By David Markham
Natureplay Preschool programs operated by JCPRD for ages three to five at Mill Creek Activity Center and at the Meadowbrook Park Clubhouse were recently recognized as Certified Nature Explore Classrooms.
This is the culmination of a process the programs began in 2019 to achieve certification from the Nature Explore program, a division of the nonprofit Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. These two programs join a network of more than 510 certified programs across the U.S., including only six others in Kansas.
“This reinforces that what our committed program directors do on a daily basis is top-notch quality and it lets everyone know that we are the best of the best when it comes to nature-based early learning in the area,” said JCPRD Children’s Services Specialist Lisa Hughes. “It also proves that this idea to have an immersive nature-based early learning preschool was exactly what families were looking for in this area.”
“Achieving certification validates our mission - ‘To provide young children with high-quality, developmentally-appropriate educational experiences while inspiring them to grow their love, appreciation, and understanding of the natural world,’” added Mill creek Activity Center Early Childhood Director Rosanna Munoz. “This certification shows that natureplay has met specific criteria regarding outdoor spaces and is providing high-quality experiences in that space for preschoolers in Johnson County.”
“I think families and patrons like to see our awards and certifications showing our organization strives for the highest quality,” added Meadowbrook Park Clubhouse Early Childhood Director Jennifer Thomas.
The Natureplay Preschool at MCAC opened in early 2013, while the program at Meadowbrook opened in August 2019. The goal of these programs is to provide a foundation of environmental literacy for preschool-aged children through exposure to nature. Each fully licensed, year-round program can accommodate 24 children at a time. Officials estimate about 800 individuals have participated at the Mill Creek site, and about 300 at the Mill Creek site.
These programs have been very popular, drawing participants from as far away as Olathe, Stilwell, and both North and South Kansas City, Mo. Officials said it is not unusual for these preschools to have double-digit wait lists for both summer and school-year programs.
“The Mill Creek and Meadowbrook Park natureplay preschools’ commitment to providing research-based and nature-rich learning offers a wonderful example to programs and educators throughout the country,” said Heather Fox, director of communications and outreach for the Nature Explore program. “These spaces inspire hands-on activity, creativity, play, and plenty of time exploring the natural world for young children. Research consistently shows that children who learn and grow in Nature Explore Classrooms exhibit enhanced concentration, develop creativity and problem solving techniques, manage stress in healthy ways, and develop skills across the spectrum of academic and creative learning.”
Thomas said she discovered the Nature Explore organization in 2018 as part of researching designs for the playground area for the natureplay area at then-future Meadowbrook Park Clubhouse.
“We had a consultation with Nature Explore to help us design the outdoor classroom since we wanted it to be a unique space that needed some expertise,” she said. “In 2018 they came and did some planning when Meadowbrook was still being built. I did some research when I was trying to design the outdoor classroom and found that they actually do certifications.”
JCPRD began the certification process in 2019, but temporarily put it on hold during the pandemic.
“Certification requires you to have a well-designed and thought-out outdoor play space with open-ended exploration, a commitment to staff development, and family involvement,” Hughes said. “Then we had to go through area by area and figure out what we needed to make these areas the most interactive and engaging for the children. We had to make some purchases and even did some pretty major landscaping – we added flagstone building areas at both locations - to make the areas the best we could.”
For certification, participating programs are required to have a number of specific components in their outdoor classrooms. These include” an entry feature, open area for large-motor development, climbing/crawling area, messy materials, building area, nature art area, music and movement area, garden and/or pathways, gathering area, and storage. Supplemental areas which are not required but can be present are: water area, dirt digging area, sand, wheeled toy area, swings or other dynamic equipment, and a greenhouse.
“Each year the programs will have to recertify by submitting photos of their outdoor classrooms and show they have parent involvement,” Hughes added.
“We hope that this process helps to bring recognition to the important learning that happens outdoors,” Munoz said. “Not all classrooms have four walls, and we hope that becoming certified helps families understand the value of outdoor education and learning.”