Two preschoolers live in a city. Los Angeles, perhaps, or Houston. Both attend full-time preschool. Both are learning to write their names and developing social skills through peer interactions. Both profess enduring love for Daniel Tiger and the color yellow. On paper, these two children emerge from similar circumstances and have similar educational experiences and opportunities. Except for one distinction.
Charlotte has two 20-minute recess breaks each day. Her teachers wish they could spend more time outside with their young charges, but they have to rotate usage with other teachers, and the playground is also small and somewhat unwelcoming. It's surrounded by eight-foot chain link fencing and features standard-issue swings and monkey bars on blacktop. When she doesn't feel like chasing her friends, Charlotte sits with her back against her school's brick façade and watches cars pass on an adjacent freeway. She's usually eager to return to her classroom when a bell signals that recess time is over.
Ivy's preschool recently added an outdoor classroom. Fencing created from natural materials conceals a hidden wonderland divided into intentional learning and play areas. In one part of the classroom, Ivy and her friends can get their hands dirty with "messy materials." Across a mosaic stone path, they can snip samples of organic greens grown in their own raised beds. There are weatherproof marimbas for the musically inclined—and really, aren't all preschoolers musically inclined?—and "tree cookies," rough wooden building blocks, for use in elaborate building projects.
The contrast is stark, but it’s also infinitely mendable. Through a partnership between the Arbor Day Foundation and the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, stories like Ivy's are unfolding every day. Globally, there are already 170 certified Nature Explore Classrooms, with many more underway. Based on field-tested guiding principles, these spaces have been developed for schools, early childhood centers, domestic violence shelters, military bases, parks and museums. While each design is unique, the underlying philosophy remains the same: Connect kids with nature and amazing things happen.
Creative, hands-on outdoor experiences like those Ivy is exposed to are an essential piece of the child development puzzle. Research reveals that contact with nature may be as important for children as good nutrition and sleep. Yet for many kids, chances to freely explore the outdoors do not "just happen" any more. In a majority of our communities, green space is giving way to development at an alarming rate; meanwhile, children have more options for solitary play provided by electronics and child-targeting technologies. This lack of time outdoors contributes to childhood obesity and increased reliance on behavior-regulating medicines. While many educators recognize these connections, they may not possess the tools or resources they need to actualize nature-based learning in their schools.
Nature Explore can help bridge this gap. In outdoor classrooms, children develop a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world. They solve problems, experiment, engage, and explore.
Want to introduce the kids—or educators—in your life to a Nature Explore classroom? Visit www.natureexplore.org for virtual tours of certified classrooms, details on upcoming workshops, an overview of the design consultation process, and other resources that can help you launch a Nature Explore space in your community. We'll also be sharing another post on GOOD soon that explains the basics of designing an outdoor classroom.
Images courtesy of Nature Explore