Preschool incorporates nature into learning in Chattanooga

Preschool incorporates nature into learning in Chattanooga

July 13th, 2012 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

Emma Crane, 4, sprays other children with water as she climbs the stacked and secured pile of tires that represents Lookout Mountain at Highland Plaza United Methodist Preschool's outdoor learning space. The play area has been certified by the Arbor Day Foundation as the first Nature Explore Classroom in East Tennessee. Below, imprints of animals' feet can be found in the poured concrete of the sandbox area.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

From atop Lookout Mountain, Emma Crane attacks.

Except she isn't really attacking. And she isn't actually on the mountain. Emma, a tiny, spirited 4-year-old with a curly blond ponytail, stands on top of a tire climbing wall, playfully wielding a spray bottle full of water.

The wall, designed to represent Lookout Mountain, is part of Highland Plaza United Methodist Preschool's outdoor learning space. This is not just a playground. This is a Nature Explore Classroom, and HPUMP, as the preschool is known, is the first school in Tennessee to receive such an honor from the Arbor Day Foundation. The preschool, a ministry of Hixson United Methodist Church, sits on five acres of land.

With Nature Explore Classrooms, the Arbor Day Foundation, in conjunction with the Lincoln, Neb.-based Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, seeks to connect the concepts of learning and nature in an outdoor setting.

"Research is showing that children need connections with the natural world as a regular part of their healthy growth and development," according to the Arbor Day Foundation.

There are 10 guiding principles that dictate the creation of a Nature Explore Classroom. They include a mix of activity areas (among them are a climbing/crawling area, a nature arts area and a messy materials area), use of a variety of natural materials, personalized design using regional materials and use of durable and low-maintenance elements.

These principles accord with the mission of HPUMP, which director Vicky Flessner referred to as "discovery-based learning and an emergent curriculum."

"I saw how (creating a Nature Explore Classroom) was going to pair up with our approach to children and recognizing their strengths," she said of the decision to begin the nearly three-year process.

First steps

The families of the students were highly involved in the creation of the space. At the beginning, Flessner said, she and her colleagues met with parents to ask them what sorts of activities they had enjoyed as children.

They started building in December 2010 and were faced with a setback in April 2011, when the tornadoes hit, uprooting trees and toppling fences. There were 52 people in the building at the time, but no one was injured. The damage, Flessner said, was in some ways fortuitous.

"Mother Nature also was good to us because in the end, there were trees cleared that we couldn't afford to have removed," she said.

One fallen tree righted itself when the top was cut off, and the remaining section of the trunk was carved into a totem by chainsaw sculptor Steve Pearson. The children voted on the animals that were carved into the wood, including a coyote, a bear and a rainbow trout.

The actual building process cost about $50,000 and hundreds of hours of labor donated by the parents.

Customized Guidelines

Though the outdoor learning space has been built within the auspices of the requirements from the Arbor Day Foundation, the interpretation is unique. Chattanooga landmarks have served as the inspiration for all the different stations. A music area, equipped with pots and pans, washboard and wooden spoons, represents the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. An outdoor art deck, labeled Twigs Atelier, represents the arts district. Two plastic slides built into an embankment call to mind the former Alpine Slide at Raccoon Mountain.

"Some people can't imagine this," Flessner said. "They hear 'playground,' they think 'oh, we can order some equipment from a catalog.' "

The HPUMP Nature Explore Classroom incorporates multiple aspects of learning, including math, science, literacy and social/emotional cooperation.

Children at play

In a small, stone pool area inlaid with mosaics, Andrew Rice, 4, and Gabe Conry, 5, work together to pump water into the space. Teacher Katie Shirley gently chides Levi Brown, 5, as he splashes a plastic shark figure in the water.

Summer camp, currently in progress, incorporates lessons about recycling, upcycling and playing in nature. On a sunny July morning, dried-out markers soak in tubs of water to create watercolors for art projects. Baskets of pinecones sit near painted sticks in the arts area. Luciana "Lucy" Hemphill, 5, collects rocks, sticks and pinecones in a tote bag made from an old T-shirt.

A stone walkway is built into the hill above the playscape. Flessner unlocks a gate leading to a small hiking path. The path was created by former HPUMP preschooler Gage Taylor. Gage, now 15, spearheaded the effort as his Eagle Scout project. The hiking path boasts a carved trailhead sign, a campfire circle, a mushroom arbor and a bamboo hut.

Inspiration for the space came from the books "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv and "Natural Playscapes" by Rusty Keeler.

In his 2005 book, Louv coined the term "nature deficit disorder." He argued that spending less time outdoors and being too consumed by technology narrows children's physical and psychological scope, even leading to a fear of nature.

"Video games may stimulate certain kinds of intelligence, but what about the full use of the senses?" Louv said in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio. "When you're sitting in front of a screen, you're not using all of your senses at the same time. Nowhere than in nature do kids use their senses in such a stimulated way."

Katie Shirley reaches out to Emma Crane, who still stands on the Lookout Mountain tire wall, holding her spray bottle.

"Let's come on down," Shirley says.

Emma takes Ms. Katie's hand and jumps off the mountain.

(Editor's note: Vicky Flessner is the wife of Times Free Press business editor Dave Flessner.)

Contact Holly Leber at or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at Subscribe to her on Facebook at