Feature

Un-paving the way to successful outdoor education in urban settings

Chris Strebig and Kate Jerman
Rocky Mountain Region, U.S. Forest Service
September 2nd, 2014 at 6:00PM

Warren Village Mothers sit and laugh together, shaded by newly planted trees. They look on while their children play and explore in dirt and grass at the new Outdoor Nature Explore Classroom of Warren Village in the heart of Denver, Colorado.

A U.S. Forest Service grant of $100,000 and a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation made the outdoor classroom possible.

This new outdoor space is un-paving the way to outdoor education opportunities for urban children in Denver, planting the seeds of inspired outdoor- learning through the use of nature play spaces. In contrast to the previous hardened playground with sticky asphalt and hot metal slides, children of Warren Village are now immersed in a nature play zone of trees, shade, dirt, flowers, plants, stumps, stones and water.

Here, getting your hands dirty is encouraged and part of the first-hand learning process that goes along with exploring natural surroundings.

“The gift of hope and possibility is what you have set course to do with this great Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom,” said Forest Service Associate Chief Mary Wagner, who cut the ribbon with children from the Village earlier this summer. “And so for the teachers and the parents who are going to back and support students in this experience – thank you – because you are changing lives and you may possibly be changing the world.”

During the ceremony, Wagner announced an additional $55,000 in funding from the Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado State Forest Service and the Arbor Day Foundation. These resources will transform the remaining hardened landscape, creating an expanded certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom this fall.

Warren Village provides transitional housing for refugees and previously homeless, single-parent families, helping them to achieve personal and economic self-sufficiency. Warren Village supports programs that move families from public assistance to personal and economic self-sufficiency through subsidized housing, on-site child care, educational guidance and career development. 

Many of these families have not been exposed to natural settings, nor had the opportunity to connect to nature in any real way. This space fosters that connection to the natural world in a safe and inviting environment.

Cultivating this connection to nature between urban families and the outdoors will have lasting effects for a child’s development. Experts from Nature Explore, a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, designed the outdoor classroom for creative exploration.

“We think that this program will help to nurture creativity more than anything we could have done before with a playground made of plastic and metal. As cute as it was, we think this will be so much better,” said Sharon Knight, chief executive officer and executive director of Warren Village.

Children will learn about ecosystems and food systems by helping to plant and grow flowers and vegetables, explore native critters and bugs within seasonal cycles, and explore the importance of natural places to the health of communities.

 “These are truly transformational spaces for children,” said John Rosenow, founder and executive director of the Arbor Day Foundation. We need to have a lot of people who have a connection and a love of nature in their heart to become the future generation of environmental stewards.”

A short video about Warren Village’s new Nature Outdoor Explore Classroom offers more information about how it works.