However a classroom at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center near Shepherdstown offers
children the opportunity to learn outside in a less structured environment.
This summer campers at the Children’s Treehouse
Center get to experience a unique
classroom designed to teach them more about nature.
“This classroom is better because it gives you more natural
play areas,” Nickie Weller, Children’s Treehouse director, said.
“Just like the bridge that goes into the classroom it moves
when you walk on it because not all ground is level ground,” Weller said. “So
with a regular plastic playground everything is normal spacing for steps and
all of that and the world aren’t like that so that’s what makes it separate
from a normal playground.”
Children’s Treehouse uses the outdoor space to teach many of
the same things children learn inside.
“So they’re learning math and science and movement and all
kinds of activities out there,” Weller said.
On a recent steamy weekday afternoon a small group of
elementary age children were busy chattering, banging, creating and
building. The playground has about 10
areas that allow them to participate in activities designed to help them better
understand nature and improve academically.
There’s an art area that includes a clear plastic window
framed in wood where children can paint, a block building area, a music area
with a giant marimba, a music and movement stage and an open area where they can
run and play. The aim is for each area to offer fun and touch on information
they need to learn anyway.
“Just like in our block building area, if you’re balancing
blocks on top of each other you’re learning math and you’re learning geometry
and all that kind of stuff,” Weller said.
“They learn all kinds of stuff about balance and building
and construction and they were grinding mulch with rocks like they did a long
time ago to make wheat and everything,” she said. “In your climbing and
crawling area they’re learning balance and movement and that again not all
ground is level ground and it’s just neat for them to be able to control their
body in different ways.”
This outdoor classroom is one of two the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service built this year. The other is at Creston National Fish
Hatchery in Montana.
Jay Slack, NCTC director, said the outdoor classrooms fit
with the Service’s mission of encouraging more children to explore the natural
“And so this thing is basically a gateway where the children
can go out, they can do their traditional learning but then they can start to
acquire skills or perhaps even acquire a little less fear for the outdoors and
then perhaps in awhile they would actually use this as a gateway to get out
into the natural environment,” Slack said.
The Center offers training for employees of the Fish and
Wildlife Service, Park Service and other agencies from all over the country.
Slack hopes the Nature Explore Classroom will inspire them
to create similar playgrounds at their refuge or park. Slack hopes it will also
be a model for local schools and day care centers that might want to add an
outdoor learning space.
Mary Danno is a program manager with the center’s education
outreach division who helped coordinate the classroom’s installation.
“This had a really good fit for us because the research was
already done; it was more than 10 years of research for this particular type of
outdoor classroom,” Danno said. “And we got things together and this year we
installed a Nature Explorer classroom here at the learning center.”
The $40,000 Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom was
designed by the Dimensions Education Foundation and built using a grant from
the Arbor Day Foundation.