My Childhood Outdoor Classroom, and Playgrounds

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

treeI was blessed with having had a “free-range” childhood.  My suburban Boston neighborhood, with its pockets of dense woods, encouraged wandering, exploration and discovery.

My front yard was a few feet higher than the side yard, and was held in place by a natural stone retaining wall.  Behind our house a dirt slope with rocks separated the driveway from the side yard.  The front and side yards, the stone wall, and the rocky slope held worlds of discovery and yielded years of creative play.  Across the road was a wooded area with a small brook, and a huge town forest beckoned from a few streets away.  By the time I was ten, my friends and I wandered deeply into the town forest, relying on trails to find our way out.  My brother once counted over twenty children in our immediate neighborhood.  We all had a lot of outdoor play.

But that was at home.  At school, my playground was a rectangular “hot top,” with a surrounding grassy area hosting monkey bars, a jungle gym, and swings.  I was always skinny as a kid, and never a willing fighter.  Predictably, I didn’t get as much jungle gym time as I would have liked.  And although I never looked for trouble, bullying occasionally found me.

In my neighborhood, I was never afraid of any of the children I played with.  Of course there were rivalries (especially with my brothers), but I was not genuinely afraid of any of my playmates.

At school, despite my teachers’ good efforts to maintain order on the playground, I grew to be apprehensive about certain children.  I avoided them.  As the years passed, some of the boys developed behaviors that evoked fear.  Might made right.  I was still skinny; a reader not a fighter.  I was appropriately wary around them when on the playground.

Now, I visit a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom near my home in Denver, Colorado.  This particular program houses families emerging from homelessness.  Many of the children in this school should have every reason to act out their understandable insecurities while outdoors.  On the old playground, they did.

The old “playground behaviors” of these children, while not totally absent in the outdoor classroom, are now rare.  A child who is sad or upset on any given day can watch his peers playing happily.  He can also choose between many different activity areas that might engage him.  His teachers are rarely busy “correcting” anti-social behaviors, and have more opportunities to see his sadness and respond to it constructively.

Years ago, on a good day, I would have been looking at the jungle gym on my school playground, waiting for it to be safe for me to climb.  Even on a bad day, a child in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom has a range of safe opportunities for play. He also has teachers whose energies are available for him.

An intentionally designed outdoor classroom, well-stocked with imagination-provoking natural materials, and attended by skilled adults, isn’t just an outdoor experience for children that is different from a playground.  It’s a game changer.  It’s a place where a small healthy dose of fear may be involved in taking manageable risks in the service of growth.  It is not a place with predictable and limited opportunities, in which some children are best avoided.  Like my town forest, and unlike my playgrounds, it’s a place that is different every day, challenging children to learn, adapt and grow—together.

I am very thankful my free-range childhood included lots of nature.  And I am also thankful to be involved, with you, in Nature Explore’s vital mission of connecting children with nature; every day.