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April 27, 2015
By Alexandra Mortallaro, media relations assistant
Northwest Missouri State University education majors are gaining a new kind of hands-on teaching experience with the implementation of an outdoor classroom at the Horace Mann Laboratory School and the Phyllis and Richard Leet Center for Children and Families.
Phase two is expected to be completed this summer, and the outdoor classroom will include gardening beds, building areas, a music stage, art tables, treehouse platforms, stacked rock climbing and a greenhouse, among other features for students to use.
“Our dream was that early childhood majors and pre-service teachers at Northwest would walk away with foundational concepts about using outdoor classrooms,” Leet Center Director Cindy Scarbrough said.
The outdoor space will enable Northwest students to apply things they already are learning in their coursework. To help students realize how to align outdoor classrooms with curriculum, Dr. Pradnya Patet, assistant professor of professional education at Northwest, takes students in her principles of early childhood course to visit Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Neb., where they take a guided tour of outdoor classrooms.
“The purpose of the field trip is to help students understand the importance of outdoor environments and the role they play in helping children learn, especially in today’s society where so many children suffer from the nature-deficit disorder,” Patet said.
Students also learn how to design outdoor classrooms at Arbor Day Farm so they may incorporate them into their future classrooms. Brook Ravenscraft, a sophomore elementary education major from Kansas City, Mo., said the field trip opened her eyes to the benefits of outdoor classrooms.
“We had talked about the benefits in class, but until I experienced the environment, I didn't realize how important the outdoor learning experience is for children,” she said.
Arbor Day Farm and Nature Explore, a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, help students realize the significance of outdoor play beyond recess. Now those students will apply their skills within the outdoor classroom at Horace Mann and the Leet Center.
Research has shown students stay engaged longer and resolve conflicts when learning in a natural environment versus an indoor learning environment, and mixed-gender play is more prevalent.
“For my class it is a wonderful experience to see the outdoor classroom plan and visualize it more concretely after they have seen the outdoor classrooms at Arbor Day Farms,” Patet said. “We are excited that we will have an outdoor classroom on the Northwest campus.”
The idea for the outdoor facility at Northwest started to become a reality when Scarbrough and Travis Stokes, manager of landscape services, attended a Nature Explore leadership conference two years ago.
“This dream is about creating a nature-rich area for our children,” Scarbrough said. “It’s about using natural things to give them experiences and learning opportunities in an appropriate, child-centered way. Every opportunity we offer children in the classroom, should also be available to the child outside.”
For its outdoor classroom, Northwest contracted with Nature Explore, which visited the campus space to develop a concept drawing. Nature Explore outlined a vision for the outdoor classroom with Horace Mann and Leet Center families and a design was unveiled.
Additionally, the outdoor classroom project received a Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to assist with its implementation last year. Funding and support also came from the Parent Advisory Committee and the JoAnn Stamm Marion Fund along with in-kind labor from Northwest Facility Services and a Leet Center cash match. The Leet Center also received a Missouri Preschool Program Grant that funded sheds and building blocks for the outdoor classroom.
When all phases of the project are complete, Horace Mann and the Leet Center will become a certified Nature Explore classroom and have opportunities to host trainings for other educators to learn and incorporate activities in their schools.
“When I chose Northwest’s education program, I knew it was one of, if not the best, education programs in the Midwest because of the opportunities they provide college students with hands-on experience in a classroom,” Ravenscraft said. “What I didn't know when I chose Northwest was that as a student, I would have the opportunity to explore diverse classroom styles and learn about emerging ways students are being engaged in a classroom.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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