Sunday, October 6, 2013

AEP Nature Explore Classroom

I was excited to hear about a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom close to the conference for Environmental Educators Association of Indiana this weekend. I met Mary Ibe, program director for Trees Indiana, at the conference. Trees Indiana helps connect youth with urban forestry in Indiana through a variety of methods, such as the outdoor classroom, school visits, teacher training, tree experiences with Boys and Girls Club (excited to hear about this coming to Elkhart!), and other possibilities. A quote on their website reads, "There's nothing that keeps its youth, so far as I know, but a tree and truth." -Oliver Wendell Homes

Mary gave me a nice tour in the rain! She explained how various groups worked together on funding and pulling together needed items for the Outdoor Classroom. The space is next to an elementary school, Cedar Canyon, in Fort Wayne. Mary leads groups during their exploratory time here. It is also open after school hours to the community. The quote on the sign reads,

"Look deep into Nature, and then you will understand everything better." --Albert Einstein

What a fitting quote as we enter! The cement was poured when they were working on roads nearby. The leaf imprints help carry the theme and message of Trees Indiana into the outdoor classroom. The limestone edging was donated after it was removed from a yard. Poles were donated from the telephone company. Various elements and funding have come together to make this outdoor space successful!

An Entrance Gate separates the area as we enter the outdoor space. She mentioned how they used ash that died recently as part of the construction. It has been interesting to see how the unfortunate events of the ash have been turned into hope in various areas, such as Elkhart Environmental Center.

In the Gathering Area, Mary talks to the students about the possibilities and expectations while the groups go through the Nature Explore areas. They can also regroup and use the space for other activities. Each area has a sign made by a local woodworker.

In the Climbing Area, logs welcome balancing feet and appropriate risk taking. 

There are numerous benches throughout the area for adults and others to sit while there with children. I liked this simple design. Another low bench option was used in other areas.


In the Building Area, tables are set up for work spaces. She mentioned what is working and some areas they are still working out, such as finding sturdy bins that resist breaking to hold supplies. They showed plans of this type of table to a local craftsman who was able to put several together for a very reasonable price. 

One of the board members was there working on the stage area. He now lives in Indianapolis and was up working with his son on the project in the rain. What dedication! He mentioned how involved his children are in the project as well. What practical skills to be learning while spending time together! He and Mary also consulted on some of their plans--it was actually really good for me to hear how they made decisions and further insight into their planning. 

There are a few storage boxes along the trail. They also had interesting woven fences to separate activities in a few spots. The music and movement area sounds popular. The stage (or maybe stages, from the discussion) will be great additions to this area.

The nature art area has more tables with special materials for creating various pieces of art made out of nature. In this classroom, they focus on leaving the materials to be used by other children in the future, as well as the concept of collecting in nature. If collecting is taking place, only 1 in 20 should be collected--that rest should be left to continue the cycle of regeneration. She recently had an example of pinecone bats that could be made.

I loved the texture on this tree in the middle of it!

I admit, the Messy Materials area was a little messy, just as it should be. Tree cookies and sections of hollow logs were available. 

She mentioned earlier how they had a couple of old Christmas trees in the area that are often moved around to make forts. She showed  me a root ball that held up over two years--it often becomes a fire. There were plenty of loose parts to provide options and inspiration as the children interact in this area. 

Nearby, a tree carving was watching. Additionally, there was an extra open area that could be used for touching base with the group again or as a special project area, such as gnome hut or fairy house building. 

In the Garden Area, they had a special area just for digging and several "experiment" areas. Since the focus of Trees Indiana is on trees, they tried planting various tree seeds to see what might happen. There were several osage orange trees that were fairly successful and many were not planned. In the digging area, she said the children loved to "plant" the fake flowers they have available in the loose parts basket.

In the storage area, they have many materials available. They have a cart to bring materials out when used--I really liked this idea! There was also another cart to bring water out to the garden area. They also had a watering cans, child sized tools, blocks, musical instruments, and more. There were baskets for loose parts and laminated sheets for each group that explained some of the options available in each area. Mary said that most children know exactly what to do! Locks were on most of the storage areas; however, these were easily accessed when groups were there or to hold supplies and tools used at the site. There was also a port-a-potty to take care of bathroom needs as groups visit the area. 

I really appreciate how Mary took the time to talk to me about the process of putting this together! Her insight helped me see opportunities and solutions. I like how various groups worked together to make the space accessible to families, groups, and the on site school. 

Others have helped me understand this process previously, such as at the Early Learning Center in Granger, the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom training, the trail and learning spaces out at West Noble Schools,  and watching my children explore outdoor classrooms at Granger Community Church and natural learning spaces at Lieber Nature Preserve. I look forward to our developing Nature's Connections at Woodlawn Nature Center! While gone for the weekend, we learned of a grant the Center will receive from the National Association for Interpretation Region 4. While there is still much to be done and more money to raise, this will help tremendously in getting many of the extra needed supplies that would be harder to purchase otherwise. Making progress!