Deep in the (BIG) Heart of (Central) Texas!
By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant
Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, is the free world’s largest military installation. At 214,000 acres, with over 45,000 soldiers and almost 9,000 civilian employees, Ft. Hood is a vital presence in the geography and economy of the Killeen area. What matters to Ft. Hood, matters to Killeen. When a military quality of life study revealed a scarcity of accredited local childcare programs, Killeen took notice. That finding landed at Workforce Solutions of Central Texas. Fortunately for the children, Sherry Trebus was charged with doing something about it.
Workforce Solutions is a government agency that delivers programs and services to enhance employment in the area. Its Child Care Services assists low-income families and works directly with childcare programs. Sherry, a former teacher, is the Child Care Policy and Quality Assurance Manager. The military’s identification of need and Obama stimulus funding merged on her desk. Thanks to Sherry’s vision for children, Nature Explore has now designed almost 20 outdoor classrooms in Central Texas. And more are on the way.
Nature Explore is blessed to be working with Sherry. Not all educators involved with outdoor classrooms truly “get” the deeper pedagogy of whole-child learning in nature. Sherry does. We visited childcare programs in Killeen and Temple, Texas, with her. Wherever we went, Sherry sought out children in the outdoor classrooms, or they came to her. The excited attention, and the absorbed expressions of the children around her, said it all. Sherry is just the right person to have introduced Nature Explore to Central Texas.
The military had found that almost no childcare programs in the area were accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the national standard. Workforce Solutions assists local programs to achieve a “Texas Rising Star” certification, a big step towards the national standards. Sherry combined focus on nature with her Texas Rising Star activities. Providers wanting assistance towards meeting Rising Star standards also had to incorporate a focus on nature- both indoors and out. Sherry selected Nature Explore to design outdoor classrooms. Inspiring Spaces, a nationwide consulting service, was selected to teach programs how to make nature and natural materials an integral part of every indoor classroom.
Sherry understands the many physical and educational benefits in children’s contacts with nature. She says, “I wanted to create Nature Explore Classrooms at childcare facilities because I knew it would positively affect children’s growth and learning in the short term, while producing long-range health and environmental benefits.” She had studied the many health benefits to children from outdoor play, yet was also concerned about the benefits to teachers. She describes outdoor time in a traditional playground as often “teeth-gritting” for teachers. Repetitive and sometimes risky behaviors on playground equipment require constant monitoring. Varied and self-directed explorations in outdoor classrooms invite constant engagement. Sherry’s holistic understanding of nature-based education, that it happens both indoors and out, and that it benefits both adult and child, has taken root.
Sherry began by working with five local childcare facilities that had achieved a 4-Star rating in the Rising Star certifications. Her “Taking Charge of Change” program leveraged the commitment to quality already demonstrated by this leadership team. While working towards the NAEYC certifications, these programs were required to incorporate nature into their indoor and outdoor spaces. Apparently good ideas spread like wildfire in Central Texas. Within a few years, eighteen childcare programs had received Nature Explore designs for their outdoor spaces. At the outset, even Sherry hadn’t predicted how widely her ideas would be adopted.
Jenny Schneider and Flavia Nazario are two among the many whose programs have been enriched through Sherry’s emphasis on nature. Jenny, Director of the Central Texas Children’s Center, in Temple, says, “I can’t imagine not having the natural centers now. They inspire different activities than the climbing structure.” She has seen imagination and cooperative play greatly enhanced in her outdoor classroom. These changes are especially important for her program, with its special needs population of 25%.
Flavia, Owner/Operator of the Care 4 Tots Learning Center in Harker Heights, knew that outdoor play was important for children. Yet her outdoor experience, and that of the children in her program, had only involved traditional play structures. When she saw the Nature Explore outdoor classroom design for her space she thought it “a little crazy.” Now she’s very glad she trusted Sherry’s emphasis on outdoor learning. Children in Flavia’s outdoor classroom don’t care that just beyond the bamboo fence is a complex of home-storage sheds- they’re too busy playing and learning in their nature oasis.
Through Sherry, programs have received consultations from Inspiring Spaces, design services and professional development from Nature Explore, and technical assistance from the US Forest Service. Central Texas often has blisteringly hot, dry days. Forest Service consultations inform the programs on the selection and care of shade trees, vitally important for children’s comfort on those days. Sherry has drawn together complementary resources that truly enhance both children’s and teachers’ experiences with nature; indoors and out.
Comparing the playgrounds she found to the spaces she has inspired, Sherry said, “Outdoor Classrooms are more deep breathing. You can have time to relax and enjoy the children.” When we saw her engaging with children during our visits to outdoor classrooms we witnessed a natural educator, effortlessly practicing what she preaches. She is an educator, facilitator, inspiration, and example of best practice to the growing number of programs taking advantage of her services. Due to these extraordinary qualities, and to her commitment to children, Sherry has been awarded The Arbor Day Foundation Rachel Carson Award. We are very proud to count Sherry Trebus as a truly inspiring member of our Nature Explore family.