Connecting children with nature has a myriad of benefits that are receiving national attention. Research tells us that children who spend time in nature are more creative, less stressed, better able to concentrate, physically more active … and the list goes on. Because of this growing body of evidence, many schools, early childhood centers, and other programs serving children are striving to create and maintain nature-filled outdoor spaces for children.
Researching ways to support whole-child learning and the role of learning environments was the original focus of Dimensions Education Research Foundation. As our study pointed to the critical role of nature-filled environments, Dimensions began researching how children learn with nature. Our partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation to create the Nature Explore program was formed and we have spent over a decade working with organizations to bring more nature to children’s daily lives through our workshops, outdoor classroom design process, and natural materials.
Over those years of designing and supporting Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, we have seen sites with thriving outdoor classrooms and also seen some outdoor classroom sites that were clearly struggling. As a research organization, that prompted us to ask a number of questions: How do you keep people excited about utilizing and maintaining these nature-based learning spaces? How can these spaces be more sustainable? Can we identify characteristics that the thriving outdoor classrooms have in common?
Those questions led Dimensions Foundation to conduct a two-year, national outdoor classroom sustainability study. Our researchers purposefully picked a mix of sites from diverse locations representing various types of organizations including schools, early childhood programs, and nature centers. Results of our sustainability study showed the positive impact of Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, especially when they weave together the connections between the child, supportive adults, and the environment. Once the research was analyzed, six indicators emerged as key characteristics of thriving, growing, and sustainable outdoor classrooms.
1. Integrate Missions
Integrate nature and outdoor discovery play into the philosophy, program goals, and mission of the organization. When the outdoor classroom was seen as an integral program component and when that philosophy was shared with educators, staff, parents, and other stakeholders, it became a foundation from which the team could work. Many of the successful sites found the outdoor classroom to be a differentiator that led families to select their program or organization.
2. Structure Leadership
Successful sites were those that had created a process, from the beginning, for supportive, shared leadership and care of the classroom that was not reliant on just one person. The decision-making process was clearly established … including a system for evaluation and modification of the space, materials, and experiences. Staff and families were also informed and involved.
3. Inspire Staff
Sites that made staff development a priority and regularly provided training to engage and motivate staff to incorporate nature into their daily programming with children had much more robust outdoor classrooms than those who did not. Staff trainings included shared expectations for safety, ways to document children’s learning outdoors, and ideas and support for rising above challenges. Many successful sites engaged staff by encouraging them to work in groups using individual staff’s unique interests and skills as they related to the outdoor classroom.
A number of sites talked about the importance of sharing successes in keeping staff involved and inspired. Sustaining the outdoor classroom takes hard work and commitment. Taking time to share stories and celebrate children’s accomplishments, teachers’ insights, and new discoveries emerged as being important for on-going staff engagement.
4. Involve Families
Successful outdoor classroom sites involved families often in the planning, creation, and maintenance processes that were created and used consistently. Family members were surveyed for interests and skills they might have in creating or helping to maintain the outdoor classroom. The thriving sites worked hard to help families understand the value of children learning with nature and provided simple tools, like the Nature Explore Families’ Club, and ideas that supported parent-child-nature engagement at home. As a result, many sites reported shifts in parents’ attitudes and actions. Families were making lifestyle changes in which frequent interactions with nature became a priority at home. As Vicki Bohling Phillipi, Licensed Parent Educator at Forest Lake Family Center in Forest Lake, Minnesota, which has a thriving Nature Explore Classroom, said, “Parents long for permission to opt out of the hectic programming of life and just spend some time without an agenda. They need to see how this can happen in their already frenzied and over-programmed lives. Get them to actually step foot on the space and see that the Nature Explore Classroom is a place where fun and meaningful learning takes place. Help them experience the benefits of spending time with their children outdoors themselves. They need to re-light their own candle before they can do it for someone else.”
Some sites began building family engagement through simple things such as having parents pick up children in the outdoor classroom at the end of the day so they could see their children engaged in new ways outdoors, hosting school or group events in the outdoor classroom, or starting a family nature club. Keeping families informed about what was currently happening in the outdoor classroom as part of regular program communication was also important in keeping families engaged and involved.
5. Build Community
Sites reported that, although it takes work, they found tremendous benefits from partnerships that they were able to build among education, non-profit, corporate, and public-sector individuals and organizations to help create and maintain their nature-based outdoor classrooms. Many local and regional organizations include community greening as part of their mission, and successful classroom sites were able to connect and partner with groups who could support them with funding, volunteers, trees, and plant materials. One example came from Melissa Stenger, Assistant Principal at Beard School in Chicago, Illinois, who said, “Considerable effort is made to ensure that Beard’s outdoor classroom remains a thriving, beautiful space for exploration and learning year round; shared responsibility with partners allows this to come to fruition. During periods of non-attendance, school families and staff members voluntarily rotate the responsibility of watering and weeding to ensure that the plants and garden are cared for.”
Successful sites not only connected with supportive community partners, they also provided orientation for volunteers and found ways to recognize and celebrate their volunteers and partners. These efforts resulted in on-going collaboration and support.
6. Foster Caretaking
Dr. Wayne Dyer writes, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” The thriving outdoor classrooms reported that they framed the on-going maintenance of the outdoor classroom as an opportunity, not a problem. These sites established regular maintenance schedules and involved children, educators, families, and even community members in caretaking activities on a regular basis when possible. In addition, regular replenishment of frequently used materials, and on-going maintenance considerations were factored into their annual budget.
Effective, thoughtful design of the outdoor classroom was also a critical part of caretaking. Good design, incorporating durable materials and low-maintenance native plants, has a big impact on the amount of maintenance the space will require from the very start.
Keeping your outdoor classroom growing does take intentionality and effort but the rewards for your whole program are significant. Moreover, the experiences young children have in these spaces can transform their lives. More in-depth information from the sustainability study, as well as real-world examples from our Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, can be found in the book, Keeping it Growing – Sustaining Your Outdoor Classroom (Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, 2012).
About the Author
Susan Wirth has close to thirty years in the education field working with children and families. Susan currently serves as Outreach Director with Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation. Her work focuses on the collaborative Nature Explore program to help reconnect young children with the natural world. She has authored articles in NAEYC’s Young Children magazine and Head Start’s Children and Families magazine. She has presented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children national annual conferences and Professional Development Institutes, been a keynote presenter for National Science Teachers Association (CESI/NSTA) and many state AEYC groups, and also has spoken at Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), North American Association for Enviornmental Education (NAAEE), and National Head Start Conferences. She was part of the NAAEE team that wrote the nationally accepted Early Childhood Environmental Education Programs: Guidelines for Excellence and serves on the Natural Start Alliance Advisory Board.