The Challenges and Rewards when Nature IS the Classroom
by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant
photos courtesy of Children’s Treehouse Child Development Center
Where the Nature Explore Classroom is the environment for their preschool, staff at The Children’s Treehouse Development Center answer challenges with successes.
Even before the staff of the Children’s Treehouse Child Development Center (CTH) discovered Nature Explore, they had wanted an outdoor classroom for their children. They are all “outdoorspeople.” That’s understandable; after all, their preschool is on the grounds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Knowing that the best education for young children happens outdoors, they found the answer to their aspirations in Nature Explore. As part of the FWS’s mission of ‘working with others’ and their Connecting People with Nature initiative, last summer the Service funded the installation of this Nature Explore Classroom.
This Certified Nature Explore Classroom isn’t a complement to a school, library or nature preserve; it is the school. And precisely because it is the school, the CTH staff both faces and welcomes growth-inspiring challenges.
They accept children from six weeks to Kindergarten age. In one of the counties CTH serves, children must test into Kindergarten. Children deemed not ready, take “remedial Kindergarten.” Says Nickie Weller, CTH Director, “What we ourselves learned in Kindergarten is now an entrance requirement in some counties.” These conditions require the CTH to mix self-directed learning/play with recognized outdoor curriculum, such as “Growing Up Wild.” Yet while other children may be indoors practicing the alphabet with pencil and paper, CTH students often practice with stick and dirt. Let nature take its course with children and learning, and the required skills are achieved creatively.
Students at the Children’s Treehouse are outdoors most of the day. Although outdoor time for children was once the norm, it isn’t today. Parents have busy lives. As the CTH staff has observed; many in this generation of parents aren’t fully comfortable with nature. They are the first true “computer generation,” and most were raised largely indoors. Although CTH staff address this issue, it’s the children who have the most enduring impact. Through time in the Nature Explore Classroom, children develop a comfort in nature that has been repeatedly brought back to time with their parents.
These two challenges are met by the CTH staff’s passionate belief in the centrality of nature to child development. The Center, one of many childcare programs in the area, is always at capacity. Even those parents not fully comfortable in nature see its value to their children’s development. CTH’s successes demonstrate to anyone that play in nature brings rich learning.