SHEPHERDSTOWN — The children are heading outdoors, but not for recess.
Last week, officials and members of the public gathered behind the Children’s Treehouse Child Development Center at the National Conservation Training Center to officially open the recently completed Nature Explorer Classroom.
Mary Danno, the project leader, said the “outdoor classroom,” which is modeled after research sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation, is designed to introduce preschoolers to nature in a safe and educational environment.
“They’ll be familiar with [nature] by playing in this transition zone,” Danno said. “It’s like a gateway into hiking and camping and all that kind of thing.”
The classroom consists of several play areas where children directly interact with challenges that they might encounter in a wilderness setting, such as uneven terrain, sand and dirt pits, and areas where they need to climb. The classroom also has stations where children can play with natural materials, such as wooden building blocks and bird feathers.
“They’re literally getting their hands dirty and being part of the whole thing,” Danno said. “When they’re out there building, it’s not the plastic blocks you can buy, it’s actually pieces of nature.”
The park also includes a garden that features plants native to West Virginia and fruits and vegetables that students will help to cultivate.
“They select what they want to plant; they prepare the soil; they plant the seeds; they take care of the garden; they watch it grow and they eat the fruit or the vegetables,” Danno said.
According to Nickie Weller, the director of Children’s Treehouse, the students have taken an active interest in the project since construction began in January. “They have watched every bulldozer come,” she said, adding they often chose to watch the progress of the construction instead of playing on the playground equipment.
“It’s been a long time coming for them,” she said.
The children at the Treehouse are not the only students who have benefited from the new classroom. Several students from the Harpers Ferry Job Corps volunteered nearly 2,400 hours of their labor to build the project.
Ralph DiBattista, director of the Job Corps, who was present at the ribbon cutting on Saturday, said this project gave his students a chance to be creative, practice the skills they learned in workshops and contribute to the community.
“They’re understanding now this is going to be here for a very, very long time and some of them have already said that when they have grandchildren they’d like to take them back for a visit and show them they were involved,” he said.
Casandra Seitz, one of the Job Corps students who helped install the classroom’s many wooden climbing structures, said she will always remember “putting everything together, watching it go from nothing to something. There was nothing and now this.”
Jay Slack, director of NCTC, said at the ribbon cutting that he hopes this classroom will serve as a model to the representatives from federal conservation areas across the country who come to NCTC for training.
“What we plan to do is bring them down here, show them this classroom, let them actually use it themselves, get an idea of how they can put that in their installations throughout the country.”
While this particular classroom is only for the use of the 40 preschool students who attend Children’s Treehouse, Danno said that more of them are being built across the nation and that parents who are interested in the project can contact the Arbor Day Foundation for information about bringing the Nature Explorer Classroom to community parks.