Landscape designer Nancy Striniste of EarlySpace LLC has helped hundreds of schools and parents transform their outdoor spaces into natural playscapes. This winter, she is offering a course called “Create Your Own Outdoor Magic” that is designed to help schools come up with their own playscape plan that will be ready to implement without having to hire a designer. The unique DIY program is a fundraiser for NoVA Outside, an alliance of environmental educators with which Nancy volunteers.
Having long admired Nancy’s expertise, I asked her to share a little more about this program. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind program that I hope local preschools and schools will take advantage of.
Jessica of Mindful Healthy Life: What kinds of content will you be covering in the course?
Nancy of EarlySpace: This course looks at natural play and learning spaces: what they are and why they’re good for kids. It offers lots of creative ideas and nuts and bolts about how to create one at your school. I’ve worked with many schools around the DC area to create inviting, sustainable, natural outdoor spaces. This program is something I created to help schools who, for various reasons, aren’t able to hire me to do a full design for them. In this program, I teach people how to create their own design.
Jessica: What will participants learn?
Nancy: We’ll begin by learning about how to understand your site—the assets and the challenges. We’ll think about how to plan what you want, what your children need and what will work on your site, how to create a design that makes sense and flows, and then finally how to organize a workday to get it built.
We’ll also talk about fundraising and hiring contractors.
Jessica: What will participants be able to do when they’ve completed the program?
Nancy: People will participate in the program in teams of two or three from each school. At the end of the program, they’ll have a shared vision and a design and a plan for creating a natural play and learning space at their school. They’ll be able to go back to school together well equipped to make change.
Jessica: Can you share some success stories from the last time you ran this program or from some of your other coaching clients?
Nancy: I’ve worked with many teams over the years. They all emerge from the program with great ideas and which they use to create exciting and beautiful spaces for their children.
One school I worked with partnered with Eagle Scouts who, along with parent volunteers, built all of the elements that the teacher team designed. They transformed a large portion of their public school schoolyard with a digging space, a garden, a storytellers circle, a squirrels’ nest, a loom for outdoor weaving and the most amazing and well organized loose parts building area I’ve ever seen.
A team from a nature center worked with Master Naturalists to create a model nature play area at their beautiful wooded site. They used the stream and tree parts they had to create a rustic space along the trail that invites visitors and neighbors to play. A nearby preschool even started a Forest Friday program at the nature center, using that space as part of their outdoors-all-day initiative. Children and families love it!
An early childhood team came up with a great design that included a hill with an embankment slide, a beautiful sand play area, and a keyhole garden. Parent volunteers built parts of the design, teachers in a workshop built the garden, and the center had the funds to hire a contractor to create the hill and install the embankment slide.
So there are all different ways to go about it, but the bottom line is: each team came out of the Create Your Own Outdoor Magic program with a clear vision and a plan that they were able to implement.
Jessica: Describe how the program will work. What is the time commitment? When will the groups meet and how will they get coaching from you?
Nancy: The program takes place during the winter so that by spring, participants will be ready to start transforming their spaces. We’ll meet in person on four Mondays – February 13 and 27 and March 13 and 27 – from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. We’ll rotate the meeting site among participating schools so we can see each other’s spaces.
In addition, we’ll have group calls on the alternate weeks so I can answer questions that come up as people work on their plans. We’ll also have an online forum so people can post photos and stay connected. There will be lots of support!
Jessica: Some schools might feel the $999 fee is too big of an investment. Can you explain why this really offers them future savings and why it’s actually a great deal?
Nancy: For some schools whose projects might be smaller scale, the idea of doing it themselves is appealing because it builds community and because it is affordable. Other schools have larger scale projects ahead and would rather put their energy into raising funds and have the design and physical work of creating a natural play space managed for them.
When I work with schools to create custom designs, I work with the whole school community. The design process includes whole school/whole staff workshops, many meetings and site visits, many drawings, details and materials specifications. I bring in contractors who are experts at building natural play spaces to implement my designs. I work with the school community to create custom elements, to organize workdays, and to involve children. The whole process, including the design and the build can cost a lot, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I am approached by many schools that just don’t have the capacity or the energy to raise that much money, but their children need and deserve nature too. So I came up with this program as a way to help schools do it themselves. I teach the teams of two or three people from each school what they need to know to transform their own school yards, in manageable, affordable ways. And no matter how you go about it, nature play is good for kids.
The 2017 program is a fundraiser for NoVA Outside, an organization that does really important work teaching teachers and connecting kids to nature.
NoVA Outside is also hosting other upcoming events related to outdoor play
- Sunday, January 29, 2:00-3:30 p.m. at Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool: “Whatever the Weather: Dressing for Outdoor Play” workshop for early childhood educators. Cost: $10. Details here.
- Saturday, March 25: 9:00-1:00 at Fairlington United Methodist Church: Getting Kids Outdoors In Nature: Making it Happen training for early childhood educators. Cost $65. Details here.
Jessica Claire Haney is the founder, publisher and editor of Mindful Healthy Life. She is a writer, editor, emerging novelist, and the founder of the Arlington/Alexandria chapter of Holistic Moms Network. Her personal blog is Crunchy-Chewy Mama and her writer’s site is JessicaClaireHaney.com. See the Contributors page and Jessica’s Mindful Healthy Life Q&A for more on Jessica.