On a visit to a Home Depot one day, Cynthia Munoz was surprised when her 4-year-old son began clamoring to plant flowers, trees and a strawberry patch at their La Puente home. She was taken aback again when he knew exactly what tools to use in their backyard garden.
But he’d already had plenty of practice at his preschool, the Brooklyn Early Education Center in East Los Angeles. The school has an outdoor classroom, part of a growing trend in California and other states of using natural materials and the environment as a learning laboratory.
“He comes home and talks about what they planted or what fruit they picked,” Munoz said. “When we walk into a market, he knows what a squash looks like or a tomato. At a fruit stand we pass, he says, ‘Look, Mom, they have those at school.’ He loves the outdoor activities.”
Connecting children to the outdoors is one of the goals of the Nature Explore program, a national network of outdoor classrooms created by the nonprofit Dimensions Educational Research Foundation in collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation, both headquartered in Nebraska.
There are more than 60 certified sites and hundreds more in progress at preschools, child-care centers, churches and libraries around the nation.
Schools throughout Los Angeles and elsewhere have planted gardens for students, but the Nature Explore classrooms go further. They are developed by early childhood educators and landscape architects and include distinct learning areas. Teachers receive training to turn gardening into lessons.
The Brooklyn center, run by the Los Angeles Unified School District, is an outdoor classroom demonstration site and is becoming certified. It features a winter garden with squash, pumpkins, cauliflower, tomatoes and green peppers, a greenhouse with artichokes and lettuce, a sand pit and the ever-popular mud pit.
Children on tricycles weave through the gardens, pits and planters, while others pretend to camp in an area scattered with logs, tree stumps and sticks. Some climb through a playhouse or stand at the water table making mud pies. There are areas where they can sit and do quiet activities.
They dig for worms, and they learn the different stages of plant growth and how much water a tomato plant needs to thrive.
“We tell parents if their children come home clean, they didn’t have a good day,” Principal Ranae Amezquita said. “Parents know this is how it is and this is how they learn.”
Since the outdoor classroom was established three years ago, behavioral problems have been reduced. Children participate longer in activities and develop problem-solving skills.
“Parents tell us that when they go to kindergarten, they’re better prepared,” Amezquita said.
Recent studies support assessments at the center. The Nature Explore program also helps improve reading and writing skills for children who struggle in traditional classrooms, said Nancy Rosenow, executive director of the Dimensions Foundation.
“It’s difficult to provide everything a child needs in an indoor classroom, sitting at a desk,” Rosenow said.
The results have impressed district officials, who want to add 50 more outdoor classrooms using bond funds. Each costs between $100,000 to $200,000 from design to opening, said Whitcomb W. Hayslip, the district’s assistant superintendent for early childhood education.
“A lot of our kids are in environments where they don’t have a lot of involvement with the outdoors or the opportunity to be around things where they can climb and explore,” Hayslip said. “The outdoor classrooms become like the backyard — and a stimulating backyard.”
Nature Explore classrooms can be created in any setting and environment, Rosenow said. An alley in Harlem was transformed into an outdoor space for neighborhood families. A Minnesota classroom includes a warming hut, and most classrooms provide inexpensive rubber boots so children can splash around in puddles.
Parental involvement is important, since they need to understand the benefits of outdoor play.
“A lot of parents have come to equate dirt with germs and feel like they’re exposing their children to something harmful,” said Susan Wirth, outreach director for both the Arbor Day and Dimension foundations. “That’s a misperception.”
Elena Otto, assistant director of the Kids & Company preschool in Carson, said parents have embraced the Nature Explore classroom there.
The program transformed a mostly concrete playground in an industrial area into an oasis of gardens and play spaces. The 74 children all participate — even the infants who lie on blankets to feel the grass and the toddlers who taste mint in the herb garden.
Parents helped build a trellis on the bicycle path, put up bamboo fencing and attend planting parties.
Munoz said that her son, Timothy Cabezas, loves his outdoor classroom so much that he doesn’t want to leave. The children are so excited by the gardening and painting, “they want to do it all the time.”