By Celine Klosterman
IOWA CITY — Many weeks at Regina Preschool, Early Childhood Center, children are outside digging holes in sand, climbing on stumps, searching for bugs, eyeing a cardinal at a bird feeder, harvesting carrots — whether ready to be harvested or not — or planting tulips.
Preschool Director Mary Pechous said she loves watching students play in The Secret Garden, an outdoor space recently certified a Nature Explore Classroom by the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and Arbor Day Foundation. Developed in response to what foundation leaders saw as a growing disconnect between children and nature, such classrooms work nature into learning.
“This has been a long-time dream of mine for our kids in the preschool,” Pechous said. “It is so wonderful to see the kids discovering what nature has to offer. It also teaches them to care for their beautiful Earth and the environment around them.”
Regina is the fifth education center in Iowa to have a certified Nature Explore Classroom. Like other such classrooms, The Secret Garden includes interactive elements such as musical instruments made of natural materials, climbing structures, wooden blocks, small waterways, garden areas, and natural materials for building and creating art.
“It’s a field trip you don’t have to take a bus to,” James Johnson said. The preschool teacher and afternoon childcare provider spent three summers making most of the centers in the garden, which is a bit smaller than a basketball court.
Weather permitting, preschoolers gather once a week in the outdoor space. Children have heard stories, learned about crickets, helped raise butterflies and tried building igloos as a group – but always have had time to explore on their own. “They like to search and hide,” Johnson said. “They’re really engaged when they’re finding things like bugs, or getting in the garden. You may not be able to tell what they’re doing when they’re out there poking with a stick, but something’s happening.”
The Secret Garden is designed so activity is mostly self-directed. The Nature Art area offers materials like shells, rocks and bark for children’s creations. The Music and Movement corner includes chimes on poles and a wall with bells for students to play. A climbing hill is one of the children’s favorite features of the garden, Pechous said. Scattered throughout the space are trees, butterfly bushes and flowers that students helped plant.
“There’s some mystery to it,” Johnson said. “It’s not just a classroom; it’s otherworldly.”