With a Little Help From My Friend: Creating an Inspirational Nature Explore Classroom in Granger, Indiana
We’ve met Chris Whitmire in past blog posts (here, and here). She’s the Principal of the Early Learning Center, a private school for young children located at Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana. This NAEYC-accredited school is only five years old.
I thought of talking with Chris for this blog post because she has been very intentional in creating a natural environment deeply rooted in faith for the children who come to her school. Granger Community Church is a United Methodist denomination, and this innovative church reaches people all over the world, meeting them wherever they are on their own spiritual journeys, in “helping people take their next steps towards Christ…together.”
When I called Chris, I expected we would talk about how her school expresses a Christian message in her Nature Explore Classroom. Early on, our conversation took an unexpected path. Along that path were manifestations of spirituality that, I believe, will be inspirational to all our readers.
From the early conceptual stage of planning for the outdoor classroom, Chris had a vision of expressing elements of Christianity through intentional design of the space. “There are so many components of the initial design that reflected a nature of the understanding of God,” she said.
These spiritual elements begin at the entry to the space. “As you approach our playground, you will notice we have over an acre of fenced-in space, marked by 12 stone pillars, to represent the 12 tribes of Israel.” The lead pillar was capped on the first day of the new school, after a time capsule containing the project design, Bible verses, prayers and messages from all the teachers had been placed inside.
The pillars, like many other features in this outdoor classroom, were made from field stone gathered from a local farmer’s fields, a member of the congregation. The middle and high school students of the church walked in these fields for hours, hand picking the stone, to be delivered to the playground site. This development of resources from within the church membership is just the beginning of a deeper spiritual process that infuses so much of this outdoor classroom.
As found, the rocks were black and gray, dirty and shapeless. “The initial process to build the pillars,” said Chris, “was to wash all of the fieldstone. This material that is so dull, grey and lifeless—through the cleansing process—comes to life. You see each of the individual colors and shapes; what their designs are as they become clean. And each of these unique, beautiful stones come together to form strong foundations for the fence. This is like how we come together as a diverse group of people with our own strengths and colors, shapes, sizes—but together we can make strong communities for God… Through the washing of the rocks we realized it was like our spiritual journeys—that we’re being cleansed to have a new life in Christ. Those are some of the things we considered when we built those pillars.”
Christian symbolism begins with the pillars, and extends throughout the outdoor classroom. A theme of threes, reflecting the trinity of father, son and spirit, is reflected in plantings and in physical structures. The children’s garden beds and mini orchard trees are arranged in sets of threes. The huge forty-five foot sandbox has three coves that allow for more individual play. There is a quiet space, where three trees transplanted from the original church land were placed. The climbing platform has three levels. This number, referenced throughout both the visual and physical structures of the space, contributes to the unified harmony of the overall experience.
Pillars, gardens, sandbox and climbing structure; all were elements of the planned design of the space. Planned also, were aspects of the labor that carried spiritual significance, such as washing the fieldstone. Yet a series of unplanned events bestowed a different kind of spiritual aura during the project. We’ll visit two such events.
Animal tracks were a planned feature of the concrete pathways that flow through the outdoor classroom. Chris gathered animal tracks of many of the animals native to the area in Northern Indiana with assistance from naturalists at the St. Joseph County Parks, and nearby Camp Friedenswald. Among the animals included were eagle, wolf, deer, rabbit, frog, chipmunk, beaver, horned owl, fox, raccoon, snapping turtle, duck and chipmunk. Chris researched the actual distances and movements for each animal’s tracks. The snapping turtle, for example, drags its feet as it moves, so those tracks were dragged in the concrete as she pushed the track molds into place. Impressions for the tracks had to be made in the concrete at just the right time. This was a one-time opportunity that planned to give the children a daily reminder of the richness of the animal life, God’s creation, surrounding them.
“I left for the day, with the prints finished,” said Chris. “The construction crew comes up to me the next day and says, ‘What do you want to do about that extra print that you put in there?’ I said, ‘I didn’t do another print.’ We came over, and up away from the other prints I was working on…and it had to be at the perfect time because this animal would have been so light… a robin walked across the wet concrete and left a perfect print in it. It had to be not too wet and not too dry, but exactly the right moment. The track was perfect.” Chris asked them to leave the tracks just as found, and not to smooth the concrete around them. “We felt like that God’s hand was on our little project, saying to us, ‘I see this project, and I’m here, too,’” she said.
This Nature Explore Classroom features an extraordinary, full-size covered bridge. It was built using one hundred year old wood from a barn being torn down in the area. Chris needed to evaluate the beams before committing to a purchase. Church rules require that a man and woman from unrelated families can’t travel together without another adult present. About fifty volunteers were at work when Chris was ready to visit the barn with a member of the construction team. She hastily volunteered the nearest available woman to accompany them on the drive. Chris says she grabbed this woman “out of the blue,” to have the extra person in the car.
“We bring her about five miles out from the playground and we step on to the site where the farm is, and she gasps, and starts to cry. She said, ‘This is my childhood farm. Those are the carvings my family made in those beams.’ Again, our entire work crew felt a confirmation of God’s presence as we continued with this project.”
Imagine the sense of spirituality involved in the design and community construction of this amazing space for children. And this woman, suddenly finding that a major feature of the project was a cherished part of her own childhood experience in nature.
Intentional design, heartfelt community volunteerism, extraordinarily personal moments, (and a little bird), all played a part in the story of this wondrous space. We at Nature Explore are inspired by this story, one that continues to enfold the hearts and lives of all who play there.
If you are interested in creating a nature-rich space in your community, please contact our team at [email protected] or request a Resource Guide.