Why Nature Explore Classrooms Outlast Puff the Magic Dragon
By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant
For over three generations, “Puff the Magic Dragon” has charmed countless children and adults. A deceptively simple song, in just a few lines it richly evokes Jackie Paper’s world of imaginative play. Its imagery of “noble kings and princes… Puff’s gigantic tail… a boat with billowed sail” can draw a young child into his own inner version of “Honna Lee.”
Puff the Magic Dragon is vivid to children, poignant to adults. Fully half the song is concerned with Jackie Paper’s transition away from imaginative play- but from Puff’s perspective. Without Jackie’s imagination, Puff loses his bravery. As Puff “sadly slipped into his cave,” we adults feel a tinge of sadness at our own loss of childhood magic. In looking back, we only dimly remember scenes from what had once upon a time been worlds of imaginative play.
For young children, Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms are worlds of imaginative play. Filled with natural materials, their intentionally designed spaces beckon children to explore plants and bugs, dancing and music, to make artwork and forts. Natural materials, like a child’s imagination, are always changing. Tree-cookies age and change color, leaves crumble or tear, caterpillars become butterflies. No other space the same size could house as many wings for children’s imaginations.
Like Jackie Paper, the fortunate children who play in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms do grow up. But will their outdoor classroom suffer Puff’s fate- losing its magic for the children?
Nestled in the song, less conspicuous than the noble kings, princes, and Puff’s gigantic tail, are Jackie’s gifts to Puff. “Strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff,” don’t seem like proper gifts. But they are the most proper gifts in imaginative play- both in the song, and in a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. And they are the secret behind the outdoor classroom’s continued lure to children grown beyond the age when Jackie Paper leaves imaginative play behind.
Every Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom has countless natural equivalents of Jackie’s string and sealing wax. In the song, these otherwise forgettable materials are truly “fancy” because they acquire noble status conferred by Jackie’s imagination. Open-ended materials, such as stones, tree branches, pinecones etc. have a way of becoming animals, dinosaur bones, or cars to young children. Manufactured toys draw uses during play based on their function. A toy car is a toy car. Open-ended materials draw from the creativity of the child’s imagination, and can lead to a wider variety of play scenarios.
As young boys grow older they view the manufactured toys of their earlier youth as “kids’ toys,” and leave the toy cars behind for younger children to play with. But in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, the same open-ended natural materials that once held magical properties when transformed into something other than what they are, become what they are. When leaves stop becoming parts of a fairy crown, they become mysteries of nature. Why do leaves change color? Why do they fall off the trees?
Natural materials in a Nature Explore Classroom travel the transformational route in the child’s mind from imagination to curiosity. As the child matures, her relationship to natural materials changes. What the child’s imagination once made “fancy” is now a lure to her scientific curiosity.
Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, with their intentional design and abundance of natural materials are uniquely positioned to carry children from imaginative play through scientific inquiry. They are uniquely designed and stocked to promote whole-body/whole child learning. They are the classrooms that engage children of two, and youngsters of seven, equally. Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms are for all seasons, and all ages.