Even for kids accustomed to playing in their suburban backyards, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel’s “WonderSpace” is a mind-opener. The outdoor classroom and more offers preschoolers a chance to interact with nature though play, projects, and gardening.
“The WonderSpace does just what is promised,” said Rabbi Ellie Miller. “It activates the senses, rejuvenates the children’s brains, and allows them to enjoy the intrinsic benefits of being outside.”
And now, a national conservation and education organization agrees. The Arbor Day Foundation, in collaboration with the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, has certified the WonderSpace a “Nature Explore Classroom.” The certification recognizes programs that demonstrate a commitment to outdoor learning through a well-designed outdoor space, staff development, and family involvement.
The South Orange synagogue’s Iris Family Center for Early Childhood Education officially opened the WonderSpace in September. The $20,000 cost was covered by an anonymous donor and with funds raised by parents.
Carol Paster, the center’s director, came up with the idea. She had seen an outdoor classroom in Dallas and was determined that Sharey Tefilo-Israel should have one, too.
In the space, kids can make art inspired by the nature around them, painting with water on granite slabs, or with regular art materials on easels suspended from a fence. The space includes a little bridge crossing a “stream” of pebbles; there is a jungle gym and other natural and manmade features.
There are places to dig, plant, climb, play music, or simply to have lessons outside in the fresh air, sitting on tree stumps.
“Anything you do inside, you can do outside,” Miller explained. In the cold weather, parents are advised to send their children to school with warm gear, so the space gets used year round.
Sabina Soloway, the nature educator hired by the preschool to facilitate learning, has been planting herbs with the children. Two large wooden barrels stand at the entrance of the space. Every time a class enters the playground, they carefully run their fingers through the herbs and then inhale the tangy citrus scent.
Soloway gathered comments from the children for NJ Jewish News. Jack loves the space because, he said, “I get to plant things and watch them grow.” Ayla said she loves being outside to draw and she likes hearing the wind chimes every time the breeze blows.
Jesse, a student in the Explorers Pre-K Program, looks for the shiny rocks, because “they are filled with magic and everyone wants them.”
Miller said the teachers using the space report fewer conflicts and less need to step in to “correct” behavior.
The playground, she said, is a place where children can counteract “nature deficit disorder by balancing screen time and green time.”