A Calvary Christian Preschool Playground Created from Nature

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer
Photos courtesy Calvary Christian School

A traditional playground with plastic equipment at Calvary Christian Preschool has been transformed into an outdoor classroom where nature is the centerpiece.

“It’s such a difference for the kids,” said outdoor teacher Matt Hirsch, who helped orchestrate the effort. “The plastic—it’s almost indestructible. These materials are natural. They fall apart. Now, the kids are seeing the process of nature. They’re immersed in it.”

The “Action Area,” which has a small hill and valley, replaced a monkey bar, allowing the kids to develop their own games.

The “Action Area,” which has a small hill and valley, replaced a monkey bar, allowing the kids to develop their own games.

As Hirsch provides a tour of the space, which previously held monkey bars and rubber chips, he indicates the new classroom’s “Action Area” with its small hill and valley, the “Climbing Area” with a rock wall and ropes, a “Building Area” with blocks—many of which come from fallen wood that he harvested and cut—and a “Messy Materials Area,” which has a stump, logs, leaves, pinecones and bark that kids can move, dig through, and watch fall apart. The kids also enjoy simply struggling to move some of the heavy items to a new location.

The “Messy Materials” space doesn’t get cleaned up either. Everything is simply left as it is for the next adventurers to use.

“There should be a place where kids can leave their stuff,” said Hirsch, who specializes in bringing nature activities to the school’s approximately 80 youngsters. “It doesn’t have to be orderly.”

At Christmas, dried fruit was used to make ornaments.

At Christmas, dried fruit was used to make ornaments.

The space, which is designed for three- to five-year-olds, also invites the reuse of items that the community might otherwise consider trash. For example, Hirsch, who has worked at the school for three years, requested that parents bring in their dry Christmas trees so they can become part of the space. Some trees might be used as messy materials, while others might be sliced into blocks or cut into thin circles that can then be decorated. A Halloween pumpkin was also allowed to decompose among the messy materials.

“This provides a different type of sensation for the kids,” Hirsch said. “The space is changing all the time because it’s always decomposing.”

Teacher Matt Hirsch helped bring an outdoor classroom to Calvary Christian. It is one of more than 350 such classrooms certified nationwide by the Nature Explore program of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation. Photo: Laurel Busby

Teacher Matt Hirsch helped bring an outdoor classroom to Calvary Christian. It is one of more than 350 such classrooms certified nationwide by the Nature Explore program of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation. Photo: Laurel Busby

The outdoor classroom, which is one of more than 350 such classrooms certified nationwide by the Nature Explore program of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation, also features a “Nature Art Area,” where kids can draw and create nature-inspired works, a “Garden Area” planted with various items like tomatoes and sweet peas, a “Music and Movement Area” for making sounds, a “Gathering Area” with a gazebo and rocks for sitting, and a “Sand Area” for digging.

This young girl works in the “Nature Art Area,” creating a nature-inspired work.

This young girl works in the “Nature Art Area,” creating a nature-inspired work.

Hirsch also would have preferred to have grass cover the space, but because of the heavy use from the kids, the school chose AstroTurf, as grass required too much maintenance and tended to turn into mud. “We wish it could be real grass,” he noted. Hirsch created wood signs for each space and a “Welcome to the Outdoor Classroom” sign. He is continually changing and adjusting the space with new blocks and materials connected to the seasons. For example, for a fall leaf unit, the kids got to see worms at work breaking down the leaves, and at Christmas, dried fruit was used to make ornaments.

As much as possible, in Nature Explore classrooms, plastic is avoided, and instead the teachers endeavor to “bring in as many natural things as we can,” Hirsch said. “The single goal is to get kids more connected to nature.”

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