Kids these days. Always with their heads down, playing with an electronic device, or begging their parents to turn the TV to the newest cartoon. What happened to playing outside, making forts from branches, and finding shapes in clouds?

Associate Professor of Architecture Pam Harwood wants to bring these outdoor joys to the next generation. She and her students are transforming a 1.5 acre field into a “nature play” learning environment for the 300 children at Head Start of Muncie.

Harwood’s goal goes beyond simply getting children to play outside. “We’re trying to take play, which is culturally thought of as recess time for teachers, into a learning environment,” she says.

The central area of the space is a large outdoor classroom called the Habitat Hub. It has room for two classes and acts as the starting point for the children’s outdoor adventures. The Hub leads to other less-structured play areas with names like Fort Fun and Timber Time that represent four Indiana habitats: prairie, meadow, wetlands, and woodlands. The children learn through play with natural elements in an unstructured, creative, and innovative way as their gross physical motor skills and fine motor skills are developed.

Pam Harwood

Harwood helps a child decorate a rainwater collection barrel.

“They’re not swinging or sliding, but they are still balancing on logs and using pieces of timber as ramps to roll things down and they are climbing and crawling on structures that are made out of natural elements and traditional materials,” Harwood says. “We worked hand-in-hand with educators throughout the project to help facilitate this learning in nature as a valuable activity and to demonstrate what learning is actually occurring in each of the different play areas. We received a Provost Immersive Learning Grant because of its connection to early childhood education.”

‘Instant Reinforcement’

Kaity Smith, a graduate student in education, had the task of matching activities with preschool education standards. “I think we assumed they were going to be learning about their physical bodies and the world around them, but I was so surprised at how much they learned about colors, animals, and sounds,” she says. “You don’t expect there to be such a connection between all the standards, like learning about books, learning about reading just because you connect a storybook with a grasshopper they see. It’s instant reinforcement – you read a story about a grasshopper, and here is a grasshopper.”

Smith says she enjoyed the children’s enthusiasm for their new space – and the learning that occurred naturally as they spent time in it. “The coolest part for me was to see the kids really want to learn and really want to go on these nature walks and observe and then talk about it, discuss, and synthesize,” she says. “They don’t know they’re synthesizing, that they’re analyzing what they saw, but they’re taking charge of their learning, which is really important.”

To see what the children enjoy and how they interact with natural elements and props, the students conducted simulations. They dubbed one Mud Mash.

“We brought in mud and water and put it on a canvas with some baking utensils to see what they’d do. We made easels out of Plexiglas, and they painted with mud,” Harwood explains. “We also did a music and movement kind of simulation, trying to see what elements they played with, what they picked up,

Outdoor Classroom

An outdoor classroom in the Habitat Hub

what they shook, what they did with them, how they made music collaboratively and independently, and what enticed them to begin to interact with movement and sound. We ended up initially making a kind of a stage that would be impromptu for them, which then developed into a real stage with beautiful flagstone and uprights in the final project.”

Harwood says she wants to provide the children with some basic elements and then let their imaginations take over. “One of the most important things that we’ve learned from the design perspective is to not design, so you leave it free and unstructured, allowing them to decide what to do,” she explains. “That’s very important. It allows them to make choices and initiate their own responses to the materials at hand, and it stimulates cognitive development.”

State Director of Head Start Kay Gordon agrees. “It creates the opportunity for them to use their imaginations more and to stretch their minds and bodies more out there than on a traditional playground. Every time they go out, it gives them the opportunity to do new and different things.”

Sparking Interest in Nature

One opportunity is for the children to learn about environmental responsibility. An ash borer infestation led to the removal of some trees from the Ball State campus, and the wood was used at the Nature Play site. “The idea was that the children would learn that ash borers destroyed this tree, you can see the markings in these logs, and now we’re reusing them and they are part of your play environment,” Harwood says. “That continuity of the life, and the life after the life, was really important for us to work with.”

They hope this introduction to nature inspires the children and their families to use other local outdoor areas such as the Cardinal Greenway, the Craddock Wetlands, and the White River, and that the children become lifelong visitors.

“We’re hoping that this makes them want to come outside and explore the site, explore what we’ve built, see what’s out there and not be afraid of nature or grossed out by nature,” says Spencer Blaney, a graduate student in architecture. “It had an impact on pretty much everyone who was involved with it,” he adds. “I even started riding my bike to the site.”

Community Build Days have helped bring awareness of the project to people beyond Head Start and Ball State. Family members of the Head Start children and staff, local Girl Scouts, and Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler all had a hand in the project.

“Building is empowering. There’s no question about it,” Harwood says. “With the consultants that we have on board, anyone can learn the skills to make the pieces and parts in nature – and it’s not that complicated. I think people at first are a little bit daunted by it, but in the end, they realize they don’t need to be at all.”

Not Just a Model
Habitat Hub

The Habitat Hub, the main structure for the Nature Play project.

For Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning students, the Nature Play project has been an opportunity to see more of how a project comes together than they get through their usual method, which involves building small models.

“When you’re making the model, it’s a lot of laser-cut pieces, so things don’t actually go together the way they do in real life. It’s just a representation of it,” explains architecture major Corey Clark. “But actually being able to build it in real life puts a whole new spin on it. It was definitely challenging but great.”

Each student chose an area in which to be the class expert. Blaney’s main duties involved designing the digital files that showed how parts were to be made and joined and communicating with the fabricator who would cut the metal to his specifications.

“It was cool – knowing that I was working with those files, and then one day I came to the Head Start site and the whole ground was lined with these metal fabricated base plates that I had designed,” he says. “It was simple, but it’s neat seeing this stuff actually being built because normally it’s inches big in the models.”

For the architecture students, working on the project gave them a better idea of what their professional lives will be like.

“Looking at this project, it really is small-scale of what goes on in an architectural firm. I can almost relate each step that we went through to a process that I’m now going through in my internship,” Blaney says.

Lasting Impact
Habitat Students

Harwood (in yellow) with summer 2014 students.

The initial idea for the project was sparked during a class at Ball State. Two Head Start employees, Tyanne Vazquez and Debbie Arrington, were taking a grant writing class and had an assignment to write a fictional grant proposal. However, once they had the idea for the Nature Play project they decided it was worth pursuing for real. Vazquez learned of Harwood’s previous service learning projects and e-mailed her to see if she was interested.

Harwood agreed that the project was valuable, both for her students and for the children at Head Start. She decided to do the project through Ball State’s Office of Building Better Communities because it works well with BBC’s goals of advancing Indiana and providing dynamic, real-world learning experiences for its students.

“It’s something that’s going to be here long after you’ve left Ball State,” Harwood tells her students.

The students experienced the effect they wished to have on the children: they found themselves appreciating nature more as they saw the contrast between the Nature Play site and Head Start’s existing playground.

“They had one of those prefabricated, buy it in a box and put it together types of things, so the transition from that to something that was built out of natural and reused materials was definitely a very drastic change. It was great,” Clark says. “If you drive to the site now, you see this very colorful metal structure, and you see our site all made out of natural materials. They have a big, open field and we’re slowly bringing nature back to it.”

Although Head Start employees Vazquez and Arrington did not receive that first grant, they and Harwood have since been successful. The project has been funded through grants from the Ball Brothers Foundation, the Community Foundation of Delaware County, a Ball State Provost Immersive Learning Grant, a Lilly Community Service Mini Grant for Earth Day activities, and a College of Architecture and Planning Immersive Learning Mini Grant.

“When you think of all the possibilities that this Nature Play is going to bring there’s just no comparison,” Vazquez says. “We’ve been very, very grateful for Ball State and Pam.”