Preschoolers at the Cummins Child Development Center are about to be immersed in nature without ever leaving the center’s grounds, thanks to the new Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

The area that was created looks like a secret garden, but is set up just like a classroom. It contains a rolling hill, mud and sand pits, as well as areas for art, music, puppet shows, plays, an observation deck and more.

Everything in the classroom is a source from which kids can learn, Cindy Reed, director of Cummins Child Development Center, said while walking through the classroom and pointing out small details a child can discover. Each plant and boulder was placed to play a purpose, from the colors of a tree’s leaves and the shape of their branches to the texture of their seeds and the fruit they produce, she added.

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The outdoor nature classroom was all designed to maximize skills for optimal learning, including:

  • Fine motor
  • Large motor
  • Cognitive
  • Social/emotional help
  • Self-help

The idea for the classroom came after Victoria Baker, Cummins liaison for global childcare, took some children on a nature field trip and found the kids weren’t really interested in the environment.

Their first reaction upon spying a bug was to step on it, Baker said, and the kids became too hot, too tired and didn’t like the sun after only a brief visit. In an effort to change that attitude, Jill Cook, chief human resources officer at Cummins, challenged Baker, Reed and facilities manager Kathy Yeager to create a way to teach children to love and respect nature. The project took about a year-and-a-half to complete.

“If you set up the environment that’s conducive to learning, they will find it,” Reed said.

And while teaching is the intention, the children can explore on their own.

Laughter, wide-eyed wonder and rapid-fire questions from the children during a preview of the area hinted that the preschoolers could learn a lot about nature quickly. Emerson McKinley discovered an agate — a type of semiprecious gemstone — and, holding it in one hand and her snack in the other, hurried to the rock book with Baker to learn more. The dew-covered glass canvas in the art section allowed for natural finger painting that morning before a sprinkler wiped it clean. A willow tree tunnel offered a sensory experience with leaves gently brushing skin as they walked through.

“I want to go in here all day,” said Graesyn Steinkoenig, hopping on the bridge before continuing her investigation.

And although it is a preschool classroom, parents were kept in mind, too. A picnic area may go up where parents can have lunch with their children and they could come see plays on the outdoor stage. Yeager also mentioned a family movie night, where kids could roast hot dogs or marshmallows with their mom and dad.

The current classroom is set up for children ages 3 to 6, but if all goes well, Yeager hopes to put in an infant and toddler area next spring.

Graesyn and the other children had to have permission to enter the nature classroom during the preview as the center is waiting for certification from the state. Even without that certification, the classroom has caught the attention of Indiana, Purdue and Ball State universities, and state education officials who want to come down and tour the space, Baker said. She hopes to receive the all-clear and be up and running by mid-October.

And while the area is intended to teach the children, they can explore on their own and will use materials you won’t think they will use, said Baker.

“This is our future, our next employees,” Baker said, watching one child figure out a water pump. “Look at the engineering that they’re learning just in what they’re doing; the process of water coming from rain water and going down and how it lands. This is our workforce so of course we want to invest in it.”

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Kaitlyn Evener is an editorial assistant for The Republic. She can be reached at kevener@therepublic.com or 812-379-5645.