“I want them to see it, to feel it, and, hopefully, to love it.”

When people speak this way about Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, they’re usually referring to children.  But Gerie Grimes was referring to the whole community surrounding Denver, Colorado’s Hope Center.  For over fifty years, the Hope Center has provided early education, and meals, to special-needs and at-risk children, largely from minority communities. Ms. Grimes is Hope Center’s President/ CEO.  She looks forward to the many educational benefits the outdoor classroom will hold for the students.  Yet in her wide vision for the innovative space, Ms. Grimes also sees its benefits for the surrounding community.

The Hope Center currently serves over two hundred children, with ages ranging from two and a half through eight.   The toddler program serves at-risk children, and their families; providing education, parenting strategies, nutritional information, and other resources.  Three extended preschool programs serve children up to five years old.  The special needs preschool provides education designed around each child’s requirements.  The preschool incorporates a bilingual and multi-cultural curriculum, and the gifted program ensures that advanced students are developed, and challenged.  Summer session for the gifted program serves children up to eight.  Rounding-out these educational services is an afternoon multi-cultural and multi disciplined child care program for children up to eight and a half.  Another program, for at-risk adults, operates from other locations.

Last year, members of Nature Explore’s design team, Jim Wicke and Julie Rose, presented plans for the Hope Center’s outdoor classroom to Ms. Grimes and representative teachers.  At being handed the design drawings, one teacher said, “This feels like Christmas!”  Later, standing on the lawn and asphalt surface that would soon become the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, other teachers spoke of their excitement about the project.  Our “Christmas” teacher said she’d been thinking of retiring soon, but that she’ll continue working longer because she has always wanted to teach in an outdoor space.

Ms. Grimes described her teachers as all being on-board with the outdoor classroom concept because they had “open discussions over a long period of time… They’re really involved in the planning and discussions about ‘What is an outdoor classroom?’… You build on the excitement of that group.”  Open discussions with staff, in which they are inspired and empowered, developed an atmosphere ripe for the project.  Three teachers have volunteered for special projects, such as getting parent representatives for an outdoor classroom committee.

Teachers are interested in looking for children’s learning outdoors that can be transferred indoors.  “Look at how deeply he’s getting into this.  That’s math.  How can I carry it over to the indoors, in areas he might be struggling with?  Those are the things I know they [the teachers] are excited about,” says Ms. Grimes.  She knows that some children, through self-directed play, will reveal academic strengths not seen in the same forms indoors.  By including teachers in planning for the outdoor classroom, and discussing the benefits, Ms. Grimes is ensuring success.

Yet inclusion isn’t just for teachers and children at the Hope Center.  Parents are included in the school community in enviable numbers.  Monthly parent meetings draw an average of a hundred people.  The numbers didn’t start that high.  Ms. Grimes and her staff worked diligently over years to develop programs and events meaningful for the parents. At the meetings, dinner is followed by an hour spent discussing issues important to those attending.  Some topics are mandated by Denver Public Schools.  Surveys developed at the Hope Center include opportunities for parents to suggest topics.

In addition to the larger parent meetings, Hope also holds smaller “parent focus groups.”  Usually attracting around sixteen parents, these groups are open for discussion of any topic, no matter how sensitive.  Recently one parent spoke of embarrassment over not being able to afford feeding his child at home to the level she is fed at Hope.  He wondered if the teachers notice how hungry his child comes to school on Monday mornings.  We can see that Ms. Grimes and the teachers at Hope have developed a very rare community of parents.

When your entire school serves at-risk populations, community, communication, and consensus strengthens everyone.  Ms. Grimes is developing a consensus on the value and function of the outdoor classroom with her staff.  The parents will be invited to learn about this new form of classroom their children are experiencing.

Long ago, Ms. Grimes disregarded advice to wall-off the school.  As a result, the surrounding community looks out for the Hope Center, and vandalism is almost non-existent.  Community for Ms. Grimes means children, teachers, parents and all living in the area.  This expansive sense of community is what she was referencing when she said, “I want them to see it, to feel it, and, hopefully, to love it.”

We’re sure they will.  And we can’t wait to share Hope Center’s completed Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  Stay tuned.