Storage: A Nature Explore Classroom Essential
This November, as the leaves fall and the winds whip through our Nature Explore Classroom at Southern Heights Food Forest, I can’t help but reflect on a year filled with growth, strength, connection to the land and storage, yes storage!
Southern Heights Food Forest is a 2-acre space just south of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church which includes Nebraska’s first “Food Forest,” a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, urban agriculture plots, and community garden plots. Built to be a catalyst for grassroots community development, here children play safely and families learn about the value of community and food grown locally. It is a place for people to connect to each other and the earth.
We broke ground on the Nature Explore Classroom two summers ago and took the last steps towards certification this October when storage was added in each of the ten activity areas. My smile reached from one ear to the other when the shiplap storage units were put in place. Why is storage so important to me and to the design of an outdoor classroom you might ask? Because we want children to feel successful when they create and play in this space. We want them to see (touch, smell and feel) a variety of natural materials and to find it when they need it. Picture our Messy Materials Area, twenty foot in diameter, bordered by fallen logs, and filled with wood chips. This area was created to support large muscle building. Here we often see children build forts or similar structures. We find they are most successful when the materials to use for building are nearby. The storage in the Messy Materials Area holds branches and logs, slices of trees (known as cookies) and durable fabric for drape and cover. All things to support the creative mind of a child.
Adjacent to the Messy Materials Area is a place for children to create at a smaller scale. We call this the Building Area. Here we needed open storage where crates and baskets of blocks could be held. Each area had its own storage requirements and we looked for solutions that were sustainable and functional. A craftsman and congregation member with connections to the land volunteered to build the much-needed storage units for the space. Sticking with our sustainability goals, he used locally sourced recycled materials to create some of the most beautiful and functional units.
Here is a list of our lessons learned:
1) Take notice of what has worked in the past. We scoured photos of other Certified Nature Explore Classrooms, used examples from trusted companies like Community Playthings and Nature Explore, and we asked around. Then we decided what we would purchase and what we would make.
2) Plan with a skilled craftsperson. Coming up with our plans and communicating what we found with Neil (who built the units) was fun and required a lot of perception checking. During this process, I learned how to sketch three dimensional units and the names of all kinds of wood/construction materials I never knew before. We stayed in close communication through-out the building process sharing photos of progress and talking about the materials.
3) Create storage to meet your needs and your aesthetics. As mentioned before, make sure there is adequate storage for materials and tools in every area. For example, the Garden Area might need a place to house bucket and trowels, while an Art Area might need a closed, water-proof unit for art materials, paper and paints.
4) Give yourself plenty of time. With anything of beauty, creating storage units requires time. We started planning our units in the spring and they were finished in the fall just in time for our annual Halloween event. Have fun with it and take your time.
This series follows the creation of a Nature Explore Classroom as it develops from a concept plan into a reality. Heather is applying the theory she knows so well towards the less familiar territory of building, contracting and planting. We hope her experience will assist you on your own path towards a fully realized nature-rich outdoor classroom.