Friday, June 12, 2015

TOP STORY >> Learning from the great outdoors

Leader staff writer

On Thursday, Pathfinder celebrated opening the first two outdoor classrooms in the state to be certified by the national Nature Explore program at their preschools in Jacksonville and Little Rock.

None of it would have been possible for the nonprofit without generous cash and in-kind donations. “Community involvement is crucial,” Director Debbie Schoarbor said.

According to her, the classroom at the Jacksonville school, which serves about 150 kids with developmental delays or other disabilities, cost approximately $15,000 to set up.

The other classroom, at the Charles Bussey Child Development Center in Little Rock, cost around $8,000. It has about 45 students.

Schoarbor runs both preschools.

Tina Reeble with the national network of outdoor classrooms, Nature Explore, taught the Jacksonville teachers Thursday morning about how to take advantage of the new space. She then presented plaques for both schools at the preschool here, recognizing that they are now certified.

“This is thrilling. I know you’re overwhelmed, but you’re in for an amazing ride,” Reeble told the teachers, adding that parents would be “clambering” in the coming years for their kids to join the program.

The play areas at the new outdoor classrooms have Native American names. Schoarbor said she thought of that because Native Americans are known for their connection to nature and she wants to instill that in today’s students.

The director added that another goal is to make future generations understand the value of natural resources so that they will protect those resources in adulthood.

The Jacksonville classroom’s title, “Maka” classroom, is no exception to the rule. “Maka” means “earth,” Schoarbor continued.

Other sections in the classrooms include the Samoset (Motor Activities) Area, Sloh’-hon (Crawling) Area, Chochmo (Mud Mound) Area for messy materials, Ima’rata (Building) Area, Kala (Art) Area, Hototo/Nimeda (Music/Dance) Area, Cayuga (Starting Place/Garden) Area, Pow-wow (gathering) Area, Oka (Water) Area, Ga-da (Dirt Digging/Dinosaur Dig) Area, Chidi (Car/wheeled toy) Area and Ga-da (Mud Kitchen) Area.

From now on, Pathfinder preschool teachers will take as much indoor learning outside as possible, Schoarbor continued. Speech, occupational, physical and mental health therapists will also utilize the classroom, she said.

Schoarbor told The Leader she’d researched having an outdoor classroom for years, and that brainchild began to become a reality when the vegetable garden and a pair of chickens were placed at the Jacksonville facility about four years ago.

“I wanted to give children the freedom to learn in a truly natural environment,” the director explained. “I am always, and I’ll probably never stop, looking for ways to expand children’s learning and to see them (learn).”

Doing outdoor activities teaches the preschoolers their colors, measuring through making things like mud pies, sorting through using materials to construct things and more without the children realizing they’re learning, Schoarbor said. Activities the kids will be able to do in the outdoor classroom “make you think in a different way,” she emphasized.

“No other type of learning allows us as human beings to use all that we have,” the director continued. Going outside will help “some of our children who are challenged in the (indoor) classroom with the confinement of the classroom,” Schoarbor pointed out.

Volunteer Hollis Ready, who manages the garden for the Jacksonville site, said he enjoys having the kids help with it. “Their faces will light up because they’re actually getting to do something” and some “come out of their shells,” he said.

Ready is a retired Navy veteran, and his wife works at the Jacksonville preschool. He also said any group, organization or individual wanting to help out with any part of the outdoor classroom is welcome to do so.

The vegetables harvested from the garden are sold at the city’s farmers market to keep that project self-sustaining, Schoarbor added. Profits are used to buy seeds and materials for the next planting season.