Child-Led Discovery in Action: The Origins of the Nature Art Table

Thirty miles southwest of Houston, a father and son turn Western red cedar into creations that inspire and delight children across the country.

In their Cedar Creek Woodshop, Don Rohde and his son Alex build the child-sized Natural Picnic Tables, Nature Art Tables and Wooden Discovery Tables that are featured in the Nature Explore Resource Guide and are well-loved in outdoor classrooms from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.

The “patriarch” of Cedar Creek, Don launched his woodworking career years ago. At first, he worked out of his garage, and then moved to increasingly spacious shops until ending up in his current 5,000-square-foot location. Along the way, he was contacted by the Nature Explore program and asked to build a few tables. It seemed like an open and shut order until Don was hospitalized before he could wrap things up; his parents and son stepped in to make sure the first batch of products were produced on time.

Not long after, Don drafted Alex to consistently help in the woodshop. While studying advertising and communications at the University of Houston, Alex squeezed in woodworking between classes. The duo’s work for Nature Explore started with a handful of orders each month, but soon grew to a half dozen orders per day. They’ve hired additional part time employees in order to stay caught up on projects.

And, only somewhat unexpectedly, Alex is now a full partner in the business. How was it that Alex decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as a woodworker?

“He made me,” Alex joked.

When asked what it’s like to work together as father and son, Don did not hesitate to proclaim that he loves every minute of it, even if it has a few ups and downs.

“It’s a great experience,” Alex added, “even if we butt heads sometimes. Most of the time, I’m right.”

Don confessed that due to the shop’s busyness, he’s no longer able to pay close attention to where all of their Nature Explore products end up. But, he appreciates that children benefit from his products, and when he randomly passes a school, he always wonders if it’s home to one of his tables.

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Long before the Nature Art Table was produced at Cedar Creek Woodshop, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation was hard at work researching the benefits outdoor spaces had for children.

The origins of the Nature Art Table tell the remarkable story of child-led learning and our commitment to incorporating research and children’s ideas into everything we do.

In the beginning stages of research at Dimensions Education Programs, staff were involved in a program through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln called Arts are Basic. As part of that relationship, Dimensions Education Program’s art specialist had an opportunity to bring an exhibition of Native American celebration and festival artwork to the preschool. This included regalia, costumes, and photos.

Enthusiasm around that exhibit led to a school-wide study on texture. As part of the investigation of texture, a group of children started taking walks and collecting things based on their observations of texture. They’d come back to the school and evaluate and cull their findings, asking themselves, ‘What am I going to keep? What am I adding to my permanent collection, and what shall I put back where I found it?’ Amazingly, on those walks, the children began to be able to identify landmarks by texture. The teachers realized that nature was providing a lot of the textures that the children were able to pick up and take with them.

In that same time period, Dimensions’ research partner, landscape architect Kathlyn Hatch, introduced teachers to the work of Andy Goldsworthy. The teachers were inspired by his philosophy: create using only what nature provides and that there is a cyclical process of creation that is “the true work” of art. The students’ collections started to turn into sculptures and with the help of their teachers, the children began thinking of their collections as the bits and pieces of creating art.

Interestingly, since the early education programs offered by Dimensions were housed in a church, the children had access to giant pieces of slate. These slabs of slate provided each child with their own canvass. As the teachers observed and reflected on what was happening, they felt that these slate staging areas were an important aspect of learning and that with their excitement, the children were letting them know the value of this work.

That experience translated into the design and creation of the Nature Art Table. The table, textural itself and made in part with slate-like tile, offers space for reflecting, collecting and creating three-dimensional sculptures.

“We looked at the educational aspects and learning outcomes of this project,” said Tina Reeble, Nature Explore Resource Development Director and one of the original educators involved with the Arts are Basic collaboration. “We wanted to design an individual work space that also allowed children to work side by side. There were many prototypes field tested with children, in order to continually improve the product’s design and function. Once we knew what we wanted in terms of the Nature Art Table, we searched for the right builders who would appreciate the unique attributes we wanted to provide to children, and that’s when we started working with Cedar Creek Woodshop.”

She added, “We didn’t start by saying, ‘Hey let’s design a table.’ Rather, the table evolved from a child led discovery process of learning, and educators asking, ‘What can we learn from this and how can we support other children in other settings?’”

 

Would you like to include the Nature Art Table in your outdoor space? Learn more here.


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