Anythink Libraries: Experiential Learning Indoors and Out

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

anythinkTwo years ago I visited the Nature Explore Classroom at the Wright Farms branch of the Anythink Library in Thornton, Colorado.  With full funding, the Thornton branch built an outdoor classroom as designed by our Nature Explore team. Two other branches of the Anythink Library system received Nature Explore design services but were unable to receive full implementation funding.

Inspired by Nature Explore and Wright Farms, these classrooms at the Brighton and Commerce City branches used the resources they had to create outdoor spaces where children now play, learn, (and sometimes read) both outdoors and in.

The Anythink library concept is a complete redesign of the traditional library, just as the Nature Explore Classroom concept is a complete redesign of traditional outdoor spaces for children. They are like two peas in a pod of learning and wonder.

You won’t find the Dewey Decimal System used to catalog and order reading materials at Anythink Libraries. You will find books and other materials arranged by subject, in attractive displays and shelves.  You also might bump into a full, living tree — indoors; or find a fireplace surrounded by homelike, comfortable seating; or see hatchling chicks; teens attending a technology seminar or camera club meeting; or preschoolers listening to stories.

Anythink Libraries invite people of all ages into spaces that support the richness of experiential learning, through multiple modalities. They are designed around people, not books. Nature Explore Classrooms break the mold of outdoor areas for children by also supporting learning through multiple modalities, in spaces designed around children and nature, not equipment.

Deborah Hogue, Branch Manager of the Commerce City Anythink Library oversees an outdoor classroom with some wonderful natural features that add drama to the space. A magnificent, old cottonwood tree spreads branches and leaves above the classroom’s stage area, giving needed shade to dramatic activities. Many of us have warm memories of trees that were significant to us during childhood. I have no doubt that this tree, along with the outdoor classroom and library, will be touchstones in years to come for the children who play there today.

The other natural feature is a long berm near one edge of the space. A three-step stone staircase leads to the flagstone path along its top surface. Benches surrounding a picnic table sit on a patio-like circle on one end. This area affords a slightly elevated view of the nearby music area and stage, a perspective that is exciting for children.

A few miles away, in Brighton, Colorado, Jackie Kuusinen has a small space to work with, yet still gives children transformative experiences in the outdoor classroom.

The library is in a largely commercial area. Yet when children play in the music, building, sand and other areas, they are miles away from the library building and large parking lot that border the space. It is truly an outdoor “oasis.”

Anythink Library gardenA planter-box garden allows children to observe, tend and harvest its plantings. It is currently home to three varieties of peppers. During a previous planting a child smelled one of the plants and exclaimed, “This plant smells like squash!” To a small child, this is more than just an exciting discovery; it’s a confirmation of her strength in making associations between subtle observations in different environments.

Anythink Libraries attract people of all ages, and are havens for teens. Teens are offered many avenues for thoughtful activity, with computers being in the mix. Conversation works in the library, but rambunctiousness doesn’t. To her own initial disbelief, Jackie has found that teens directed to the outdoor classroom don’t take their rambunctiousness outside, but are calmed by the space. The outdoor classroom allows teens to remain on grounds and return quickly, rather than simply to leave the library.

This spring and early summer has been extremely rainy in Colorado. During a brief interval between rainy days, Jackie went to plant an apple tree in the outdoor classroom. As soon as she picked up the shovel, she was surrounded by children. Jackie received enthusiastic help in planting the apple tree. Once planted, the tree needed fertilizing — with “sheep poop and worms,” that is. The children’s disbelief that they were handling sheep poop rapidly changed to pride in caring for the tree. Anytime a timidity towards engaging with natural materials is overcome, learning and expanded opportunities for experience result. The children were amused by their accomplishment, and proud, too.

Varied opportunities for experiential learning are the hallmarks of all Anythink Libraries. Taking ideas from the Wright Farms branch’s certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, the Commerce City and Brighton branches have developed spaces where children can play, learn, observe, and wonder. As Jackie said, “We wouldn’t be who we are without that space. A lot of libraries do a good job with their indoor space but forget about the outdoors.” The outdoors isn’t forgotten, but celebrated in these amazing Anythink Libraries.