Indiana: The State of Outdoor Education

Many who have experienced the profound whole-child learning that is the baseline activity in a Nature Explore Classroom would probably count the outdoors as an ideal learning environment. This is not to say that profound learning experiences aren’t available indoors. They are. Yet when you combine a child’s innate curiosity with a richly stocked and well-designed outdoor classroom; the freedom of movement in the space; the ability to choose between a range of compelling activities; I’m hard-pressed to think of an indoor space to match a Nature Explore Classroom for sustained whole-child learning. The great news is that the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC) has embraced the concept of outdoor learning, and is facilitating its spread throughout the state.

This initiative was sparked by Nature Explore presentations, delivered in Indiana during 2012. Inspired by what they heard, early childhood educators approached Dianna Wallace, the Executive Director of the state AEYC. Already a passionate advocate of connecting children with nature, Dianna listened to her membership when determining organizational priorities for AEYC action. In 2014 she began working with Nature Explore to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would initiate a broad three-year program of teacher training. Additionally, colleges and universities will be offered introductory presentations. And because licensing bodies have a large influence on early childhood programs, their staffs will be offered informational trainings about outdoor education.

Through these combined activities, Dianna intends to make outdoor education of young children a benchmark of quality for early childhood programs. Each year, for three years, a Nature Explore trainer will provide workshops and presentations at the statewide AEYC conference. These workshops will count towards Nature Explore Classroom certification. This is a great service for very small programs that would have difficulty funding an on-site visit. Workshops and presentations will also be offered over three years, at nine locations throughout the state. Dianna hopes that this broad-based model of disseminating information about outdoor classrooms will become a model for other states.

The Nature Explore design philosophy and pedagogy is derived from research into children’s learning in nature performed by the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. This ongoing research ensures that outdoor classroom design and pedagogy is informed by observed children’s experience, not by an adult-developed scheme. Nature Explore also maintains a continuing relationship with clients. The Nature Explore program’s depth and continuity of service, a hallmark of our operations, meshed well with Indiana AEYC’s organizational philosophy and practice.

And there’s one more aspect of our work that was important to Dianna. While it takes a village to raise a child, it often takes a community to raise a Nature Explore Classroom. The Nature Explore program believes that the local community has expertise and resources that can enhance an outdoor classroom by contributing a wide range of expertise and involvement.

Among the organizations, businesses and others that are now involved in the Indiana initiative in some way are: Cummins, Inc., Project Learning Tree, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Alliance for Community Trees (AC Trees), American Electric Power Foundation, local community and urban forestry coordinators, Trees Indiana, and more.

The Indiana AEYC/Nature Explore partnership has created a truly innovative and comprehensive means of bringing the best in children’s outdoor education to the state. By providing information to early childhood education programs of all sizes, to colleges and universities, and to state licensing personnel, Indiana AEYC and Nature Explore are fulfilling a shared mission to early childhood education.