Inspiring a Person Who Inspires Children

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

27265adf_0179_smallestFollowing the sale of her home health care business, Carol Cavell wanted to work with children.  Her sister in law, a teacher and environmental advocate, interested Carol in exploring ideas that involved connecting children to nature.  They began meeting with like-minded people for discussions about possibilities.  Around this time, Richard Louv’s seminal book, “Last Child In The Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” hit the childhood education community like a blast of fresh air.  The book gave Carol’s interest group a mission and focus, and Trees Indiana was born.  Soon after, Carol heard Julie Rose of the Nature Explore program speak at a professional conference.  What Carol learned from Nature Explore gave substance and credibility to the mission and focus that Trees Indiana was developing.

Nature Explore’s Ten Guiding Principles and Recommended Areas are the child-centered factors that differentiate an outdoor classroom from the other nature centers, or even from a simple walk in the woods.  Children inherently enjoy being outdoors, yet Nature Explore designs speak specifically to their interests and capabilities.  These outdoor classrooms say to the child, ‘This enchanting space is nature arranged just for you.’  Carol intuitively knew that Nature Explore’s design principles aligned with her goals.

“What was being disseminated about Nature Explore, the concept, was exactly what we were sitting in our group meetings talking about.  It’s like somebody else captured the ideas we had and the outcomes we want as far as educating kids and opening up nature to them, getting them away from a wired world 24 hours a day.  Everything we were talking about and Richard Louv talked about in his book is what I saw the Nature Explore program being.  I looked at it as the leader in creating a movement for connecting kids with nature.”  She knew Nature Explore had done the research her group simply couldn’t afford in either time or funding, and wanted to bring these ideas to Indiana’s children.

Trees Indiana currently provides projects and classes for children, and workshops for teachers, parents and community groups.  Much of its activity centers around the American Electric Power Foundation Nature Explore Classroom built at Cedar Canyon Elementary School in northwest Fort Wayne.  A generous grant from the Foundation provided most of the funding for the classroom’s design and construction.

Most of Cedar Canyon’s outdoor classroom is in a light forest; a very compelling placement for children.  Consistent with Trees Indiana’s educational mission, teachers, parents and caregivers receive a pedagogical orientation to the outdoor classroom before moving on to the activity areas in the forest.

Much of the orientation is based on Nature Explore’s workshops and literature.  Yet it’s the parents who need the orientation, not the children, says Carol.  “You may need to instruct the parents, but not the kids… The kids are taking off by themselves.”  And parents have told her they are amazed by their children’s level of excitement.

Parents and teachers have told Carol of witnessing touching transformations in the space.  One teacher spoke of an extremely shy student, standing to the side of the stage, watching five of her classmates dancing with scarves.  When she felt ready, she joined the group, playing enthusiastically.  The teacher had never seen this girl join group play before.

Some transformations are common.  Children who visit from Fort Wayne’s inner city areas are accustomed to concrete, not nature.  “They don’t get out of their zip code much,” says Carol.  Bugs and caterpillars are icky or a bit scary to many of these children; until they experience supported encounters with insects in the outdoor classroom.  Inner city children enter the classroom having comfort levels very different from those of their rural counterparts.  Carol notes that the rural kids simply take to the space, while she sees the inner-city kids “come out of their nature phobia.”  The classroom supports outdoor experiences for rural children, and transforms them for inner city children.

Although the outdoor classroom is on the grounds of Cedar Canyon Elementary School, it is open to the public.  Cedar Canyon is visited by many school groups, and by people from the neighborhood who walk through the grounds.  Local college students study in its relaxing environment, and have even performed a study there.  The Biology Club of Indiana Purdue University conducted a salamander research project in the space, and engaged a fourth grade class in observations and measurement.

We at Nature Explore like to think that our outdoor classroom designs, tailored to each client’s environment and needs, offer ideal learning environments as they connect children with nature.  The Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Hardwood Lumber Business Association seem to agree.  They presented Trees Indiana with an award for “Outstanding Outdoor Lab.”  Judges visited several outdoor learning areas in the state, and chose the Nature Explore Classroom at Cedar Canyon due to how it is used in children’s education.  Carol says, “They chose us because of the way education is delivered, and the great design.”

We are delighted to find such an intuitive match in Trees Indiana.  From its beginnings as a thoughtful group of citizens wanting to connect children with nature, to its current form of widely recognized educational resource, Trees Indiana has always resonated with Nature Explore’s mission.  We are honored that our designs and literature played a vital role in clarifying Carol’s work.  As Trees Indiana grows, Carol sees more Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms in its future.  We see a partnership that was just meant to be.