Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Stanley Clark School: An Inspiration to Nature Education

In December, I was privileged to tour Fannin Hall, The Early Childhood Center at the Stanley Clark School in South Bend. It is a private, Reggio inspired learning atmosphere. It was a chilly day (5 degrees) when I visited. Most schools in the area have a policy of staying inside if the temperature is below 20 degrees. While I didn't see much outdoor play, I saw plenty of nature inside with very intentional views of the outside. It's obvious the students are often outside when it's not so chilly!

Are you familiar with the Reggio Emilia approach to learning? This article gives a brief introduction. Learning is visible and student led. Community and the environment are powerful teachers and learning tools--they are part of the process, not just the setting for learning. Parents, teachers, and the child work together in the learning process. I attended a couple of sessions on the Reggio approach a few years ago at the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children's state conference. I was struck with the natural materials, community connections, and authentic learning.

Students explored painting with various natural elements. I love how the whole process is documented! Nature is an integral part of the whole learning environment. Each day the children meet for a business meeting, calendar time, and jobs. Pictures of family are all around as the whole family is part of the learning process. Everything is hands-on. The items in the classroom are meant to be touched and explored. Teachers document, collect, and help students reflect on their learning. They are listeners and observers as they document student learning. Service learning projects are part of the process. In the holiday time frame, each class chose a different group to collect needed items, such as adopting a family in need or getting enrichment toys for animals at the zoo since they had recently visited the animals. 


Branches hold leaves and bring added dimension to the room.

Mirrors widen the space and provide interesting perspectives and reflections. Loose parts are easily available to the students in baskets. While there were overhead florescent lights, they were all off. The classrooms used ambient lighting and natural light from the plethora of windows connecting the classrooms to the outdoor world. Learning is purposeful, active, and engaging. They use the Scientific Method at a young age. The forest is part of the outdoor lab. Phonics are used in the classes. Intergrade studies are the norm. Teachers follow the lead of the children and respect the child. Classes are small and professionals are employed. Staff are encouraged to participate in a wide variety of professional development, truly showing that we are lifelong learners. They often learn alongside the children. The curriculum is emergent, following the students' interests, yet still accomplishing needed elements of a classroom setting. Teachers are well prepared to move in the direction of the students, supplying books, materials, and knowledge as the curriculum emerges. Four pillars of the school include Arts, Academics, Athletics, and Character.


Materials and supplies are also available, with natural elements tying things together. 

I loved how intentional the whole space is. While talking to the director, Maria Reilley, I was impressed how many details worked out for an incredible learning space! 


The school has great display places. I loved the pumpkin and honeycomb studies. 

Documenting the fall sticky table with pictures, labels, and the finished product. 

This is an open, multi purpose area, called the atelier, or workshop.

Outside is a terraced area, perfect for gathering in an amphitheater style setting.

The stairs are wide and open with a view of the outside and branches flanking the sides. These stairs are wide, making it a great alternative to the classroom learning space. 

The whole school is intentionally designed for multiple uses. This tiled floor is great for messy exploration and snacks.

Bubbles can be so much fun! They also are part of the learning process in the kindergarten class.

Another neat way to display bubble art!

Twigs and old windows are used to display student learning and artwork. 

I love this twig alphabet--it clearly shows commitment to both literacy and nature!

Look at that organization and glass jars! Pieces are brought out little by little as children get used to using them in this environment. They know how to use the materials and put them back.

I love the artwork near the actual plant. The drawing is on recycled cardboard and on display with the other pictures in the classroom--love it!

It's obvious that birding is popular in the class. Several bird feeders and a bird bath were just outside the window, making it easy for the children to observe birds first hand. Inside, students knew various bird calls.

I loved the use of the light table to study birds! Lots of applications here!

One boy created his own book for bird identification! He labeled each of the birds and used details in his drawings to distinguish between them. 

The book was published and laminated. He read his book to me, sharing details about the various birds he studied. Wow! We need to connect him with Indiana Young Birders

There were few, if any, ready made posters and displays from the local teacher store. Items were handmade with the children in this child led design. This kindergarten classroom has a more complex feel than the younger classes. More sight words, numbers, graphs, etc. are used as part of the daily learning process.

More stumps, loose parts, children's drawings of birds, a butterfly under glass to investigate more.

The artwork is displayed alongside pictures of the process. I was very impressed that many items came from local hardware shops or were upcycled.

This panel documented their explorations with pumpkins. 

Pumpkins are available for exploration in this great little space with a view out to the pumpkin patch earlier in the fall. 

I've seen the oil pan used for a magnetic board before--it works great in this space! Science learning is in progress as students document what they learn about the gardening process. A daily journal is sent to all parents so they know what is happening in class and can build and expand on this learning process at home. 


I loved the various ways the staff displays student art work and learning. Note the clear screen on this stand up frame here. 

Each class was organized slightly differently. Note this nature corner, with mirrored tiles, pieces of wood, tools like binoculars and funnels, critter boxes, beans and pinecones. 

This class was exploring weather, experimenting with water vapor, evaporation, condensation, and rain as part of the water cycle. Notice the view to the outside with a big tire for a digging and/or gardening area. 

Plants are in every classroom. Documentation of learning abounds. 


Loose parts are in baskets in every classroom. 

Topics are often nature based, such as this class study of bugs. 

The children created this collaborative piece, pounding in the nails, attaching wires, etc. Lights are part of the design and add a spark to the creation.

Suns made of clay also light up the space. 

Recycled and found objects can be used as part of learning and the art process. Art is everywhere! However, it is also used in many ways to document, study nature, categorize, etc. The children learn so much from these creative and often collaborative experiences. 

The students are integral in the school structure, with their faces proudly displayed, welcoming them each day to their learning space. The yellow panels on the right were part of the old building and were saved with students using them as part of their artwork. Nearby, pictures of the process, documentation of the learning, and a tribute to the previous structure are shared.

The walls are wide and open, with student art work and documentation lining the walls. 

Recycled or upcycled art graces the halls. Some are also very functional! 

The school sits on a large campus with a forest area, open fields, and even a water feature. The students have a great base of natural options for study, exploration, and learning! What a quality school! As an educator I am inspired!