Saturday, November 1, 2014

Woodlawn Nature Center's Outdoor Class and Natural Playscape

I've been helping develop a lower budget outdoor classroom and natural play area at Woodlawn Nature Center in Elkhart. We call it Nature's Connection, with plans to make interactive learning spaces on the outside walls of the building as well and a start to a rain garden in the front of the center. I have been patterning plans off of the guidelines from the Nature Explore outdoor classroom concept after attending a training; however, plan to include additional details as an adventure path throughout the woods as well. With the Nature Explore concept, there are distinct areas for specific purposes with definitive edges between the areas.  The basic areas at Woodlawn Nature Center include:

1. Water Area--For now, the water area is a small pond that has been existing at the nature center outside the wildlife viewing window. There is a plaque in the center with people who helped donate funds and build the pond. It is not a place for open play, yet does allow for observation and interaction with the water. I've been looking at a few other options, including the low cost option of using clean detergent jugs filled with water that allow children to fill up containers for using water in the various play areas. 

2. Building Area--In the building area, we have a table with sides to make building accessible to younger children. We bring blocks out as we use the area, including these mirrored blocks which are a neat addition. Sometimes we use a nearby concrete pad to build as well. We vary the materials, sometimes using items I picked up at the ReStore of Habitat for Humanity of Elkhart County. I was able to find pieces of granite, tiles, wooden shapes , slate, etc. at inexpensive prices. I'm always keeping my eyes out for unique items at garage sales and such to change things up in this space. Sometimes we bring in animals, trees, and/or natural items to help us explore the topic we are learning about. Building blocks are neat as so many things can be done in this area! 



3. Messy Materials Area--In the Messy Materials area, there are several logs, longer pieces of wood, smaller pieces of wood, and lots of mulch! We add things to this area seasonally. It becomes a digging area, a building area, and a place for creativity. We often see lots of cooperation right here. 


4. Nature Art Area--In the nature art area, we have a table that was lowered to be more child friendly (road side find that had been hanging out in my garage!) with some tree stumps for seating. My husband and I also built a clear painting easel. It's a fun addition. Mirrored trays and lots of loose parts come out from time to time to change up this area and what we are doing here. Nature art also often adorns the nearby trees! 

5. Music and Movement Area--The Pay It Forward 4-H Club, sponsored by Santa's Pantry, created this musical wall to enjoy. This was made by children for children. Feel free to add more items to it for more musical play. We often bring dancing scarves and small, child friendly musical instruments outside for children to use. We use these inside on days when it's harder to get outside due to more extreme weather. 



6. Climbing Area--In the climbing area, there are several large logs piled on top of each other that become a natural place to climb on a regular basis. The younger and older children all love it. There are also balance logs nearby that are low to the ground, perfect for taking appropriate risks. 


7. Dirt Digging Area--This is just an area of dirt that had been cleared over time that is under some trees. We plan on making it look like a bird's nest, using stakes along the outside to hold twigs and branches to look like a nest. Anyone want to help? :-) We have the stakes ready to go! We bring the buckets and garden tools out as needed for digging. It's a great place to find worms. 


8. Open Play Area--There are actually several open areas we might use for large motor skills, game playing, and for learning activities, though we have a main area in the back of the building in the middle of all these other areas. We intentionally want this open play area to have space needed for larger play activities. 

9. Gathering Area--Just off the trail in the woods is a gathering area around the campfire pit. There are several logs used for seating. We can give instructions, read stories, or just share around the campfire in this area. 

10. Gardening Area--For now, there are just some wildflowers and a garden loom we bring out for special occasions. We hope to build garden boxes in this sunny area this spring. This is an area where we could use some additional help, building garden boxes, planning the garden, and keeping the garden going throughout the season. Do you have a green thumb? 

Additionally, we use spaces along the trails for nature play and learning when we are out hiking. There is a large mound of dirt that becomes a climbing hill. We also find tracks in this part often as the animals must like it as much as the kids! We also use fallen logs for climbing, cut logs as seats and tables, and more. There are at least two "thrones" in the woods. One is near a larger open area, often called the throne room. There are several groundhog holes there. This open area often becomes a play area. We often hide things along the trail to find as we take hikes. We also play games and have learning activities on the trails. I would like to see a few more "adventure" type areas developed, such as a fort building area, a "beehive" play area, and a fairy garden with a place for children and families to add their own fairy additions for others to find. I'd like to see some large rocks for climbing, animal statues for climbing, and other elements as time and resources permit. We also need an entry feature and storage for the items we use outside frequently. You can help through service projects, donating funds, connecting us with resources (like those big climbing rocks), or helping with the planning and implementation. The biggest compliment is bringing children out to play! Look forward to seeing you soon! 

There are picnic benches along the west side of the building. This becomes a learning area for us at times. We use chalk on the sidewalks for math, nature faces, and literacy building. There are also a few benches in various spots on the ten acres. The Rotary Club also is in the process of donating two more benches. It's exciting to see how people working together can make great places for nature play.


 Bringing a few tools outside with us makes a huge difference! Magnifying glass, tape measurers, buckets and garden tools, clipboards, long pieces of outdoor fabric, dancing scarves, musical instruments, and bug jars are available inside for check out. It's a fun, ever-changing place.

*Many of the "special" items, like the buckets and tools, outdoor fabric, garden loom, measuring tapes, dancing scarves, clipboards, and mirrored blocks and trays were funded by a grant from the National Association of Interpretation, Region 4! This is a great organization that helps promote professionalism and best practices in interpretation. Thank you! 

I recently did a blog post about resources and natural playscapes found in our area. Find great places to bring your children outside and get some inspiration for nature play at home.