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A friend is nearing the day when she will give birth to her first baby.
As she gets closer to her due date, another friend, Susan, and I have been inspired to remember many sweet details about our own experiences of becoming moms a decade or more ago.
We recently realized that we each have powerful memories of what was happening in nature when our babies arrived in the world.
For Susan, her son’s May arrival came at the time in Michigan when the tulips bloom and when the pansies could be planted. She thinks of those flowers when she remembers Owen’s birth.
I can vividly remember that in North Carolina, as the peony buds swelled, so did I, and when I returned home from the hospital with baby Abbey, those peonies were in full bloom to greet her. During labor, as Jim and I were walking and walking around the UNC campus, we saw a bluebird– which seemed like a very good omen. I always associate bluebirds with Abbey’s birth.
My son arrived in January, on a full moon night that was warm and windy. I can remember walking toward the hospital under that bright moon, stopping to hold onto Jim as a contraction passed, with the wind swirling my big billowy dress. A few days after Jesse arrived, the weather changed and I remember snuggling by the fireplace with my newborn boy through a massive ice storm and power outages.
Now that they are grown, I can see connections between the time they came into the world, and their relationships to nature.
My son is a winter boy– he prefers the cold. And the wild weather on the day he arrived is just what he turned out to love– risk and adventure outdoors– big hikes and big mountains.
My daughter has been a gardener since she was tiny. I have a picture of her picking a zucchini that was bigger than she was, and vividly remember her eating sweet banana peppers fresh off the vine as she rode in her stroller. Today she volunteers on a city farm and what nourishes her most is planting and harvesting and hands in the dirt.
I wonder if others have memories like this… I would love to hear.
Yesterday was planting day at Sheep-Harney Elementary School in Elizabeth City, NC. It was a huge and quite thrilling step forward in implementing the design I did for the school in 2010.
First, a little history. Many of the projects I work on start with one person’s vision.
In Elizabeth City, that person was Linda Ward, Director of Federal Programs and Elementary Education for Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. Linda contacted me two years ago with her idea. She wanted to transform what was a relatively huge 1.5 acres of land available for the 7 classes of preschoolers at Sheep-Harney School into something different from a traditional playground.
She imagined a place where children who often had little access to nature, could play and learn in a rich, lush natural environment. I visited the site several times, held a charette where teachers, administrators and facilities people could learn about natural playspaces and what they look like. Then I created a master plan that captured their vision. The plan reflected the local terrain, with islands of play including natural climbing and outdoor furniture made of locally harvested cypress (from the nearby Great Dismal Swamp) a trike track and tunnel, a court for NC basketball, sand dune hills, driftwood playhouses, a giant sandy beach, a stream with a “pirate island” and edible gardens that would include some of the crops grown in this agricultural area, including potatoes and berries. The plans also include a mud kitchen, a Pecan Tree stage (to be built around a massive pecan tree in the space), a storytelling circle and a nature study area with Bald Cypress trees, bird feeders and a bird blind to offer up-close observation.
And of course, it included lots of plants! I visited the Great Dismal Swamp, learned from rangers there about the local fauna and included many of those plants in the planning.
In 2011 the project was approved by the school board, in no small part due to Linda’s persistence in keeping the project alive after some delays. Later that year the school system brought on local landscape architect Jesse Turner to do the construction documents required for local permitting and bidding. Jesse’s dedication and attention to detail won the accolades of the NC Department of Education and the school system’s facilities department. He got the project out to bid and oversaw the majority of the hardscape installation last fall.
Also last fall, Linda retired from the school system. But she was so committed to this project and to the importance of providing something wonderful for the littlest children in her community, that she has continued, as a volunteer, to raise funds, recruit helpers, and organize the forward motion of the project. Yesterday was a day that she’d worked towards for months.
Linda invited the amazing Roberta Manzer’s award-winning Horticulture Class from Northeastern High School to come for the planting day. Seventeen hard working teens, many of them members of Future Farmers of America, came and spent their full school day transforming the space. They led 126 preschoolers, who came outside by classes for 1/2 hour shifts, and together big kids and little kids planted 75 mostly native trees and shrubs. They dug holes (several times hitting buried concrete and other old construction debris) planted plants, and moved mountains of mulch.
click to see the group photo
For me it was a powerful experience and a huge honor to work with all those wonderful preschoolers, preschool teachers and administrators, facilities guys, high schoolers, and two awesome women– Roberta Manzer and Linda Ward. It is incredibly rewarding to see a plan I’ve created go from paper to reality.
It isn’t done yet, but I think projects like this are wonderful when they are phased in and everyone gets to participate in the process– days like yesterday. For now, the job is to have fun (and water the plants).
I am excited and proud to announce an upcoming training event on April 14 from 9-12:30 at Beverly Hills Preschool in Alexandria sponsored by NoVA Outside.
The day will open with an intriguing panel on The Value of Risk.
Sissy Walker of WISE Educational Services will present a session on the how’s and why’s of Inquiry-based Outdoor Learning. Sissy is a Master Naturalist and has many years of experience leading a progressive Reggio-inspired program and training teachers in this authentic approach.
Sandra Redmore, director of the Green-School-Award-Winning Clarendon Child Care Center, and chair of the APS Advisory Committee on Early Childhood will present on The Logistics of Outdoor Learning– sharing her unique, on-the-ground perspective on how to make it work.
I will be presenting on, what else, Creating Great Spaces for Natural Play and Learning.
After the breakout sessions, we’ll have hands-on skill building activities including: How to Plan and Plant a Container Garden with Children, How to Build Ephemeral Structures on the playground using free materials, and of course, our favorite– Building with Cob. Cob is a mixture of clay, sand and straw.
You’ll leave with real skills you can use with children immediately plus lots of thought provoking ideas and valuable new understandings that will change the way you think about the outdoors.
Register now– spaces are filling up fast. www.novaoutside.org
This Montessori natural playspace opened in September 2011. The 1/3 acre lush landscape offers children a wide range of opportunities to move, explore, play and learn in a setting that is whimsical and beautiful and quite different from a traditional playground. One of the first of its type in the DC area, the space features slides built into fragrant herb-planted hills
In the shady woods children can build with planks and stumps, climb fallen trees and follow meandering woodland paths.
There is a sparkling 50’ mosaic stream with a kid powered pump.
There are over 300 mostly native plants to touch, taste, smell and pick along with raised beds outside the classroom windows for children’s gardening, open lawns for running and cloud watching and benches and swings for resting and observing.
Does it look like something is missing on those sweet playhouses? We thought so, so in December we did this:
More photos soon. And for details on the technique, check out my friends at Taproot Farm, who taught me their simple, low cost method.
We know, and an extensive body of rigorous scientific research confirms that children who have access to green and natural play and learning spaces are healthier and less stressed, concentrate and learn better, and get along better with peers. Connecting children to nature and creating beautiful outdoor spaces is my passion, and as a landscape designer and former preschool teacher, I know a lot about it. I love working with schools and early childhood programs to create beautiful, magical outdoor play and learning spaces.
I am well aware that a custom design is just not affordable for some programs. So, I have come up with a new way to help schools by sharing my expertise in a format that allows participants to plan and build THEIR OWN natural playspaces…. economically.
I am offering a special pilot program this winter that will include a series of workshops, handouts, templates, checklists and more, plus the support of colleagues who are working to change their outdoor spaces. I will provide great materials, ideas for natural playspaces that work, plant lists, planning worksheets, tips for organizing workdays – lots of great information plus answers to participants’ questions as they go through the planning process.
I am currently hard at work in my business, creating earth-friendly, people-friendly designs and working with my partners at Green Earth Landscaping to build natural play and learning spaces for schools and children’s programs. I’ve never offered a DIY program like this before, and this may be a one-time series.
Participants in this program will be selected by application, so that I can be sure to work with local programs who are truly committed to making change. The program will start this winter so that schools will be ready by spring to start working on their space. I can help provide the outdoor magic children deserve!
Here is an overview of the program:
Creating Your Own Outdoor Magic: DIY Natural Playspace Coaching
Do you want to connect your children to nature, improve your outdoor space, and make it fun and functional, but don’t know where to begin or how to get started?
Nancy Striniste of Earlyspace presents an exciting new pilot program to help you every step of the way as you plan and create your own natural play and learning space.
- An expert with more than two decades of experience designing spaces for children who will guide you on the path to making the changes you envision and more!
- Three information packed presentations to inspire, educate and inform you (and up to two teammates from your school)
- Templates, checklists and handouts to keep you organized
- The support and encouragement of a small, select, committed group of colleagues
- Monthly group calls with Nancy, a professional landscape designer, to answer your questions as you work towards creating your plan—and you’ll get to listen to and learn from others as they work towards their goals
This program will start this winter so that by spring, you’ll have a plan in place and be ready to dive into creating your own beautiful natural play and learning space.
1. Begin by assessing your current space
2. Learn about natural play and learning spaces, what they look like and what happens there. See images and great ideas from across the country and around the world
3. Create your own vision for YOUR play and learning space
4. Plan your own layout with tips from an expert
5. Get great ideas for finding resources in your community
6. Learn, in a step-by-step way, how to plan a workday that is organized and fun, that builds community AND that builds your outdoor space!
This is for you if:
- You have an early childhood or elementary setting
- You have an outdoor space that needs to be better
- You are committed to making change
- You know there is untapped energy for children in your school community
- You need expert direction, clarity and guidance to make this change happen
This is not for you if:
- You’re not ready to commit to improving your space
- Your decision makers are not on board
- You have major drainage, erosion or health and safety problems on your site
This program will be by application only and limited to a small group to ensure that everyone gets the attention they need to succeed.
No risk, 30-day money back guarantee: if you decide anytime in the first 30 days that you’re not inspired and ready to dive into creating your own outdoor magic, you can withdraw and get your full investment back.
Sign up now if you’re ready for results! (and please share this with colleagues and schools who might be interested)
Contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, pricing and an application.
The sun was shining. The kids– lots of kids– were outside.
It was simple and inexpensive and fun.
Bamboo (harvested in advance from a grateful neighbor’s yard)
Kudzu (pulled by kids from the edges of the schoolyard)
A ball of string
A bale of straw
Two ladders, some pruners and 5 volunteer moms.
Over the course of a morning, second and fourth graders at Fort Belvoir Elementary School came out by classes and built a structure that included three teepees and two tunnels. In the end, more than 200 children had worked on the project.
We removed some invasive plants and in the process kids learned a little bit about what invasives are. “Plants that don’t belong here and are taking over”
A happy teacher: “They’re learning teamwork, they’re solving problems and everyone is happy and busy.”
And the ripple effect: “This was easy, I’m going to try this at home,” said a mom.
This post represents a summary of several talks at the recent “International Green Schoolyard Conference”. Although I agree wholeheartedly with all of the ideas described below, I cannot take credit for many of the thoughts. Because the speakers’ positions were so powerfully and clearly expressed, I have quoted liberally from my notes, in an effort to bring these inspiring voices to my readers.
Cam Collier of Canada’s Evergreen calls it “bubble wrapped childhood” and says we’re killing our kids with caution.
By trying to keep them physically safe, we are depriving children of experiences that are essential to the development of a healthy sense of self confidence. It is not possible to create an environment that is free of risk, and in trying to do so, we remove rich play experiences. In a natural setting with tall trees to climb, pointy sticks, slippery rocks and unexpected holes in the ground we worry that “something might happen”. “I would love for something to happen” says Dr. Petter Akerblom of Movium and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. Their scrapes should be acknowledged as proof that “you tried to do something!”
In a talk by Dr. Bernard Spiegal of PLAYLINK, he asserted that our risk averse society is damaging children and teens.
He pointed out that many regulations governing outdoor play experiences demonstrate a belief that children are fragile, incompetent, incapable of making judgements, mostly incautious, incapable of learning and likely to fling themselves into situations they can’t handle. Clearly it would be morally offensive if we allowed such children to encounter a situation of risk.
As educators, we believe that children are just the opposite: strong, competent, clearly capable of learning and often astonishingly wise. Yet those of us who are experts at how children problem solve, develop resilience and learn to make decisions are often not the ones who determine what children will be allowed to experience when they’re outdoors. Instead a disproportionate and irrational level of fear of injury and litigation guides decision-making by technical experts, insurers and regulators, to the detriment of children’s healthy development.
Dr. Spiegal suggests that an acceptable level of risk in play should be “freedom from life threatening or permanently disabling injuries” He compares our acceptable risk thresholds in outdoor play settings with our acceptance, in sports like skiing and football, of broken bones and other injuries which are considered an expected and acceptable level of risk in exchange for the thrill and excitement of the sport. He suggests that our view of play spaces should be similar.
Dr. Spiegal on rubber surfacing: We rubber coats playgrounds in an attempt to protect kid’s bodies at all costs but by doing so deprive them of opportunities to develop a realistic understanding of the world. As children are figuring out how the world works, do we really want to suggest the false lesson that ground is a safe surface to fall on? In free play, we know that children learn that choices have consequences. If every surface is a soft one, then we are not teaching anything about the way the world really is.
Standard play equipment teaches children not to pay attention. When every rung is evenly spaced, it’s easy to let attention wander. Climbing a tree with varied limb diameters and spacing requires focused attention.
What is the science behind risk assessment? According to Dr. Spiegal, weak at best. When a real child falls, they instinctively put up their arms. Tests are often done on models or cadavers.
Traffic calming is 10x more cost effective at saving children’s lives than limiting play.
Allowing a child to cross a street alone is a real risk. Yet all parents must eventually allow it because they understand that it’s necessary.
The job of the parents, teachers and caregivers is NOT to succumb to every anxiety, nor to put their anxiety ahead of what is good for children. Sometimes you have to just look away!
The Risk/Experience Equation: (This is paraphrased very clumsily from Dr. Spiegal’s clear and logical explanation, due to my inadequate notes, but hopefully you get the gist.)
1. We understand and respect the inherent competence of children
2. Some things cannot be taught, only learned, such as confidence and resilience.
3. Some things can only be learned through experience.
4. If you haven’t had the experience, then you cannot learn those things (such as– watching someone climb high doesn’t tell you how you’d feel in a high place)
5. Any new experience is inherently risky and a potential hazard.
6. Any new experience is a potential learning opportunity (and potentially an opportunity for great fun).
7. We must balance the potential hazards with the potential learning and fun so that children will have the opportunity to exercise their competence and learn and grow through experience and risk taking in rich play settings.
For more from Dr Bernard Spiegal and colleagues on this compelling topic, check out “Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide”.
Here is the story of a natural building project I love…
If you aren’t familiar with natural building, it is, basically, using natural, non-manufactured materials to create soul-soothing, sculptural structures. My favorite is earth-building, which uses in various combinations, a mixture of clay, water and sand, along with a fibrous material (grass, straw or wood fibers) for tensile strength. A method called “Cob” combines clay, sand and straw and builds with wet bricks called cobs because they are about the size of a cob or loaf of bread.
I discovered cob about 7 years ago and tried increasingly ambitious projects (first birdhouses, then a garden wall) before diving into a natural building project that was a pretty life-changing experience for me and for Sandra Redmore. Sandra is the director of the Clarendon Child Care Center, home of the sweetest pair of playhouses you can imagine.
One of the coolest things about natural building is that it can be done using no power tools and for very little cost which makes it perfect for natural playspaces. It takes time though. Sandra and I spent countless hours that year, from early April till late in the fall, almost every weekend, organizing dozens of generous volunteers and participating in workdays to get these little houses built. By that cold fall we had built the playhouses and also a friendship of the deep sort that comes from hours spent together, toes in the mud.
Yes, toes in the mud! Another cool thing about natural building is that the traditional way to mix that clay, sand and straw is with bare feet. And what could be more perfect when building with children?
Cob is incredibly durable and long lasting as long as it has what cobbers call “dry feet and a dry head” which means a good foundation that keeps the cob off the ground and a solid roof with good overhangs. There are cob houses in Great Britain, where the technique originated, that are more than 500 years old. It does need occasional repairs though, such as when a crack develops and little fingers start to chip away at the cob. But that’s a good thing because the community that develops around a natural building project like the one Sandra and I embarked on is rare and special. Patching the playhouses (as we did a few weeks ago) is an opportunity for the children (and teachers and families) who come after the project is done, to understand where the houses came from and to get their toes in that magical mud!
There are lots of great books on cob and natural building. Here are a few of my favorites:
From coast to coast, this is school garden tour season! This week I’m bringing you news of another city where exciting things are happening for kids. I visited 7 wonderful DC school gardens on a recent rainy Saturday.
The theme of this year’s tour, which capped off a school garden week full of workshops, contests and events, was to show the diversity of ways that school gardens “take root”. The tour highlighted parent-led, teacher-led, outside organization-initiated and even alumni-driven school garden initiatives.
Signage is always an issue in gardens where students and visitors need to understand the intent. There were a variety of great sign examples on the tour.
We started the morning at The Watkins Living Schoolyard, a 17 year old school garden which began as a collaboration between parent Molly Dannenmaier (author of A Child’s Garden) and teachers in the school’s Montessori program. Watkins Schoolyard now includes nine outdoor classrooms and the newest addition, an indoor Kid’s Kitchen that includes a cooktop with demonstration mirror, double ovens, undercounter grow lights and is staffed by a kitchen teacher who uses fresh produce from the edible garden to teach nutrition. A curriculum for first, third and forth grades will be available online this fall. This schoolyard is completely integrated into the curriculum at the school with the full support of the staff and administration.
The next stop on the tour was Kimball Elementary, where a collaboration between the nonprofit Lands and Waters and the school community brings nature to the schoolyard.
At Coolidge High School a unique partnership between ASLA, the very active alumni association, and a wide variety of sponsors and volunteers is working to restore the original 1938 Greenhouse, and has created a master plan and an extensive series of raised beds, seating and pathways. Science, math, special ed, art and English teachers at the high school are all getting on board to develop lessons and bring their classes outdoors.
The six outdoor classrooms at Murch Elementary are supported by an active group of parents (90 of 200 families are involved). Parent volunteers coordinate frequent special events, classroom support and garden maintenance. At School Garden week’s special recess tour, kids with passports visited all 6 of the gardens usually used by only one grade. Kids got to learn about gardens they don’t often work in and earned stickers on their passports from parents manning each station.
This school participates in the Chefs Move to Schools program, launched by Michelle Obama, which brings chefs (in chef suits) to schools where they cook school garden harvests and encourage healthy eating.
Lafayette Elementary has the newest garden of the tour. Students at the school are planting vegetables and painting signs, cooking and eating with chefs and even blogging about their adventures in their one year old garden. This effort is supported by a group of dedicated parents who help with cooking classes and garden maintenance.
The tour ended at Tubman elementary, where an effort initiated by two teachers has led to a schoolwide gardening program with strong ties to the White House. Michelle Obama and White House chefs have worked in the Harriet Tubman gardens, and the Tubman students garden and dine regularly at the White House. President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act at Harriet Tubman. This hard to replicate model has generated a great deal of excitement and garden support among students, parents and community at Tubman!
And finally, thanks to DC school garden sponsor Chipotle, for a warm and delicious donated lunch for the cold, wet and inspired garden tour participants.