Outdoor Classroom to Bring Children Face to Face with Nature

University Child Development Center at Sikeston Launching New Facility

SIKESTON, Mo., Mo.,

Feb. 19, 2008 – Children in the University Child Development Center at Southeast Missouri State University-Sikeston will be able to see and touch nature in a new way in the near future.

The University Child Development Center has been awarded a $20,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to build an outdoor classroom outside of the Child Development Center on the north side of the University’s Sikeston campus. The goal is to create a nature exploration area where children can connect with the natural world.

Tracie Smith, director of the Child Development Center, says the Sikeston campus will be the first in this area to have a natural outdoor classroom that will allow children to explore and experience science, math, music, art, sensory and block play in designated learning centers in an outdoor setting.

Officials with Dimensions Education Research Foundation of Lincoln, Neb. and Arbor Day Farms of Nebraska City, Neb., were in Sikeston in early February with architects who will design the classroom. From those meetings emerged a plan for the “look” of the outdoor classroom. The plan calls for a garden area; a large gathering area with tree stumps on which children may sit; sand and water play areas; a dirt digging area; a messy material area for children to plant and for children to engage in activities with a number of items, including pinecones; a block area where children may play with blocks including pieces of cut trees; an art area; a stage with outdoor musical instruments; a climbing area; and a tricycle path for wheeled toys, Smith said. Each of the areas will be designated with signage, she said.

Throughout the playground will be trees, native plants, leaves and logs on which children may sit, Smith added.

“It’s a huge project,” she said.

Work on the playground will be done over the next six months. Plans call for the outdoor classroom to be completed by the end of the summer, Smith said.

The idea for the outdoor classroom took hold when Smith and a colleague attended the Working Forum on Nature Education for Young Children at Arbor Day Farms last October. There, Smith said, several presentations were made on outdoor classrooms, and ideas related to these facilities were shared by educators from around the world.

“It’s pretty neat to see how other countries are incorporating these,” she said. The concept of outdoor classrooms, Smith says, has caught on with child development centers worldwide in response to today’s children who spend a significant amount of time indoors and whose contact with nature is limited.   “We got together and started talking about other places around the world that were creating these outdoor classrooms on their playgrounds and decided that we wanted to have one here,” she said. The grant funding will pave the way for the Center to purchase trees and various plants that will help children learn about nature. “Our teachers are all excited,” Smith said, adding that the architects are planning a workshop for the teachers during their February visit to discuss ways to incorporate nature into their curriculum. The University Child Development Center at Sikeston opened in February 2006 with childcare openings for infants and preschool. Currently, the Center provides full-time care for infants, toddlers, two-year-old and pre-school age children. The Center is open year round to provide care for children of families from the community in addition to children of Southeast Missouri State University students and employees. Smith says the Center’s preschool classroom currently has a couple of openings for children ages 3-5. For more information the University Child Development Center at Southeast Missouri State University-Sikeston, call (573) 481-9724.