A Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom in Support of Our Military Families

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

Education ConnectionFort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, houses over 45,000 assigned soldiers, and employs almost 9,000 civilians.  With its grounds spanning 214,000 acres it is one of the worlds’ largest military installations.

Our military has one of the highest rates of special needs children, and Fort Hood has no preschool for this population on the base.  Many of these children are brought off the base to Education Connection in Killeen, a comprehensive program offering a variety of educational and therapeutic services.  Eighty percent of their students have special needs, with the diagnoses including autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, microcephaly and attention disorders.  Fortunately for everyone involved, Education Connection has a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

My interview with Tracy Hanson, the school’s founder/owner, and Nicki Luther, its Director, was unlike any I’d had before.  They are working with a challenging and rewarding student population, are very responsive to the special needs of families, and often have to deal with Texas’s harsh climate. For all these reasons, the respite of free play children experience in Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is all the more dear to everyone concerned.

Education Connection’s outdoor classroom is new, yet it has already brought many benefits to children, their teachers, and the families. Although the original two climbing structures remain in the middle of the space, the children use them far less than before.  Art, digging and reading areas engage them, along with the stage.  When the outdoor classroom was first opened, “Not a single child was on the structures,” said Tracy.  Children simply found the new “activity centers” more interesting than climbing.  And while climbing will always be an option, the outdoor classroom holds new explorations.

“You can just see the stress levels are down…” said Tracy.  She notes that children sometimes protest when it’s time to go inside, because they’d rather stay outside.  “But to see that a child doesn’t want to come in makes me feel good,” she said.

As we’ve heard from many other venues, children with diagnosed attention disorders are calmer in the outdoor classroom than they were in the old playground.  Because the numbers of special needs children at Education Connection is high, this calming effect of nature is a welcome assist to the variety of therapies the school provides.

Many of the children attending the school require at least one specialized supportive therapy.  Typically, children are taken to various venues for their therapy sessions.  Nicki and Tracy understand that families are already under extraordinary pressures. This is why they make it a priority to provide the entire array of therapies needed by their students in the school or on the grounds, and during school hours. Speech, physical, occupational and behavioral therapies have been delivered by the time parents collect their children in the afternoon.

Nicki and Tracy are sensitive to the regimentation, intrinsic to the military, which often finds it way into the lives of their students.  Due to the soldier’s work schedule, some children are dropped off at the school as early as 5:30am.  Nicki says children must follow these schedules, and that time that is entirely their own is rare. She says time outdoors plays an important role in their lives.  This is the place where they can play freely, being themselves, forgetting their many other responsibilities. “To give them that time out there, to just play…that’s why we want it to be so much bigger and better, because we want to give them even more.  When they go home it’s homework…baths, dinner, and they’re in bed again.”

Education Connection is providing comprehensive services to children of families that are under extraordinary pressures.  From rigorous schedules, to prolonged absence of a parent, these children experience conditions that weigh heavily on their time and emotions.  Play in Education Connection’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is an integral part of the school day.  Learning, creativity and health are supported, along with much needed “free time.”  We look forward to working with Nicki and Tracy as the school expands, and learning from them how to best serve their complex and very rewarding student and family population.

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