The sacredness of nature and the preciousness of childhood are intersecting  in a nationally recognized manner at St. Mark Lutheran Preschool in Charlottesville, Va.

This spring the preschool became a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, a distinction conferred jointly by the Arbor Day Foundation and the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

St. Mark is the first preschool in Charlottesville—a town of 50,000 that’s home to the University of Virginia—to receive Nature Explore certification and just the second in the state. Nationally, there are about 500.

Nature Explore Classrooms offer a variety of interactive elements highlighting the natural world. At St. Mark, the signature feature is a beach-like area that covers almost one-third of the outdoor classroom space.

The “sand pile,” as it’s known to students and staff, contains hammocks, a mud kitchen and a construction zone. Adjacent is a dig site filled with toy excavation vehicles, and the center of the classroom is an open space for running, jumping and other forms of active play.

Large, re-purposed drain pipes provide opportunities for sliding, climbing and crawling. Around the perimeter of the classroom are art and music areas, a stage, raised beds for gardening, and a quiet spot for enjoying books.

Learning through play

“Our school is founded on the principle that children learn through play,” said Carla Moody, preschool director. “We just really believe kids need to be kids, and that involves getting dirty, digging holes, hunting for worms, jumping off rocks, climbing and those sorts of things. Kids need to explore, wonder, create and be challenged by taking risks that are appropriate for their age and development.”

At the 48-year-old preschool, which serves 50 students, a dozen teachers work with the children. Students range from 2½ years old to kindergarten age and represent an array of cultures and walks of life.

“Our school is founded on the principle that children learn through play.” — Carla Moody, St. Mark Preschool director

“St. Mark Lutheran Church and the preschool welcome all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, faith or national origin,” Moody said. “Our current community of students represents five different nationalities, six different spoken languages and five different religious backgrounds, including those who profess no specific faith or religious preference.”

Nature Explore co-certifier the Arbor Day Foundation is a conservation and education group dedicated to the celebration of trees. The mission of the other co-certifier, Dimensions, is to transform children’s lives through meaningful daily connections with nature.

“Everyone’s childhood days are numbered,” Moody said. “As many of those days as possible should be spent outside.”

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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