A Call to Action by Design

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.