Green with Reene: Nature Explore Classroom

by Irene Ecklund

The Early Childhood Center, First Covenant Church, Omaha, Nebraska

The Early Childhood Center has been certified as a Nature Explore Classroom through the Arbor Day Foundations & Dimension Educational Research Foundation (natureexplore.org). We are the first and only certified center in Omaha, have received a huge plaque to post, and asked to host future workshops for educators. The purpose is to get children out into nature to explore and to learn to love the world that God so graciously created for us to live in by providing developmentally appropriate nature education for young children. The aim is to help children understand and appreciate the Natural World.

I will explain our playground and the spaces we have created and why they are important to children’s exploration and growth. The church graciously gave us about three acres. We had a landscape company plant 36 trees and a few shrubs and we planted grasses to add to the landscape. There are five apples trees and eight service berry trees which will provide fruit for the children to harvest and eat.

GATHERING AREA: Made with natural logs it provides a place where teachers can meet with groups for a variety of reasons, such as sharing individual discoveries and special events like group sing-alongs.

NATURE ART AREA: There are two nature art tables, one for sorting and one for children to create their own nature pictures. We have three Plexiglas easy clean up art easels. As children work with natural materials such as pine cones or seed pods and arrange them into patterns or mosaic-like pictures, they develop a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and strengthen their skills in classification and close observation. All materials are made from natural cedar. Eight cedar benches were built and placed in various areas.

CLIMBING AREA: We built a spectacular tree house for climbing. Children can create their own outdoor space with fabric provided. They gain skill in estimation as they figure out how much fabric they need.

MUSIC AND MOVEMENT AREA: Music and movement are vital to healthy development. This area provides an ideal place for children to learn about sound, pitch, rhythm, and tonality on their own. We have a variety of musical instruments, including rain sticks and dancing scarves. A large Marimba is on order.

BUILDING AREA: This area was created by collecting logs and cutting them into different sizes. We covered the floor area with larger logs. Smaller logs called “tree biscuits” are used to build and create. They are designed to crack, break apart, and decompose over time so children can observe these natural processes. They can pretend play, build towers, examine the tree rings to see the age of the tree, or work on elaborate projects.

GARDEN AREA: Here children will begin gardening at an early age—an opportunity to develop a sense of wonder about the world and to be amazed everyday by new discoveries. We made four raised beds for vegetables, a herb garden, a butterfly garden, and a 10-foot teepee. Gourds, small pumpkins, and beans are climbing up the teepee. A large sunflower tunnel provides space for children to play inside. Each morning children harvest the vegetables and help prepare some for snacks. They love eating the vegetables they grow and pick. We are providing organic lunches and snacks and feeding them healthful foods.

DRY CREEK BED AND WATER AREA: Rocks and water are a part of nature. Children share ideas, negotiate, make decisions, decide on tasks, and problem-solve in this outdoor classroom.

DIGGING AREA: One in sand and one in dirt. Lots of digging tools and exploration opportunities are provided.

MESSY MATERIALS AREA: This explains itself.

ACTION AREA: This is a large green space where children can run and play games.

Required reading for teachers (and recommended to every parent!): Last Child in the Woods; I Love Dirt!; Sunflower Houses; Gardening Wizardry for Kids; Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots; A Child’s Garden; Hollyhock Caves.