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Aug 31, 2010 09:58AM

Dig, grow, explore: Outdoor classroom taps into nature as a learning experience


By Lindsay Hocker, lhocker@qconline.com
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John Greenwood
Deb Brownson, who runs the children's campus of Nature Explore Classroom at St. Ambrose, checks on some vines and plants growing on the 90x108 foot plot of nature stuck in the middle of Davenport. Nature Explore Classroom at St. Ambrose is one of only four locations in Iowa certified by the Arbor Day Foundation as a Nature Explore Classroom. Only one school in Illinois has the certification, a place in Peoria. The campus is located at 1301 W. Lombard St. and has 66 kids visit each day, ranging in age from six weeks to kindergarten.
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John Greenwood
Mahi Korovilas, a lead teacher in pre-school at Nature Explore Classroom at St. Ambrose, examines a piece of shell that was found in a birds nest along with some 3-5 year-olds in the Leapfrogs class. The classroom is one of only four locations in Iowa certified by the Arbor Day Foundation as a Nature Explore Classroom. Only one school in Illinois has the certification, a place in Peoria. The campus is located at 1301 W. Lombard St. and has 66 kids visit each day, ranging in age from six weeks to kindergarten.
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Printed and digital copies of this image are available for purchase.  Digital delivery within minutes.  Click here for details.
John Greenwood
Mahi Korovilas, a lead teacher in pre-school at Nature Explore Classroom at St. Ambrose, keeps an eye on some 3-5 year-olds who just picked an ear of corn to examine. The classroom is one of only four locations in Iowa certified by the Arbor Day Foundation as a Nature Explore Classroom. Only one school in Illinois has the certification, a place in Peoria. The campus is located at 1301 W. Lombard St. and has 66 kids visit each day, ranging in age from six weeks to kindergarten.
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The Nature Explore Classroom at St. Ambrose University's Children's Campus is a backyard paradise for kids.

Every part of the space is designed for play. There's a dirt barrel for kids to dig in; an easel to create outdoor-inspired art at; logs to climb on; and their very own garden, where the kids are growing sweet corn, beans, cucumbers, and mini pumpkins.

The Children's Campus offers comprehensive early childhood program for children ages 6 weeks to 6 years-old, and is St. Ambrose's lab site for students enrolled in the university's early childhood education and special education programs.

Deb Brownson, director of St. Ambrose University's Children's Campus, says the Children's Campus gained its Nature Explore Classroom status in October 2009. The Children's Campus began creating the space in the summer of 2008.

"We become very interested in the influence nature has on all of us, in particular young children, and as we began to study and do research, we began to feel extremely passionate about bringing nature to children as a learning experience," Brownson says.

When the Children's Campus staff made the decision to create a Nature Explore Classroom, Brownson says they modeled the new space to meet the criteria. The process of applying included submitting a picture portfolio, showing how staff and families were involved in the process, giving examples of how it will be used for learning, and paying an application fee.

Before theNature Explore Classroom's construction, Brownson says the children's play area was a traditional "slide, swing, and sandbox" playground. The Nature Explore Classroom has a sandbox, but there are no slides or swings.

Brownson says the new area allows for "much more of a relationship with nature than they would have ever had at the other play space."

The accreditation is through the Nature Explore program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. The purpose of Nature Explore is to "help children and families develop a profound engagement with the natural world, where nature is an integral, joyful part of children's daily learning," according to its website, arborday.org/explore.

The program allows the Children's Campus to bring its science program outdoors. Brownson says it helps kids gain an appreciation for both science and nature, which she said is very important. If the kids don't respect and enjoy nature, she says more and more nature will start going away when they become adults.

Ayear ago, Brownson says a lot of the kids were scared of bumblebees. On a recent August morning, the kids didn't bat an eye when bumblebees landed on nearby herbs and flowers.

"It's got a lot more natural for everyone to be out and around nature," she says.

In addition to creating a bond between kids and nature, Brownson says it's a great way for kids to great fresh air and to make their days more enjoyable.

"Being in nature is soothing and restorative for children as well as adults," she says.

During winter, Brownson says the play space is still "a learning experience in nature, but you have to deal with the elements."

Brownson says the kids started seeds for the vegetable garden indoors in the spring. She says the staff wants the kids to understand the science of where food comes from, and to have the "from ground to table"experience.

Mahi Korovilas, a Children's Campus preschool leap teacher, says the garden is her favorite part of the Nature Explore Classroom. She says she loves "watching the children's awe as they see something grow."

Korovilas says she thinks the Nature Explore Classroom has made a big difference for the kids in the program. She says many make "outstanding observations"about nature now, and "instead of it being traditional recess, we have the opportunity to explore."

Staff from other child-care centers have toured the Children's Campus' Nature Explore Classroom. When they come, Brownson tells them that even small changes can help children experience nature.

"Even a new tree can bring so much."

The Davenport Nature Explore Classroom is one of four in Iowa. The others are at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Kids' Life Discovery Center in Chariton, and Maharishi School in Fairfield. The only Nature Explore Classroom in Illinois is at Northminster Learning Center in Peoria.







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