A place to explore and discover: St. John’s opens new outdoor learning environment – Salisbury Post
SALISBURY – When the children at St. John’s Lutheran Church Child Development Center walked out of their classrooms to the new outdoor learning environment for the first time, they had no idea too how to react.
“I don’t think at first they knew exactly what they had gotten into,” said Lelonna Richardson, program coordinator for the Child Development Center.
The outdoor space, with mulched paths, grassy green spaces, and intermittent gardens, is completely different from the traditional playground equipment that existed before. But the children’s confusion did not last long. Soon they were dipping their hands in wooden crates filled with water, slapping mud cakes together in small covered kitchens, and diving into sandboxes.
“It was amazing how quickly they figured it out,” said Richardson. “They started to teach us how to use it.”
Based on a design composed by NC State’s Natural learning initiative, the outdoor learning environment was the Child Development Centre’s response to the need to replace its “tired” 20-year-old playground. Instead of removing the old equipment and putting a new version back in its place, the centre’s leaders decided to go in a different direction by creating a more natural landscape without swings or slides.
“Research shows it’s best for kids, so we wanted to create the best environment for them,” said Richardson.
Outdoor learning environments are “designed to promote health by increasing physical activity, healthy eating and positive social interactions. Exposure to nature has many beneficial effects, including stimulating young immune systems and protecting children from the onset of allergies, ”according to NC State’s Natural Learning Initiative.
Although the outdoor learning environment is open to students and teachers in February, a inauguration and inauguration ceremony will be held today at the Child Development Center at 2 p.m. The ceremony will give parents a chance to see OLE for the first time. Representatives from NC State’s Natural Learning Initiative will be in attendance. Tours of the outdoor learning environment, which includes a tipi village, a story-time perfect stump circle, and several stages for children to play their imaginations on, will be offered.
Child Development Center advisory board member Amy Ritchie said it would be a place for kids to explore and discover.
The St. John’s Child Development Center has a staff of 144 children, aged 6 weeks to 4 years. The outdoor learning environment is divided into three distinct areas, one for infants, one for toddlers, and one for preschoolers.
Outdoor space plans were drawn up in 2019; the following months were devoted to fundraising. Demolition and construction began in June. Colleen McDaniel, landscape designer and owner of The Inspired Garden in Badin, was tasked with bringing the designs of the outdoor environment to life. Ritchie said St. John’s was thrilled with her job. McDaniel has set up similar outdoor environments at the Charlotte Nature Museum and Wing Haven.
During the installation of the outdoor environment, six staff from the Child Development Center took courses on how to use the new dynamic outdoor environment as a teaching tool. Like the children, they too had to learn to use space.
“We took training and got our certification,” said Richardson. “We were able to see the pictures first and learn, but now it has been more convenient because you can see them in real life.”
Unlike a playground, the outdoor learning environment gives children more opportunities to explore their senses while learning valuable lessons about environmental stewardship. Herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers all grow, which helps children learn to care for plants.
“We’re going to teach the students where the food comes from, then we’re going to try the food and we’re going to do a whole process and do some graphics with them to show when they plant the seeds how they grow and figure out who likes which vegetables,” Richardson said.
Nothing planted in the outdoor learning environment, said Richardson, is harmful in any way.
The outdoor space is seen by center staff as more than just a place for children to play; it is seen as an extension of the classroom. Richardson said staff have already started teaching classes outside under one of the many wooden pergolas.
“They think they’re playing, but they don’t realize they’re learning all the time,” Ritchie said. “The learning doesn’t stop when you step outside.”
Ritchie said she believes the outdoor space will become a model for other preschool and preschool education centers across the region.