Magic in the Outdoor Classroom at Grace School

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Grace_1Jil Jaeger teaches two-year-olds at Grace School in Houston, Texas. Grace has a very large Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, which they call the Outdoor Learning Center. Grace’s preschool students use it twice daily, and throughout its four years it has been a valuable partner to the school’s indoor classrooms.

Jil has taught at Grace School long enough to have seen three incarnations of the preschool outdoor space. When she started teaching there, the playground was a sand-covered area with many separate pieces of play equipment; small wooden structures, a balance beam, and tubes for crawling through. Jil liked the area. It reminded her of the playgrounds of her youth.

After a few years, the school decided to go with the style of playground that was then becoming popular. A large, multi-stationed climbing structure embedded in composite safety flooring became the new playground. Jil was not as pleased with the children’s restricted range of play, along with the behaviors this playground elicited. After several years, the school discovered the Nature Explore program, and a true outdoor classroom was built.

Over the past four years, Jil has formed a deeply perceptive understanding of the Outdoor Learning Center’s functions and effects; not just for the students, but for other teachers and parents as well. She has a holistic view of the space, in which learning is furthered, and the school community is enriched.

In Jil’s words:

When it was the composite floor and the big play structure in the middle, there were only two options. There was nothing to explore. You were climbing and sliding or you were walking around and really not doing much of anything… There were no in-between options there… We would try to bring some blocks out and you would get the blocks up on the slide because there was nothing else to do with them. [Children] were so limited in their options, you’d have children acting out, or some of them would just sit there. They’d just camp out… [waiting] to go back into the air conditioning.

Now that we have the Outdoor Learning Center, things have changed so drastically, and there is something to do for every child. Very rarely are any children getting in trouble for anything because it’s a “yes” environment, and it’s their environment; it’s student driven. When you give them that freedom they’re less inclined to rebel against it because, what are they going to rebel against? And secondarily to that, is that there is something for everybody. There’s room to run, for the boys and girls that just want to run… And they have a brick path they can ride their bikes along. You’ve got the kids that are super-active and really need to get out some energy and they get out and they go out and they run, and they go out and they ride their bikes… You also have the secluded areas off the side where you can hang out on a bench and daydream. There’s something for everybody.

The Outdoor Learning Center is used both for investigating various subjects, and for the learning that is inherent in child-directed free play. The activity areas foster a range of academic inquiry and imaginative play. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) curriculum is being used in the older grades, and the preschoolers are learning the basic concepts both formally and informally in the Outdoor Learning Center.

Examples of this learning are the gardening activities. Gardens are planted every year. The children participate in all aspects of their development, from exchanging the soil and choosing the plants, to seeding, watering, weeding and harvesting. Explorations of science and math concepts abound in these activities.

Yet along with the academic learning and the richness of self-directed play, the outdoor classroom has inspired enhancements in the school community that no one had foreseen. One of the requirements for Nature Explore certification of an outdoor classroom is family involvement. The child’s experiences in nature are deepened when parents and family understand their value, and engage with the child. Yet not even Jil could have predicted how the school community was to be changed after the outdoor classroom was built.

A few years ago, parents picking up their children after work rarely spent time at the school: School day over, time to go home. But something happened after the advent of the Outdoor Learning Center. During the days of the playground climbing structure, the children didn’t gravitate to the playground the way they do now to the Outdoor Learning Center. The activity areas hold ongoing attractions for the children. Parents now find their children wanting to spend time in the outdoor classroom after school is out. Parents have begun spending time with children in the space, and with each other—even those parents who would not normally have contact with each other, began meeting. Teachers began meeting parents whose children were not in their classes. Jil says that these connections have given rise to a new, enhanced sense of community at Grace.

Once the outdoor space for preschoolers at Grace School truly supported children’s connection with nature, the magic began. Children’s behaviors stopped reflecting boredom and began expressing wonder. Both academic learning and imaginative play were enriched. And the school community of children, parents, and teachers grew closer.

Can changing from a typical climbing-structure-based playground to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom really promote this level of magic? Ask Jil.