Oh Brothers, There Art Thou! The Outdoor Classroom Built by Church Brothers

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

DSCF0022cThe Kid Grace Learning Center, a program of Grace Temple Ministries, in Temple, Texas, was last to join the Workforce Solutions of Central Texas quality improvement program.  But Kid Grace was the first to finish building a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  Its secret?  The extraordinary work of the church Brothers, who comprise the Men of Integrity.

When the Men of Integrity of Grace Temple Ministries take an interest in a project- it gets done.  Brothers Brannon Sledge and Calvin McLean heard a talk by Nature Explore’s Tina Reeble, and they were excited by what they heard.  Nature-based learning was entirely new to them, and they embraced the outdoor classroom concept wholeheartedly.  Development of a Nature Explore outdoor classroom was a part of the Workforce Solutions’ consulting towards preparing childcare facilities for accreditation.  Kid’s Grace was in.

With funding support from the U.S. Forest Service and Workforce Solutions, funds raised from church members, and with work by the church Brothers, the outdoor classroom construction started. Church Bishop D. S. McBride, Brandon, and Calvin coordinated labor by the church Brothers, and the donated labor of M&M Construction, and Brown Construction.  When extra supplies were needed on short notice, church Brothers dug into their own pockets.  Church members and family also pitched in.  Clearly, this work was a mission for all involved.

To prepare the space, traditional play structures and pea gravel had to be removed.  During their removal children and families were told about the incoming outdoor classroom.  Of course, the children were understandably upset to see their familiar playground dismantled.  Brandon said the conversation at the time was, “They took away our playground!”

DSCF0062cThe outdoor classroom was built very quickly.  Parents and children became involved in plantings during the grand opening celebration, immediately drawing them into the spirit of the space.  The old playground structures were stored for later sale, and, at the time of our interview, were still visible to the children.  Yet as the children had grown to understand their new diversity of activities in the outdoor classroom, they forgot about the old play equipment.

DSCF0130The hot, dry environment of Central Texas posed both challenges and opportunities for the space.  Shade and water are important.  The Kid Grace outdoor classroom has a large water activity area, a covered building area, and shade trees are being planted.  The water area consists of a very popular pump, many floatables, and large tubs.  It sees a lot of activity.

The environment wasn’t the only challenge.  A few large trees reside at the periphery of the space, but new trees were planted to increase the shaded areas.  After some early failures in getting the plantings to thrive, The U.S. Forest Service in Austin provided invaluable information on resilient trees and their care, and offered to assist as the classroom evolved.

Various issues are also addressed through consultations with Nature Explore.  Paula Brown, Executive Director of the Learning Center, is very appreciative of this ongoing assistance.  “Everyone I talk to there is great.  They always get you what you need,” she says.

The fire ant problem is a good case in point.  Fire ants decided they liked the large sandbox.  These tiny critters are a nuisance for all children, and very dangerous for some.  The first attempt at extermination, by a commercial service, was unsuccessful.  Chemicals used were safe for children.  Unfortunately, after a few days, the sandbox was again safe for the fire ants.  Heather Fox at Nature Explore suggested trying vinegar.  Paula says that a gallon of white vinegar every other day does the trick.

And then there are the instant mushrooms.  After a period of rainy days, teachers noted mushrooms in many of the activity areas.  Not knowing what the mushrooms were, teachers were reluctant to let children into the area.  The problem, which at first seemed to require location and hand removal of each mushroom, turned out to solve itself.  The mushrooms disappeared quickly when the sun came out.

Difficulty getting new trees to thrive in a harsh environment, invading fire ants, instant mushrooms; you’d think these challenges would be taxing.  But not to Paula, Brandon, and the Brothers.  They see their Nature Explore Classroom as an ever-evolving project of service to the children.  They see that learning how to master environmental challenges gives staff more skills in enhancing a space that provides children so much joy and learning.

We see this attitude as an extension of the same energy that led Kid’s Grace Learning Center, the last in the Central Texas project, to be first completed.  Paula, Bishop McBride, Brandon, Calvin, Grace Temple’s Men of Integrity, and the childcare staff inspire us with the power of their faith, and their dedication to children’s learning in nature.