Thursday, May 21, 2015

It's Just a Phase

Yesterday was the last day of the 2014-15 school year.
In the five months that the Outdoor Classroom has welcomed children and families, over 100 children have come to know "Ms. Nikki"
aka "Ns. Mikki, Farmer Nikki, and Teacher Nikki. 
I have had the honor of learning from those children and many of the teachers here at the school.

Here are some of my favorite shots and a few lessons learned...
For the first several months, the children didn't realize that the hose 
could be changed from "mist" setting. Keep that secret, children learn quickly.

Work is much more interesting with real tools. 
Though the results varied, it was the trying that was the important part.

Play is better in costumed finery. Let them wear tiaras and tutus, please. 

Career and College Readiness begins in the Mud Kitchen: Construction Manager, Chemist, Chef.

Learning to love the earth is an active process, intrinsically motivated. 
Allow time for the children to find something to settle into and then allow time for them to enjoy it.

Children grow by leaps and bounds. 
Give many different physical challenges: round rocks, tall logs, close together, far apart. 
Hills to climb, wobbly boards, uneven ground with different textures.

Preschoolers are caring and curious. Our rules are simple: 
take care of yourself, take care of your friends, take care of our place.

Welcoming the children this winter and spring was a test--another phase in the progress of the Outdoor Classroom: 
What would the children do? What would the teachers do? How would the Outdoor Classroom do?

Next comes the real test: 
Can we foster a connection to nature through this special place?
Though this might take years to know, everyday that children could come to the Outdoor Classroom to build with blocks, to climb the mulch pile, to plant pumpkin seeds, to pick green tomatoes, to try to catch a butterfly (and succeed in at least one case!)--they are being given the opportunity to connect.

The thing is though...
what is special about this place is that it doesn't need to be special.
Nature is everywhere, we only need to allow for it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Psst... It's EfS

EfS... huh?

EfS stands for Education for Sustainability

So... huh?

This is a short story, 
a story of how
love grows. 

But first, a short primer...

To be sustainable means to keep within a set of parameters. If you want sustainable spending in your household, that means you are going to stay within your budget--what goes out isn't more than what comes in. For a sustainable yield of crops the harvest produces enough to feed the people and brings in enough money to pay the farmer and sustainability even includes keeping the ground healthy to grow another crop in coming years. A sustainable ecosystem is one in which everything works together keep the system thriving--the animals and plants and soil and water and weather. Now think about how complex is it to have a sustainable planet...shoo--that is quite a biological budget to balance!

It takes time to observe what is going on. It takes time to figure out what to do about it. It takes time to implement those strategies. And it takes time to see what's working. That's a lot of time! We better make sure we've got the next generation ready to take on the work of figuring it out. That's where EfS, Education for Sustainability, comes in.

But Nikki, what does this have to do with playing in mud at preschool? Everything!

If children don't love the Earth, how can we ask them to save it? Thinking sustainably starts with that love. In environmental education, we call that love for nature: "A Sense of Place."

And now... the story...

Charlie, 5, is chattering away to me as we play in the Mud Kitchen. He struggles with speaking clearly and he is learning English, but he does love to talk. As I listen, I can understand his speech more clearly: "Miss Nikki, I had a dream. I was here in the Outdoor Classroom..."

EfS, simply, starts with a connection.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Locked in the Box

"Over the years, children sensed the possibilities inherent in cardboard boxes, recycling them into innumerable playthings." Writes the National Toy Hall of Fame's webpage for the Cardboard Box, inducted in 2005.
Being an avid recycler, reuser, reducer and creative educator, I welcome the cardboard box into the Outdoor Classroom. Though it is not a natural materials, it is a manipulative material. Though empty, it is filled with possibility. Except when flat and way out at the other end of the Outdoor Classroom. (bummer)

Back in February the Dramatic Play area was the site of the camping tent, firepit (pretend), grill for rock burgers, rope, picnic basket. All of which have dispersed

to other areas because the Dramatic Play area is a liminal space--one that changes. It has been been empty for the past month, woefully devoid of child-led activity.

So I reformed the boxes and set them out in no particular order. If I had put out cookies, they would not have ran to those boxes faster.

One box was particularly large. Two children could easily fit inside seated, or one child laying down. One brave soul asked for the lid to be shut, "Lock me in the box!" (disclaimer--there was cut out handles for light and air). Immediately when the lid was shut two children sat on the box, sealing the deal. After a few seconds came the inevitable, "Let me out!"
I shooed the two sitters away, "We need to let him out. Play should be fun, not scary." And when the child emerged, I asked, "Were you scared?" The other children were attentive. "Nope!" 

For the next half hour the queue for "Locked in the Box" was long. The game's vital ingredient not being shut in, but in being let out when called for.

"Inside a big cardboard box, a child is transported to a world of his or her own, one where anything is possible."

Monday, May 4, 2015

We've come a long way!

We've done a lot on the Outdoor Classroom since my last post!  Here's a photo timeline of this school year's success...

The area had been used as ball fields when the school hosted K-4th grade, but when the school was converted to preschool, the field was not being used.

After a concept design phase and funding secured, we broke ground in June 2014.

This initial design phase lasted into the summer--placing boulders, putting up sheds and pergolas, and a brick and gravel walkway.

Raised Beds were installed in September with the help of amazing and powerful volunteers: Maricopa Master Gardeners and Bank of America.

In October the teachers and staff of ML King were able to take their first tour of the Outdoor Classroom.

United Way brought corporate volunteers from Ernst and Young Accounting to help us prepare the ground and paint an amazing mural with our mascot--the Monarch Butterfly!

The Garden Party was an amazing success! Truly a joint effort between the Roosevelt School District teachers and staff, the Roosevelt Head Start teachers and staff, and the Roosevelt Family Resource Center maintained by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County.

With the help of our friends at the Arizona Nursery Association, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, the Southwest Herbies, and many generous donors over 400 plants were installed!

Children were able to begin using the site in January 2015. What a hit!

Our first theme was outdoor recreation. REI loaned us some fun equipment through the PEAK program.

Our Great Outdoors Festival held in February was really the grand opening for students and their families. We welcomed the community with lots of fun outdoor and nature activities!

Hands-On Greater Phoenix brought in corporate volunteers for a Spring Upgrade--adding signage, balance logs, more trees, and farm facades.

And in April 2015, the Outdoor Classroom had the honor of being the setting for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's visit and speech about the importance of high quality early childhood education.

2014-2015, what a year!
What is next? Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Garden Party Fundraiser for the Outdoor Classroom

Short URL:

Our Outdoor Classroom is ready to go green--with plants that is! Help us to purchase flowers and trees for our Outdoor Classroom. 

What is an outdoor classroom? What do children do there? Are there desks? Come see what all the fuss is about!

Nov 15th 10 am to noon
MLK Jr Early Childhood Center, near 24th and Broadway
4615 s 22nd St, Phoenix, 85040

light refreshments served

RSVP or just show up.
Can't make it but would like to help anyway? We welcome your donations, contact:
Nikki Julien, Instructional Specialist Coordinator, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What would an Outdoor Classroom do?

The growing trend in schools is now outside!

 Outdoor classrooms are proven to
· Create feelings of empathy for nature
· Facilitate cognitive and physical development
· Inspire collaboration and reduce violence and bullying
· Support whole-child development and learning across the curriculum

Okay... but what do children DO in an outdoor classroom? Are there desks?

With over 10 interest areas within the outdoor classroom, children are on the go! 
  • Climbing, running, crawling,
  • Touching, tasting, smelling,
  • Gardening at the raised beds,
  • Being creative at the nature art area,
  • Engineering with blocks and loose natural materials,
  • Dirt digging and water play,
  • Sensory exploration among native plants,
  • Relaxing with a book at the dreaming space,
  • Acting on the outdoor stage,
  • Riding tricycles, 
  • and sitting down as a class to plan, to share, and to reflect.

With Phases 1 and 2 already completed, the foundation of the Outdoor Classroom is laid. From initial planning to site preparation to the installation of irrigation and pathways, the Outdoor Classroom has gone from concept to reality.
Phase 3 has already begun: the installation of the gardens. Each classroom can adopt a large raised bed to grow flowers or food. Teaching young children about gardening supports the whole curriculum. 
  • Math skills are developed when children learn how deep to plant seeds and how tall plants can grow. 
  • How food plants are used by different cultures connects social studies with the diverse community here at MLK Jr. 
  • Science learning abounds outdoors where urban wildlife, such as birds and bugs, receive shelter and food in the garden.
  • Artistic expression in dramatic play and visual art expands where there is space for solitude and rich, sensory experience.
  • Working together in the garden amid the constantly changing natural world provides opportunities for problem-solving, cooperation, and social-emotional growth.

The MLK Jr Outdoor Classroom still needs your help! 

There's much more to do to take us from the barren empty fields of last year to the lush and unique learning environment of next year.
  • Volunteer your time and skills. Help with planting, building structures, and simply clearing weeds is needed on a regular basis.
  • Sponsor the planting of a tree to offer shade and to green our community.
  • Donate funds toward our big projects: a large climbing structure and brick flooring for learning areas.

If you have questions about the MLK Jr Outdoor Classroom, or you like a tour, please contact:
Nikki Julien, Outdoor Classroom Project Co-Manager
Like us on Facebook at:

MLK Jr Early Childhood Center is part of the Roosevelt School District and is located at:
4516 S. 22nd St, Phoenix, AZ 85040

The Outdoor Classroom in sponsored in partnership with:
  • Roosevelt School District
  • Roosevelt Head Start
  • The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Outdoor Classroom Phase I complete!

After two years of planning, groundbreaking for the outdoor classroom began on June 3rd. In a joint effort between University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Roosevelt School District, and Maricopa Head Start, Phase 1 of the Outdoor Classroom installation included:
First step was to grate the surface.
  • ·       Grading the site and marking areas
  • ·       Installation of drip irrigation system
  • ·       Installation of trike path
  • ·       Installation of walking path
  • ·       Installation of sheds, stage, and shade structures
  • ·       Purchase of raised garden beds, soil, and tools

A large grant from First Things First supplied the bulk of the installation of Phase 1. This was a large and vital stage that could not have been accomplished in smaller increments. Additional funding from Head Start provided the raised beds, tables, sheds, soil and wood chips. University of Arizona was further able to appropriate funding toward hardscape for learning areas, boulders, garden tools, and an additional garden shed. 

Low boulders will be great for standing on to see the wide open country!
As Project Manager for the installation, my scope of work included bidding, scheduling, and overseeing all the work done by the construction companies. My network of helpers included an irrigation specialist from the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension who came on site weekly to inspect work and offer suggestions, the school’s janitorial staff who helped with access to the worksite, and the district’s facilities’ department which managed the preliminary work including bringing water to the site. The helpers were dedicated to the project and went above and beyond to help the work to be completed in a timely fashion.
Sheds hold storage for our garden tools.

 The Outdoor Classroom will be used for nature education, free play that encourages creativity, and nutrition through gardening. Outdoor play is well documented to have positive effects on children’s cognitive development and social development. Connecting young learners with nature forms a basis for caring for the planet. Opportunities for nature exploration will abound in our outdoor classroom as plants and natural landforms such as rocks and dirt mounds create areas where children can witness the cycles of nature. The learning areas will include places to run, climb, ride trikes, and scout around plantings which promotes whole body, healthy activity. These large spaces for activity coupled with natural materials for building will encourage creative play that is child-directed which fosters cooperative social development and problem solving. The garden bed area will offer a large raised bed for each classroom; teachers and students can plant harvestable food which introduces children to where their food comes from. The act of garden has been proven to promote healthier eating habits.
Stage and pergola for children's performances.

A starter for Phase II.
Although there is still lots to do, with Phase 1 complete, the Outdoor Classroom has taken shape! Beginning in the fall of 2014, teachers will be able to take their children to the outdoor classroom and begin to get to know the area. Neighbors of the school and families who use the Family Resource Center have come to the fence to express their interest in the project during installation. They are happy to see something good happen to the field and happy their kids get to benefit!

What is next for the Outdoor Classroom? Phase II will welcome in 15 large raised beds, one for each classroom!