Our Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, located just outside of the Pre-K and Kindergarten classrooms, is a dynamic, nature-based outdoor space developed by research-based, field-tested design principles focusing on elementary education and whole child development. The Nature Explore Classroom allows children to explore and develop a connection to the natural world through engaging in open-ended play while enhancing the physical environment and adding natural beauty to the space. Nature play transforms the cognitive, social and emotional development of young children, fostering creativity, inclusivity, and language-based play.
When you enter the outdoor classroom, a welcoming sign saying, “This Friendly Place” greets you, hanging on a tall wood arbor, flanked by two flowering crepe myrtles. Your eyes are drawn to an assortment of trees, shrubs and plants that were thoughtfully selected to add to the beauty and sense of calm. The trees include a hemlock, which is the Pennsylvania state tree, a Ginkgo - the oldest tree species in North America, and various fruit trees.
There are 10 distinct play areas in the space:
Move - The open area has turf grass and low mounds for gross-motor activities like running, jumping and rolling.
Climb - Our climbing/crawling area has a large existing structure for climbing and crawling, and we added a low wooden balance beam and some log steppers.
Construct - The “messy materials” area for gross-motor building and collaboration has a large log of interest in the middle of the area. It also has large branches and tree cookies for building.
Build - Our fine-motor building area has a discovery table on which the children can build with small blocks, small tree cookies and other materials from nature.
Create - Our nature art area has an art table that the children can use to sort, classify and observe materials from nature. They are also able to create their own artwork from natural materials.
Perform - Our music and movement area has a stage and two permanent musical instruments—a marimba and winged chime - so the children can dance and make music.
Cultivate - Our garden area has three raised bed planters in which the children can plant flowers, herbs, or vegetables.
Gather - Our gathering area has natural bench seating, so a teacher can bring the children together as a group.
Dig - Our dirt digging area has dirt and the perimeter is surrounded by logs for a rich sensory experience.
Excavate - Our sand area has an L-shaped in-ground sandbox and raised perimeter edging. The children enjoy digging and experimenting.
During our first school year with the outdoor classroom, the Pre-K and Kindergarten children planted seeds, bulbs, and herbs in the planting boxes, watered them, and watched them grow. They observed the changes in the trees and other plants during the school year and drew pictures in their nature journals. Students watched the birds that came to feeders that are hung in front of the three classrooms that face the outdoor space. The feeders were made out of recycled bottles, and the children were able to watch the birds from inside or outside, and identify the kinds of birds that came to the bird feeders.
Although our youngest students make the most use of the outdoor space, all NFS students have opportunities to enjoy the outdoor classroom. Sixth grade students created different landforms in the Excavate area as part of a science lesson. Upper School students helped to prepare the planting beds for the younger students by loosening the soil and adding compost. Teachers continue to bring their students to the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom for learning opportunities that work well in the space.