Today’s children, especially city-dwellers like our students, no longer spend unhurried hours exploring the natural world. Yet research shows that nature play and exploration make essential contributions to children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Our Nature Learning Lab addresses this “nature deprivation” for our students, providing joyful opportunities for children to freely explore, investigate, and observe the natural world through engagement with plants and animals, rocks and soils, water systems, and natural materials – experiences that many of our inner-city students cannot otherwise access.
The activities promoted within the Nature Learning Lab stimulate exploration and experimentation, while helping to connect children’s physical experiences and nature play to curricular goals. In addition to areas for gardening, digging, and water play, the Nature Learning Lab is a place for classes to come together to study science through interaction with three rain and pollinator gardens, a beehive, worm and ant farms, and a waterworks station. Students are able to build their gross motor skills by climbing on locally-sourced tree trunks, rocks and boulders, and playing on an open field. Studies using the Nature Learning Lab connect to the classroom curriculum in multiple ways, and student-initiated outdoor explorations promote children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development and foster their commitment to the stewardship of living things.
The design of the Nature Learning Lab incorporates multiple stormwater management features to help improve the water quality of impaired streams in our watershed by reducing stormwater runoff from our property and relieving the load on Philadelphia’s combined sewer system.
In order to integrate the activities of the Nature Learning Lab with the adjacent Engineering and Design building, children use natural materials to explore physics principles such as momentum and inertia, mass and gravity, and force and balance. In the water play area, children can experiment with different ways of moving water and earth with hand pumps, pulleys, troughs, and devices of their own invention.
Today’s learners are required to be more creative, better problem-solvers, collaborators, and critical thinkers. The new Engineering and Design building supports a curriculum that emphasizes the inquiry process, collaboration, creativity, and critical thought. Perseverance and resilience are developed in students by providing open-ended tasks that require students to generate ideas, explore options, and continually revise their thinking through formal design challenges and informal free exploration.