Growing Nature Advocates
By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant
For years, Brett Dabb, Director of the Learning Center at Warren Village in Denver, Colorado, has been thinking of connecting children with nature. He has long studied the benefits of time in nature for both children and adults. He is getting closer to his ultimate goal of creating Denver’s first “forest preschool,” in which children will be outdoors as much as possible. So when he learned that the Learning Center would be getting a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, Brett was delighted. More importantly, he was prepared to inspire and mentor his staff to maximize the holistic benefits of the outdoor classroom for the children. Yet thinking beyond the children, Brett clearly sees the transformational potentialities for the outdoor classroom for families, and for the entire Warren Village community.
The Warren Village Nature Explore Classroom has replaced the traditional climbing structure that had been the totality of the school’s playground — and none too soon for Brett. When children see a playground with traditional equipment, “they innately know how to interact with that space,” he says. Not so with a space filled with nature and natural materials. In place of an unchanging playground, the children now delight in the learning opportunities of a constantly changing environment. How will the children negotiate the growing plants, the natural breakdown of certain materials, modifications of play required by changing weather and seasons? “This space creates the foundation for them to develop competence, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills,” he says. Social-emotional skills and teamwork are also developed outdoors. “If they need to navigate or negotiate something they might need a friend’s help… Those are life-skills that young children, especially the population that we work with tend to lack in their development. I think this space will lend itself greatly for them to further hone that craft.”
As noted in our first post about Warren Village, the Learning Center uses the Creative Curriculum. It is a child-centered approach in which the children’s interests drive a variety of projects. Each room is divided into interest areas — much like the Nature Explore Classroom — including an area for reading, science and art. In these interest areas children can explore the subject as they wish. Tables in the center of the rooms may have materials placed by the teacher to support projects in subjects the children are exploring. Teachers create the environment, yet children determine how they will interact with the materials. “The space turns into whatever the children want it to be,” said Brett. The child-centered emphasis and richness of materials of the indoor environment will now be matched by the children’s outdoor classroom, and Brett is interested in deepening the association by connecting curriculum indoors, such as science, with teaching in the outdoor classroom. Brett’s ideas for involvement with the outdoor classroom even extend to Warren Village’s Board of Directors, and beyond. He recently brought some of the natural play materials to a board meeting. “I pitched this to the board last month, and they were thrilled — playing with the loose parts as children do.” On the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of the board members brought a large plastic pail filled with pinecones he had collected with his family. Both pail and cones are now in avid use by the children. Social Workers involved with Warren Village families were included, too. “I presented it upstairs to our family advocates who support all 93 of our families. They were very excited about it.” Children, teachers, board members, social workers and families — all members of the Warren Village community are being involved in the outdoor classroom experience.
To Brett, time exploring nature is important for many aspects of children’s learning and brain-development. He believes this so deeply that he will, before long, bring a true forest preschool to Denver. He also knows that in a fast-paced world, in a community where stable housing is a recent living situation, time in nature can be a rare opportunity to leave daily stresses behind. To him, the outdoor classroom is for adults and children, teacher and student; a universal area for learning and respite.
Brett feels fortunate that Nature Explore found his school. We are all fortunate to have, in our growing Nature Explore family, such a thoughtful and passionate advocate for nature’s varied benefits for everyone.