Outdoor classroom helps kids connect with nature

Monday, April 16, 2012

RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- A new outdoor classroom in suburban St. Louis is helping children and families get closer to nature.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom in Richmond Heights opened Friday.

The outdoor classroom is free and open from dawn to dusk. Geared for ages 2 to 12, it includes a trail with deer, fox, raccoon and other animal footprints. There is a giant Smokey Bear children can talk with. Children can climb on rocks and balance on or crawl through a log. They can design a house of twigs or make a sculpture of leaves.

Nature Explore is a national movement aimed at making nature a more integral and joyful part of daily learning for children.

It's a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. In addition to outdoor classrooms, it holds workshops and provides classroom plans and teaching ideas to nature centers, schools and other programs.

At the Richmond Heights opening, two 7-year-old girls were making music by pounding two upside-down kettles. One of the girls spotted the silhouette of a fox across the grass.

"I think that's a fox," she said. She was close -- it was a metal replica of a fox planted in the grass. Nearby, a giant fantasy butterfly appeared ready to take flight.

Katherine Van Uum sat attentively at the small children's amphitheater watching a puppet show with her daughter and her friend. Van Uum, who previously taught eco-feminism in Colorado as part of her education career, supports the idea of bringing more nature into children's lives.

"My mission as a mom is to get more kids outside and reconnected to nature," Van Uum said. "I'm highly excited about saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder."

Tim Brunsman, the urban forester and parks operations superintendent for Richmond Heights, got the idea of the classroom when he was teaching children about geocaching, a Web-based GPS scavenger hunt.

"Some of the kids were afraid to go into the woods to find their treasure, so I reassured them it is OK to play in nature," he said. "It made me realize that in an urban setting, there aren't often opportunities for playing in a nature-based setting."

Funding for the $230,000 Richmond Heights project included $193,000 awarded by the Municipal Park Grant Commission of St. Louis County. In-kind services by Richmond Heights and Maplewood matched the difference.

St. Charles County plans to open its own Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom near Wentzville on May 11.

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