Something For Everyone in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

_DSCF0021 1Central Texas, in the area surrounding Fort Hood, has more Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom activity than you can shake a stick at, thanks to Workforce Solutions and Sherry Trebus. Childcare programs in the area are working towards state and national quality standards certifications.  Workforce Solutions mentors childcare programs during their preparation for the certification process, and has included design and workshop services from Nature Explore.

Sherry Trebus understands the profound whole-child learning benefits of play in nature.  She has required childcare programs mentored by Workforce Solutions to have quality outdoor play-spaces.  Over twenty programs have now received Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom designs, and this number is growing.  Many have been built and are heading towards certification.

In a series of blog posts, we’ll learn about Central Texas childcare programs that currently have Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms.  This post will feature one of the first programs involved in the project.

Jenny Schneider is the Executive Director of the Central Texas Children’s Center, located in Temple.  Her program serves seventy-five children, a quarter of whom have special needs.  Jenny has long prioritized quality certification for her program, which was an early recipient of the Texas Rising Star 4-star rating.  (The Central Texas Children’s Center has since achieved the industry-standard national quality certification from NAEYC, The National Association for the Education of Young Children.)  Recognized by Workforce Solutions for her commitment to quality care, Jenny was one of five initial Directors invited to its “Taking Charge of Change,” program.

The Central Texas Children’s Center’s outdoor classroom was built around a large, preexisting climbing structure, and a swing set.  These structures were a major investment, made possible by extensive fund-raising, so the school’s board of directors did not want it removed.  As with other venues, Nature Explore designs incorporated existing structures; in this case placing activity areas around the perimeter of the space.  Children now move easily between different activity areas of their outdoor classroom, and climb and swing when they like.

DSCF9973Jenny says, “I really can’t imagine not having those outside centers [NEOC activity areas] now because the kids spend so much time in them.”  Where in the old playground children only had basic options of climbing or swinging, they now have the many options for activity and learning presented by their outdoor classroom.

Now, children have more doors open for exploration, and more materials to manipulate, says Jenny.  She notes less conflict than before, and more time spent in active explorations.

Jenny is also attuned to the teachers’ experiences.  In the old playground, where the climbing structure and swings were the centers of attention, teachers related to the children largely through directives; telling children when their play was becoming either too risky, or too aggressive.  Behaviors on the structures required constant monitoring, and much of the teacher’s energy was directed to keeping the play safe.  Activities on these structures leave teachers little room for directly entering children’s play. Jenny says the teachers now enjoy very engaging relationships with the children, centered on explorations in the activity areas.

And there is less need for teachers to use directives with the children.  Before the outdoor classroom, a child having difficulty would have no place to calm down or to engage in alternative activities.  Climbing or swinging were the children’s main options, and these activities themselves can potentiate competition and conflict.  Now, teachers can simply ask the child to find something else he wants to do.  The rich variety of activity areas ensures that the child who needs redirection can always find an alternate activity.  This form of redirection, in which the child does not experience a “time out,” is a game changer for both teachers and children.  The teacher gets to see the child in a more positive context; needing a change in environment or activity, not time out.  The child gets to see himself not as a “problem” needing isolation from his classmates, but as sometimes needing a change of peers or activity to regain self-control.

Both teachers and students now engage in activities that interest them.  While a child might play in the digging area for a while, then switch to the music area, teachers are also free to connect this outdoor time to their own interests.  As long as the various zones in the outdoor classroom are covered, teachers can engage as they wish.  Some actively assist the children in tending to the plants.  Some prefer to be more stationary, assisting children in the activity areas.  For all, the outdoor classroom is a space where children and their caregivers develop new relationships with nature, and with each other.