Behind the Scenes: Developing New Offerings for the Nature Explore Resource Guide

Nature Explore is a collaborative program of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation.  Under the Dimensions Foundation umbrella we have several arms – Nature Explore, Dimensions Education Programs, and Dimensions Research.


We say it all the time in our articles, publications, blogs, etc. – the work of the Nature Explore program is grounded in “research” and “field-testing.” But what does that actually mean when it comes to the products offered in the Nature Explore Resource Guide?

Let’s go behind the scenes a bit and talk about the process of deciding what products make their way into the printed Nature Explore Resource Guide.  We will discuss the challenges, surprises, joy, and learning….all of which make field-testing so important and why we stand behind the value of each product we offer.

The research. EVERYTHING we do is grounded in years and years of research and the benefits nature and outdoor classrooms have on children, educators, families, and community. The Learning With Nature Idea Book, written by Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, outlines the Ten Guiding Principles for an effective outdoor classroom environment. To ensure maximum effectiveness, the outdoor classroom must include a rich mix of activity areas that support children’s interests and creativity. In other words, there is something for everyone in a Nature Explore Classroom.  Within each area, having a variety of furnishings and loose parts enhances the learning possibilities. This is where the Natural Products section of the Resource Guide comes into play.

What is field-testing? Under the Dimensions Foundation umbrella, we have our Education Programs which includes full-time infant/toddler, preschool, and school age programs throughout the year. Our professional teaching staff act as co-researchers, continually documenting the profound learning that takes place in the outdoor classroom. When we introduce new products into field-testing, it is real life teachers and children who are “testing” them in the “field” of the outdoor classroom. Pretty cool, huh?! We look at the quality of the product, durability in the outdoor classroom, the learning that product is helping support, and honestly…if the children and educators love it!  From the educator perspective teachers have to consider where the item will be stored and how much maintenance it may need. Ideally a product will need little or no maintenance and will not be damaged if accidently left outside in the elements. Can a product be safely used alone by children or does it need constant teacher supervision? Teachers have to be ready for anything at any moment so they need to feel safe with children handling a product on their own if there is a need to help someone in another area of the outdoor classroom.

Documenting and communication are key throughout the field testing process. Once a product is introduced, teachers document how children use the product, how it supports learning, and also any concerns that may arise.  Documentation is done using photos, videos, audio recordings, and good old hand written notes.

Field-testing always comes with surprises. The BEST is when we introduce a product thinking children will interact and behave with it in one way – but find they teach us a thing or two! Or, in this particular case, co-author Amanda Kelly used her expertise to create a surprising experience..

Amanda’s documentation involved the Creativity Table and was sent using photos and written notes.  On this particular day it had been raining, so rain droplets had pooled on the clear surface of the table.

Four children were using rain water to paint directly on the Creativity Table with watercolors. One child on each side.  Mac walks up to table and tells me “I want to paint too.” 

I told Mac, “It looks like all of the spaces are being used right now.  You could ask one of them to tell you when they’re done.” 

Mac, begins to crawl under the table and look up through the glass, “There is more room down here.”

I responded, “You did find a space. What does it look like from under there?”

Mac said, “It looks like all the colors are in the sky.” By crawling under the table he now had the sky as a background.  “Someone should paint a dinosaur, then it would look like a dinosaur is flying.”

Lilly who is one of the painters said, “I can do it.”  She begins to paint a dinosaur for Mac who is now watching the others paint from a different perspective. “There,” she announces, “is it flying, Mac?”

Mac laughs, “Ah! Watch out, there is a dinosaur flying in the sky!”  The children all laugh and pretend to scream in fear.  They take turns seeing what it looks like from under the table.

We gather product ideas from a variety of sources, including educators telling us what they feel would work well in the outdoor classroom, the children themselves, and sometimes it is just a gut feeling.  Not all products we field-test make the “cut,” at least not during the first go around.  Many products are designed by the Nature Explore program and go through several prototypes before we hone in on a final product design.  Sometimes this process takes years. We may love a product but then find out the materials used, or the way it was constructed, just does not hold up to the demands of preschoolers or varying weather conditions.

Nature Explore products are produced by people who truly care about connecting children to nature.  Request a copy of the April 2016 Resource Guide today to view all the great products Nature Explore has to offer, including a variety of new products being introduced.

Have a product idea we should consider field-testing? Email Kara at [email protected]!