and social skills, on their own terms. Mark never truly had these conditions until he experienced the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. His poor body control and equally poor impulse control were logical outcomes of his early environments; first when he was a baby, then while on the run.

Pam believes that the outdoor classroom simply provided Mark with exactly the environment he needed all along.

“It’s been a home. ”

Facebook Photo-Contest: A Retrospective

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by Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist for the Nature Explore program

Over the last few weeks, we’ve held a Master Builder contest on our Facebook page in which we asked Nature Explore sites to submit pictures of their nature-inspired building. Out of the finalists, the picture with the most likes would receive a set of Mini-Bricks for their classroom. Read on to view the finalists, including our winner.

contest photo 7 contest photo 6 contest photo 5 contest photo 4 contest photo 3 contest photo 2 contest photo 1

…and our winner:

contest photo 8

Congrats, Loving Hands Daycare & Preschool! We hope you enjoy your Mini-Bricks for years to come.

Thanks again to all those who entered, and be sure to follow us on Facebook for future contests.


The Places We Went and the People We Met: Looking Back on Our Journeys in 2014

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant


Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting many inspiring people in our ever-growing Nature Explore family. Their diversity of perceptions and experiences was balanced by the unified passion they hold for connecting children with nature. We met Heather Hess, the mother who made a nature playscape in her backyard and advocated for two Nature Explore Outdoor classrooms in her community. Then, there was Diann Gano, a preschool owner whose trust in her students’ problem-solving skills is rooted in her own childhood experiences. We also went back in time to meet G. Stanley Hall, who in the 1890s wrote observations on children’s play outdoors that seem remarkably current. We met the remarkable Bird Team, and more.

Here’s a look back at some of the people we learned from last year:

Heather and Kipper Hess of Lincoln, Nebraska have three girls. They all attended the Dimensions preschool, which has the first Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. After seeing their children thrive in this outdoor learning environment, Heather and Kipper built special nature activity areas in their backyard. But that wasn’t enough. Heather wanted to ensure that the preschool’s outdoor focus wouldn’t be lost as her children transitioned to elementary school. She joined the group of parents that successfully advocated for an outdoor classroom at the local school—but even that wasn’t enough. Heather then brought the idea to her church. Saint Matthews Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Nebraska now features an exquisitely designed Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Mother Nature inspired a determined mother, and a whole community benefitted.

Diann Gano, owner/operator of Under the Gingko Tree preschool in Rock Island, Illinois, learned appropriate risk-taking as a child. She mostly played outdoors with boys, as her neighborhood had few girls.  Crossing streams, jumping over logs, and climbing rocks gave her a love of the woods, and confidence in her outdoor skills. She trusts that children at Under the Gingko Tree will learn to negotiate the irregularities of the outdoor classroom by trial and error and by using good judgment.

That trust paid off during a three-day series of attempts by children to get leaves off the roof of a low shed. The final (and successful) ascent to the roof, using a wide sheet of angled plywood as a ladder, was a test for Diann as well as the children. She stood nearby, anxiously, at the ready to help. Yet she let the children figure out how to get up to the roof. They did so safely, and gained a well-earned sense of accomplishment. Diann showed us the power of trust. She trusted in her own past as being an appropriate guide for working with her students, and she trusted the children to use good sense and appropriate risk-taking. Skills in trial-and-error planning, physics, and coordination with peers were exercised along with their bodies. This fluidity of whole-child learning, capped by the thrill of accomplishment, is rarely achieved indoors.

Moving back to the 19th century, we met G. Stanley Hall, one of America’s early pioneers in psychology and education (or at least, we met his legacy). A family he knew dumped a large pile of sand in their backyard. Over the following years, young boys played in that space with friends. The children built families, houses, neighborhoods, and towns from sand, wood, stone, and other materials. A town government was formed, and laws enacted. Hall took note of the play that developed over the years, marveling at the complexity of learning he witnessed. In his “The Story of a Sand Pile,” (1897), Hall theorized that the learning gained in this backyard was far deeper than what would have developed in an indoor classroom.

In Denver, Colorado, we caught up with Brett Dabb, Director of Warren Village’s preschool. The Warren Village housing complex serves a population of single-parent families that are emerging from homelessness. Their school actually has two new Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms: one for preschoolers, and one for infants and toddlers. For years, Brett has researched and studied the benefits of nature for both children and adults. He is an avid camper, and a natural with children outdoors. Although students of the preschool are the primary beneficiaries of the outdoor classroom, the Warren Village community as a whole uses it during evenings and weekends. Brett sees the space as a place of learning, refuge, and healing for the entire community.

Crossing over into Nebraska, we met Amber Gamble and Brenda Murphy, teachers at the St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebago. They work with Native American children who have largely lost touch with the deep spiritual connections to nature enjoyed by their ancestors. Some of the children live in unsafe neighborhoods where outdoor play is rare.

The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is the one place where many can feel the true beauty and peace of nature. Classes that would otherwise be taught indoors are held in the outdoor classroom because Amber and Brenda believe the children simply learn more effectively outdoors. And through the medicine garden, children are reconnecting with their ancestral heritage, learning to renew the honor of being nature’s stewards.

Then we met Lincoln, Nebraska’s all-season, indomitable protectors of wildlife, known as “The Bird Team.” Ensuring that bird-feeders are full during harsh weather and breaking ice in birdbaths before refilling them are only some of the services they perform. When the Bird Team’s activities caught the attention of younger preschoolers, a second team was started. Children in the Bird Teams engage in research, learn responsibility to nature, develop social and academic skills, and coordinate roles and responsibilities in their group activities. Yet from the children’s perspective, they’re simply on a mission and having fun. GO BIRD TEAM!

Finally, in 2014, we: visited a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom at the Creston National Fish Hatchery in Kalispell, Montana; recalled Puff the Magic Dragon; met children who placed caring for worms ahead of their own snack time; and much more. We met diverse children whose lives are enriched through contacts with nature, and adults deeply committed to these connections. May the people and ideas you’ve encountered here suggest new journeys with children into nature and learning.


A Worm Hotel, the Chicken Shangri-La, and Well-Deserved Recognition for Teddy Bear

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Teddy BearBeth Fryer was accustomed to being marginalized by other preschool educators. “I’ve been scoffed at by colleagues for years [who said] ‘All she does is play outside’,” she says. She was considered “out there” for placing so much importance on outdoor play for her students. At over 10,000 square feet, the Teddy Bear Day Care and Preschool of Traverse City, Michigan had an enviable amount of space for outdoor play. Her colleagues simply didn’t understand what is obvious to all of us in the Nature Explore community; that outdoor play is true “whole-child” learning. Beth couldn’t even get interns from the local college’s early education program.

Until a few years ago, some puzzle pieces were missing from Beth’s great outdoor space. She found those pieces at a 2011 conference where she discovered the Nature Explore program. After hearing an initial presentation, Beth sought out every Nature Explore workshop at the conference. She then ordered and digested the Resource Guide, and purchased all the Nature Explore books. These books led to other works that discussed the rich learning in outdoor play.

For Beth, the missing puzzle pieces were falling into place. She now understood that her ample outdoor space contained a lot of unnatural play materials—such as cars, a playhouse, and several plastic toys—that didn’t promote the kind of learning she wanted for the children.

“My thought was to get rid of that stuff and install natural elements,” she says. And she did. “I started by asking the children: If they could design the most perfect place to play, what would they want?” The children started talking about it. They liked boats, to play in the mud, to build. With help from her whole family, her parents, and students, Beth’s outdoor space took on a new character over the next several months. Natural materials quickly replaced plastic, and new activity areas came to life.

Creative play reached new levels as children developed their own ideas on how to work with unscripted natural materials. Where plastic toys suggest predetermined usage, open-ended natural materials inspire creativity. Beth says that children new to her preschool are usually accustomed to plastic toys. They often don’t know how to play in the outdoor classroom. Yet after seeing the ongoing activities of the other students, these children always “get it” very quickly. They soon become immersed in the rich learning environment for which her program is now known.

As for the colleagues that “didn’t get” the richness of learning in Beth’s outdoor play space: They do now. Other educators now invite Beth to speak at conferences, and to hold workshops. They visit her Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom and are quickly won over. And even those who don’t know about Teddy Bear’s long waiting list have probably heard about the reputation of Beth’s graduates when they reach kindergarten. “My kids that go into kindergarten are off the charts and they’re wondering what in the world we’re feeding them here.”

As a matter of fact, Beth feeds her students only fresh, unprocessed food, some of which is planted, watered, and harvested by the children. Annexed to the 7,000-square-foot outdoor classroom is a 3,000-square-foot raised bed garden. And the eggs the children eat? Some are brought from the “Chicken Shangri-La” henhouse that the children maintain.

Another of the outdoor classroom’s features that the children tend is their “Worm Hotel.” This area does not contribute to the children’s diets, but does feed their learning. And nearby is the very popular mud area. “We celebrate International Mud Day all the time,” says Beth

Outdoor classrooms are most effective when adults interact with children in ways that deepen and extend the learning involved in play. Beth and her teachers make the learning visible to their students. When Beth placed a set of measuring cups in the digging area, the children spontaneously developed play scenarios with them.  Through self-initiated play, enhanced by their teachers, the children learned math, literacy (writing down the different amounts), research (learning about measures larger than their cups), and much more. The teachers, attuned to the variety of learning domains involved in the play, ensure that high-level learning is integral to the experience. It’s no wonder that these children have become stars in kindergarten. We all wish this for every child.

At Teddy Bear, the Creative Curriculum is the basis for working with the children around their interests. Teachers also use ideas from the Montessori Method and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.

Beth says that nature and children are her two favorite subjects, and she credits her association with Nature Explore as inspiring deeper connections between them. We are proud to count Beth Fryer and her teachers (and interns*) as inspiring members of our growing Nature Explore family.

*Although for a long time Teddy Bear didn’t fit the mold for intern eligibility, it now has devoted interns from the local college’s early education program.

Magic in the Outdoor Classroom at Grace School

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Grace_1Jil Jaeger teaches two-year-olds at Grace School in Houston, Texas. Grace has a very large Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, which they call the Outdoor Learning Center. Grace’s preschool students use it twice daily, and throughout its four years it has been a valuable partner to the school’s indoor classrooms.

Jil has taught at Grace School long enough to have seen three incarnations of the preschool outdoor space. When she started teaching there, the playground was a sand-covered area with many separate pieces of play equipment; small wooden structures, a balance beam, and tubes for crawling through. Jil liked the area. It reminded her of the playgrounds of her youth.

After a few years, the school decided to go with the style of playground that was then becoming popular. A large, multi-stationed climbing structure embedded in composite safety flooring became the new playground. Jil was not as pleased with the children’s restricted range of play, along with the behaviors this playground elicited. After several years, the school discovered the Nature Explore program, and a true outdoor classroom was built.

Over the past four years, Jil has formed a deeply perceptive understanding of the Outdoor Learning Center’s functions and effects; not just for the students, but for other teachers and parents as well. She has a holistic view of the space, in which learning is furthered, and the school community is enriched.

In Jil’s words:

When it was the composite floor and the big play structure in the middle, there were only two options. There was nothing to explore. You were climbing and sliding or you were walking around and really not doing much of anything… There were no in-between options there… We would try to bring some blocks out and you would get the blocks up on the slide because there was nothing else to do with them. [Children] were so limited in their options, you’d have children acting out, or some of them would just sit there. They’d just camp out… [waiting] to go back into the air conditioning.

Now that we have the Outdoor Learning Center, things have changed so drastically, and there is something to do for every child. Very rarely are any children getting in trouble for anything because it’s a “yes” environment, and it’s their environment; it’s student driven. When you give them that freedom they’re less inclined to rebel against it because, what are they going to rebel against? And secondarily to that, is that there is something for everybody. There’s room to run, for the boys and girls that just want to run… And they have a brick path they can ride their bikes along. You’ve got the kids that are super-active and really need to get out some energy and they get out and they go out and they run, and they go out and they ride their bikes… You also have the secluded areas off the side where you can hang out on a bench and daydream. There’s something for everybody.

The Outdoor Learning Center is used both for investigating various subjects, and for the learning that is inherent in child-directed free play. The activity areas foster a range of academic inquiry and imaginative play. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) curriculum is being used in the older grades, and the preschoolers are learning the basic concepts both formally and informally in the Outdoor Learning Center.

Examples of this learning are the gardening activities. Gardens are planted every year. The children participate in all aspects of their development, from exchanging the soil and choosing the plants, to seeding, watering, weeding and harvesting. Explorations of science and math concepts abound in these activities.

Yet along with the academic learning and the richness of self-directed play, the outdoor classroom has inspired enhancements in the school community that no one had foreseen. One of the requirements for Nature Explore certification of an outdoor classroom is family involvement. The child’s experiences in nature are deepened when parents and family understand their value, and engage with the child. Yet not even Jil could have predicted how the school community was to be changed after the outdoor classroom was built.

A few years ago, parents picking up their children after work rarely spent time at the school: School day over, time to go home. But something happened after the advent of the Outdoor Learning Center. During the days of the playground climbing structure, the children didn’t gravitate to the playground the way they do now to the Outdoor Learning Center. The activity areas hold ongoing attractions for the children. Parents now find their children wanting to spend time in the outdoor classroom after school is out. Parents have begun spending time with children in the space, and with each other—even those parents who would not normally have contact with each other, began meeting. Teachers began meeting parents whose children were not in their classes. Jil says that these connections have given rise to a new, enhanced sense of community at Grace.

Once the outdoor space for preschoolers at Grace School truly supported children’s connection with nature, the magic began. Children’s behaviors stopped reflecting boredom and began expressing wonder. Both academic learning and imaginative play were enriched. And the school community of children, parents, and teachers grew closer.

Can changing from a typical climbing-structure-based playground to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom really promote this level of magic? Ask Jil.