Nature classroom connects children with outdoors

Take It Outdoors is more than a curriculum topic at the WestLake Child Development Center in Houston. Teachers and staff at the KinderCare at Work center believe so passionately in the importance of teaching children about nature that they’ve worked hard to certify their playground through Nature Explore for the past seven years.

Nature Explore is part of the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit focused on helping children and families engage with the natural world.

Center Director Darla Fontana explained that the commitment to immersing children in nature began when she and her team went to the annual National Association for the Education of Young Children conference. There, they learned about Nature Explore certification.

“We thought, ‘This is what we want for our center – hands-on learning, children planting, digging, looking for bugs,’” Darla said. “We wanted to teach children that even though we’re in the city they can still grow things. We wanted them to build an appreciation for nature.”

The outdoor classroom at WestLake is more than an organic garden, it’s an extension of the classroom. There’s space for the center’s 240 children to explore the environment, learn about caring for plants and healthy eating through hands-on experience planting and caring for vegetables and fruits, and a place for children to practice art and music outside.

The center’s certified Master Gardener helped children pick plants that would tolerate the hot, dry Texas summers but also produce delicious fruit and attract beneficial bugs like butterflies to the garden. She also designs activities for classroom teachers to use that tie the garden into Early Foundations curriculum topics.

Not only is the center in the middle of Huston’s bustling Energy Corridor – home to many international oil and gas companies – it’s in the middle of a business park, which makes the garden feel that much more like an oasis. The school’s layout is centered on the garden, so children not only see the garden from their classroom, but it’s easy for children to take their parents outside at pick up time and show them what’s growing. The center also hosts regular events in the garden, like their annual Mother’s Day celebration.

“The kids love to show their parents what they’ve done,” said Darla.

Whenever there’s a bumper crop like peaches from the peach tree or tomatoes from the tomato plants, the children harvest the food and take some home to their families, spreading the seeds of their learning throughout the community.

(Check out their center’s Nature Explore page here.)

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