The Outdoor Classroom Advocate Who Was Truly in a Class of One (and still is…)

by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

Conestoga 1From time to time, we meet people whose passion for connecting children with nature inspires them to advocate for a Nature Explore Classroom in their community. Often, nature had played a significant role in their childhood. They wish for young children the richness, meaning and learning that they had experienced at that age. Allison Welch, of Murray, Nebraska, who spearheaded the drive for a Nature Explore Classroom in her children’s elementary school, fits this description—but with a unique twist.

“We always had this very wild and free experience out in nature, always, every day… It was just such a healthy way to grow up,” she says. Deep connections with nature were not just part of her play after school; they were an integral part of her school.

“I went to a little teeny one-room school. I was the only person in my class kindergarten to sixth grade… There were about 13 kids in our whole school… Our teacher was so good about incorporating every subject into real life and nature.” After school, her life was much the same. “We all remember growing up outside, and our moms kicking us out of the house when we came inside. That’s just the way it was, and you wouldn’t come in until the sun went down. That was how you lived.”

During her career years in software sales, Allison had visited the Arbor Day Farm in nearby Nebraska City. There, she learned about Nature Explore, reinforcing her ideas about connecting children with nature. At the time of her retirement she had three children at Conestoga Elementary, and soon became President of its Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). Then, Allison began to live her passion.

In her plans to build a Nature Explore Classroom, Allison had enthusiastic support from both the PTO and the administration at Conestoga Elementary, but she still needed permission from her school board before they could begin designing. Well, that’s not exactly true: Before presenting to the school board, Allison recruited a landscape architect familiar with Nature Explore’s design concepts and research-tested 10 guiding principles in order to design Cougar Hollow. With design in hand and $20,000 in start-up funding, Allison met with the school board and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Conestoga 2During the early planning stages, Allison consulted with John Campin, Principal of Omaha’s Gomez Heritage Elementary School. Gomez has two Certified Nature Explore Classrooms, and teachers very experienced in their use. John told Allison everything he had needed to get started, saving her much time and effort.

Support from the community, in terms of construction, usage, and funding, has been tremendous. Conestoga Elementary is a regional school, as Murray’s population is under 500. But even in this very rural community, the adage ”Build it and they will come” holds true. In fact, many from the town came to help build it.

Allison sees Cougar Hollow’s construction as one of the foundations of its success. Conestoga Elementary has children who come from affluent homes, and those who are poor, yet parents and relatives from all rungs of the economic ladder worked together to build the outdoor classroom. Family members assisted in projects such as building the stage and pouring concrete. Children themselves helped during school days. Allison says, “I would always give kids jobs. Here’s the shovel. Here’s the mulch. Let’s put this together… There was a lot of ownership to our classroom because we needed volunteers from our school to make it happen. They think it’s super-cool that their parents or uncle or grandfather helped do it. Unlike a playground where equipment just shows up… this is more of a school effort.”

Funding from this closely-knit community has helped a wide variety of people recognize and appreciate Cougar Hollow. Even after being certified for two years, Allison is still approached by potential funders. Recently, she was approached by a member of the Lions Club, who asked if she needed money for the outdoor classroom. He wanted her to come to speak at a Lions meeting, adding that they love the classroom. “It’s such a rare thing to have people approach you because they want to give you money because they like what you’re doing,” she says.

Conestoga 3And the outdoor classroom itself? Cougar Hollow spans an area roughly the size of a football field, has no perimeter fencing, and is open to the community outside of school hours. This means that the full range of materials can’t remain in the classroom permanently. But that hasn’t discouraged anyone from visiting after school hours. Shortly after Cougar Hollow’s opening, Allison was surprised to discover that families visit during evenings and weekends. She soon learned that families bring their children during the summer, when school is out. The regional soccer field is nearby, so while the older children compete in soccer games, their younger siblings play in the outdoor classroom. Teachers hold all kinds of classes outdoors: reading, science, math and more. Parties and events are held at Cougar Hollow. In just a few years it has become a treasured community resource.

Allison remains Cougar Hollow’s Outdoor Classroom Coordinator, and spends time there almost daily. She is pleased to see children engage in extended creative play—much as she had during her youth. She’s noticed that children who go to the school’s traditional playground tend to spend a short time on the climbing equipment, and usually return to the outdoor classroom for in-depth projects.

Allison’s childhood left her with rich memories of nature’s unique ability to inspire wonder and learning. She wanted to give her town an entryway into increasingly rare outdoor experiences that were “how you lived” when she was young. She wanted this legacy to be lasting, serving children for years. By leading the development of Cougar Hollow and making an offer that her town couldn’t refuse, Allison has restored nature as a valued part of children’s lives. Years from now, Cougar Hollow will resonate fondly in the memories of many, many grown children.