Many of us remember neighborhood days filled with the voices of children building forts, digging in the dirt and climbing trees until mom called them home for dinner. Over the years, the free-play outdoor and learning days of childhood many adults recall from their youth have been replaced with indoor play, YouTube and video games.
Prompted by mounting evidence of the importance of reconnecting children with nature, a vision was brought forth for an outdoor classroom at Futures where children could experience creative nature play in music, art, gardening, theater, climbing, digging, building, hill rolling and messy play. The appeal to enhance the learning opportunities offered to program children and families and get kids back to nature caught on. “We’ve looked at the evidence and it’s obvious,” says Tom Kohmetscher, Futures president and CEO. “Learning outside with dirt, sticks and mud improves a child’s ability to cope with stress, increases physical health, boosts creativity and promotes concentration—all of which are particularly important for the demographic of kids we serve.”
Grant dollars for the vision were secured from multiple sources. Lorraine Dold conceptualized the design and put it to paper. (The force behind the first Nature Explore Classroom in Kansas, with degrees in education, early childhood and design, Dold spent time at Harvard School of Design and as a member of the first World Forum Foundation, Nature Action Collaborative for Children.) A core-planning group executed the how-tos of the project and a group of staff, program parents and community members rolled up their sleeves to participate in the first workday on April 9, 2011. In all, 49 shrubs and trees were planted, large Kansas rocks were strategically placed, plantings were mulched and pavers were laid in the children’s entry to this magical learning place.
A group of fathers, sons and mentors continued the momentum on a Saturday in October. With little ones safely tagging along, they cut and trimmed tree trunks to create posts for structures and signage and installed music equipment. They paved the way for the Triumph WINGS Team to bring the outdoor classroom closer to the point of opening.
The Triumph WINGS Team is a group of Triumph employees with an interest in supporting community projects. This hard-working group of 35 volunteers donned shovels, post-hole diggers and paint brushes. They operated heavy machinery and invested nearly 300 hours to make the naturescape a reality. They constructed a natural branch arbor, brought a “tree animal” to life by placing and plumbing the water feature therein, installed a hill slide, planted hundreds of bulbs, created a dirt digging and garden area, built a tree-branch teepee, hand painted custom-made signs for all areas and installed stumps for seating.
Today, the Nature Explore Classroom is a constant discovery for children and their teachers! During time outdoors, children learn while enjoying unstructured creative play. Teachers are being trained in new curriculum to incorporate nature into their lessons plans. They’re learning how to best utilize the outdoor classroom and its natural materials to stimulate the growing minds of the youngsters in their care. Children are involved in developmentally appropriate art, science, math and music projects while breathing the fresh air they were all meant to breathe.